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Learning to rock climb changed my approach to problem-solving at work

From bouldering to ping-pong and quidditch, what we do for recreation sharpens our tools for innovative thinking.

Learning to rock climb changed my approach to problem-solving at work
[Photo: yns plt/Unsplash]

For the first few years of my writing career, I would often get stuck on a sentence and feel completely and utterly paralyzed. I had heard the advice that I should write a crappy first draft then go back to edit, but even a crappy first draft wouldn’t come. I had an idea of how things should go in my mind, and when reality didn’t meet that expectation, I would struggle. I didn’t know how to look at different angles, how to problem-solve. Essentially, I didn’t know how to play with my work.

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Often we think of work and play as antonyms, opposite ends of life’s spectrum. Play, however, can become the key to training your mind to problem-solve more effectively. It’s no coincidence that my problem-solving skills have improved across the board since rock climbing became a part of my routine over the past year. Bouldering problems (yes, they’re literally called problems) force me to think creatively about how I need to sequence my moves. The first attempt almost never works. In fact, the first five and sometimes 20 attempts often don’t work. I’ve learned to go back to the drawing board as soon as I fall off the wall, rather than trying the same failed method twice.

Flashing a problem on the first attempt is fine, but those are never memorable climbs. The fun comes when I meet a challenge, when I have to think strategically about the next move and try unconventional things to get to the next part of the sequence. Of course, I didn’t always feel this way. I spent a lot of my early climbing days worried about looking silly or inexperienced with my experimentation. However, I’ve come to find that the most skilled climbers are those willing to move outside the box. The ones who aren’t afraid to look silly. The ones who approach the wall with an attitude of playfulness. 


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The same strategy works equally well when applied to cognitive work on the job. Thinking outside the box requires an openness that is deeply connected to the principles of play. If you’re afraid of being too “out there” or looking like a fool, you’ll miss some of the most creative and innovative solutions that lead to the big wins. You’ll also miss out on the fun of work, the part that connects you to a state of flow, where your skill set meets the perfect level of challenge and engagement that allows everything else to melt into the background.

“Some call it flow, others might call it something more mystical, I call it fun,” says Joe Killian, a founding member of The New Games Foundation, and a play instructor at The Omega Institute. This state of flow, he says, is what lies at the heart of play whether you’re puzzling out a board game or running so fast you forget your preconceived notions about your body’s limits.

“Play is about having fun, and fun is that state where you drop your awareness of time, and to a certain extent you drop awareness of your surroundings. It’s an active engagement that allows you to let go of certain other elements. It’s altering your senses.” Letting it all fall away except for that central focus? That’s exactly where our best work gets done, and play trains our brains to do just that.

In fact, many Silicon Valley pioneers have caught on to the value of play to prompt more creative, productive work. That’s why you’ll so often see ping-pong tables and game rooms in modern office spaces like Google or AOL. These spaces aren’t designed for “breaks” from the workday but rather for fostering better work by building a different type of brain power. Play can sharpen the tool kits of innovative thinkers, despite the cultural taboo that says it’s a waste of time and productivity. It can get folks out of their routine mindset and back to a place where they feel comfortable taking risks.

Killian notes that there is a wide variety of play and games, and therefore endless opportunities to find ways to challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone, and furthermore, enjoy yourself. “We all played as kids, so we all have a basic education in play,” he says. It’s how we first learned to interact with others and create a sense of democracy. It’s innate within us, and we don’t lose our playfulness in adulthood, we simply start suppressing it (usually starting in the teenage years when we feel pressure to conform).

Whether you bring it back through rock climbing, chess, or playing on a real-life quidditch team, your work and your life will be better for it. Just remember: play shouldn’t be hard, it should be about pleasure. The fact that it can become a catalyst for problem-solving and greater productivity in your work by rewiring your brain to come up with novel solutions more quickly? That’s just a happy bonus. 


Gemma Hartley is a freelance journalist and the author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.

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