A hiking trail cuts through the woods below my home in the Catskills. There is a small wooden bridge where the trail crosses a rivulet, one of the many that run off the mountain above us and feed the Beaverkill River, itself only a grand stream where we live near its headwaters. For the nearly two decades we’ve lived in our house, a troll has lived under the bridge. My children and their friends would sometimes play down by the The Troll Bridge. Not everyone knew the troll was there, of course. He tended heavily toward the withdrawn. Hikers would pass by and never be aware of him. Our children and he seemed content to keep his existence a secret, a gentleman troll’s deal among him, our family, and a few youthful friends.
One recent late summer afternoon I sought the advice of a friend and neighbor. He is a successful entrepreneur and currently the CEO of a brand new enterprise. We sat on my deck, enjoying the sun and the view, a view that looks beyond the troll’s den to the mountains across the river. I’d recently developed a workshop in creativity and problem solving and I’d sought my entrepreneur friend’s advice as to how I might go about marketing the workshop to businesses. I explained, rather too expansively I fear, about how I employed play, humor, games, laughter, improvisation, fun, acting exercises and the importance of joy. My friend observed that the problem, as it is for so many in so many ways right now, is the economy. Patiently and practically, my friend reminded me that at a time when companies are fretting about whom to lay off next, cutting back expenses on everything from basic research to advertising to Christmas parties, that it will be hard, if not impossible, to get in anyone’s door preaching play as the path to more creativity in the workplace. I’d certainly need to come up with an “elevator speech” that describes what I intend without employing the aforementioned play, humor, games, etc. Moreover, I’d probably want to downplay my own theatrical background, as it, too, would appear too frivolous and not speak to the hard practicality present times demand. What I had to offer might generate interest in boom times, certainly not these days. And here I was, preaching that when the times get tough, the tough ought to get to playing.
From time to time of late I’d be out on the same deck reading, or out in my garden, and I’d hear youthful noises down by the Troll Bridge. Someone beside the troll was down there. As my now grown children discovered, it’s a great place to play. A small running stream, rocks, moss, fallen branches, the bridge itself, all under a canopy of hemlock. The troll has always been good about sharing the space. What I didn’t know was that those noises meant our family troll friend was getting his pink slip. Or, at the least, had moved on to imaginations elsewhere. A new generation has moved in. These days the trail and the bridge pass right by an elegant Fairy House. The Fairy House is a fanciful assortment of stone pathways, log bridges, smaller aerial rope bridges lashed together (presumably for fairies), a larger hut of some sort, plus whatever else I’ve failed to remember, recognize or imagine. It is a loving creation that has clearly taken much time, on the part of both humans and fairies.
It turns out that the Fairy House has been conceived and engineered by my entrepreneur friend’s young daughter. Various playmates, older brothers, even the entrepreneur himself have been enlisted for the project from time to time. For all his businessman’s mien, my friend understands the value of play. He incorporates it in his life. He sends his daughter to a school that believes imagination is at the heart of learning. He’s not above helping move the stones that pave the fairies’ path.
I wrestle with the paradox of my neighbor’s advice about how play is devalued in the work world and yet how much he makes play an important part of his personal life. I wonder whether his sense of play is so organic that he’s never really thought much about its role in his business success. He doesn’t need my workshop, though he’d probably enjoy it and bring much to it.
In an Opinion Online piece for The New York Times Stuart Brown writes: “...play reinvigorates not because it is down time, but because it gets us in touch with our core selves and the joy of life.
“The differences in levels of playfulness when adulthood arrives validates this importance. Play-deprived adults are often rigid, humorless, inflexible and closed to trying out new options. Playfulness enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt and master changing circumstances.”
Not everyone is as successful at crossing the bridge from their personal life to their professional life with their sense of play intact as my neighbor is. I often wonder if there are mean-spirited trolls who stand sentry at that bridge for many of us. I suspect they look like sourpussed high school principals, telling us to be quiet, get back in our seats, stay in line, and make sure we’re on time for the next bell.