The Unexpected Benefits of Playtime

Today we’ve become obsessed with ‘life-hacks’ — shortcuts that allow you to perform an action or reach a goal with the least amount of effort possible.

Although some of these so-called hacks are useful, most end up sacrificing some crucial part of the act in question. As a result, the quality of our work diminishes. This is the opposite of what we want from a hack.

Creativity, however, can be hacked, and in a way that enhances our output in other areas of our lives — even those traditionally less creative pursuits like medicine or law.

Research shows that creativity fuels the thinking behind the most successful ideas. Having studied creativity for a while now, 3 common trends stand out that give people the edge in life when starting a business — and they’re not what you might think.

1. The Outsider Effect

Like many of you I’ve been hooked on the NPR podcast How I Built This, about individuals who have started companies that have gone on to shape the industries they’re in — or created.

The other day while listening to an episode I realized something. Almost every single entrepreneur to have been on the podcast didn’t have a background in the industry they started their company in.

In fact, when I went back to double check this I found that most of them hadzero experience in their respective industries. Individuals — like Seth Goldman of Honest Tea, or Blake Mycoskie of TOMS shoes — who have gone on to disrupt their industries didn’t just begin as amateurs — they began as novices.

Such is the power of the outsider. We tend to underestimate our ability to change something we know little about. It turns out your outsider status can actually help you by bringing to the table a unique perspective, whether the problem you’re trying to solve is old or new.

2. Unique Experience

One way to harness a different perspective is, of course, by having unique experience. The trick is to break free from the the basic frameworks of thought that shape the industry you’re in.

“If you’re going to make connections which are innovative,” Steve Jobs said in 1982, “you have to not have the same bag of experience as everyone else does.”

Society often teaches us to approach problems from a certain perspective, but such thinking makes it extremely difficult for new or different ideas to get through the cracks.

Groundbreaking ideas don’t come from sitting down and thinking really hard until one pops up. According to Y Combinator’s Sam Altman (who works with hundreds of successful startups each year), this almost never works.

Instead, we have to shift our mindset from one of routine to novelty.

In his book OriginalsAdam Grant discusses a study that illustrates the importance of experience in shifting your mental framework to make it susceptible to genuinely creative ideas.

The study, led by strategy professor Frederic Godart, looked at the domain of fashion designers and assessed their tendency to produce groundbreaking work after having traveled or lived abroad. Looking at figures such as Donatella Versace, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld, two important insights emerged:

a) The most creative designers spent considerable time learning about another culture and internalizing their practices.

b) The designers’ level of creativity correlated directly with how different the other culture was from their home culture. The more unique the culture from their own, the more creative their subsequent designs.

However we surely can’t be expected to pick up and travel abroad on the promise of a potential increase in good creative ideas.

But here’s the thing: studies have shown that even slight changes in daily routine can have a positive effect on creative thinking, facilitating a departure from one’s everyday mode of thought.

So the question remains: how should we use our time most effectively to generate the best ideas? Studies point to a powerful answer.

3. Playtime

We’ve all heard the Scandinavian mantra about how increased leisure time can actually improve one’s productive output at work.

But it’s what you do in your leisure time that can improve output and simultaneously boost creativity.

A study done at Michigan State University on the effects of artistic pursuits on professional success produced fascinating results.

The team looked at Nobel Prize winners in science between 1901 and 2005 and their scientific contemporaries. They found that hobbies can have a huge impact on our success.

Take a look at the numbers:

  1. Playing a musical instrument made scientists TWICE as likely to win a Nobel Prize than other scientists;
  2. Drawing or painting made scientists SEVEN times more likely;
  3. Writing poetry, novels, plays or essays made scientists TWELVE times more likely;
  4. Acting or dancing made scientists TWENTY-TWO times more likely;

This strikes me as an incredible hack for creativity, especially for those in professions that don’t already involve the creation of artwork on a daily basis.

As Adam Grant notes, a representative study of thousands of inventors and entrepreneurs produced similar results.

It seems, then, that we can boost our capacity for stimulating great ideas by using our leisure time for artistic pursuits.

The relationship becomes symbiotic— our work informs our creative pursuits, and our creative pursuits facilitate our ideas.

What better excuse to take time away from the desk than to increase our cognitive creative abilities by artistic play? Time to get that keyboard out…


A version of this article first appeared in The Mission, under the title Hacking Creativity: How Play Is Crucial To Your Success

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