Within a matter of months, I quit two amazing jobs.
The first was director of special projects for Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. Secondly, I was the co-founder of a profitable tech startup.
Both gigs had highly desirable qualities: I got to work on exciting projects, collaborate with talented people, and I was making good money. For a 25-year-old, I was living the dream.
But then I quit.
Whenever I had to explain why I’d left, I felt spoiled and embarrassed. I had no desire to do the work—I wasn’t interested in what I was doing anymore—and I’d burned myself out.
And yet, I still felt obligated to live up to people’s expectations. Everyone asked me what I was going to do next. And I’d panic inside because it felt like I was losing. There was this voice in my head that kept telling me how far I’d come, and now I was blowing it. I’d let everyone down. I needed to become a successful CEO or a millionaire in order for the world to accept that I was okay again.
This pressure I felt to make it was such a burden—until I realized that no level of success was ever going to be enough. I would always be chasing the world outside of me. What was the point of working so hard if it wasn’t for my own happiness? The solution became very clear: stop doing work that doesn’t matter to you.
You might roll your eyes at this. "I can’t quit my job! I have a family and bills to pay!" I understand. I didn’t quit everything I didn’t want to work on right away. I just started making a conscious effort to work on projects I actually cared about.
Rather than viewing work as a stressful obligation, or a means of getting rich, my work was a game I chose to play.
I wanted my work to be a game I would willingly play. I thought back on the activities I repeatedly played throughout my life because they were fun and I was good at them:
- Creating my own art
- Making people laugh
- Developing skills
- Building with my hands
I started setting aside 20 minutes each day to play one of my games. I’d come up with a fun project that allowed me to do work I cared about. The project could be small (assembling furniture, drawing a funny picture) or ambitious (learning a guitar solo, writing my first book). As long as I gave myself 20 minutes each day to work on something personally rewarding, I was happy. It gave me an internal paycheck.
I wanted to spend more of my time doing these things, so I gave myself a rule: Any work I did had to allow me to create my own art, make people laugh, develop my skills, or build something with my hands. If the gig didn’t meet my criteria, then I would turn it down. The work had to be its own reward.
Before I quit my jobs, my state of mind was messed up. I never thought of my work as a game; it was simply work. Every day was serious business. I needed to get more results. I needed to earn more money. I needed to have more success. I needed more—and I completely missed the point.
When I tackle work with a sense of play, my creativity and optimism soar. I fall in love with the process. My energy becomes contagious, and I’m able to create unique art with the people around me.
I’ve met a lot of incredibly talented and successful people, and nearly all of them approach their lives this way—they play.
No one forces them to work on things they don’t care about or tells them how to spend their time. They just give themselves permission to follow their impulses and pursue what excites them. They create a little universe that revolves around their own fun.
Instead of grinding it out in jobs they hate, these people become passionate and highly skilled at what they do. They team up with other great players and collaborate on interesting projects. Then one day, they’re making magic. Their mastery shines through in everything they create, society reaps the benefits of their gifts, and our world changes.
Every treasured contribution in the history of mankind was created through play: music, art, books, film, comedy, sports, dance, transportation, technology. We pay a premium for these things so we can experience the fruits of other people’s play!
Play is the true source of all the immeasurable value and wealth humans have injected into this world. It’s the DNA of our culture, and the backbone of our global economy. All of our most beloved creativity, profitable innovations, and fulfilling jobs have come from the freedom to have our own fun, for hours and weeks and years on end.
If we all pursued our own interests and natural talents, we’d fall in love with our work. We’d become highly skilled at what we do. Ingenuity would thrive, the quality of our goods and services would rise, and our lives would become richer.
Today, we all work because that’s what we’re told to do. But our system is broken. Every company is downsizing, outsourcing, and strapping their remaining employees with bigger workloads. The unemployed masses are left to fight for measly paychecks that come attached to uninspired, mind-numbing jobs. To the many who bought into the old ways of work, the future looks grim.
But there is a way out, a simple choice in how we approach our lives: to play for a living.
—Charlie Hoehn is the author ofPlay It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety.