5 Lessons About Self-Confidence, Play and the Meaning of Work (That I Learned From a Toddler)



Calm Your Worries: Part 9

“I am doing work that I love that feels both playful and meaningful.”

As I looked at these words I had just written in my morning journal, at first I wasn't sure what they meant. Feeling curious, I began to imagine what playful and meaningful work actually looks like. Instantly an image of my 19-month-old granddaughter, Lucie, flashed in my mind's eye. Like most toddlers, Lucie is always busy playing. At first glance, her activity might seem nonsensical, a flight of random movement.

But when I closely observe her (as I love to do), I see the exact combination of play and meaning I meant in my journal.

Eyes wide and face calmly determined, she places her baby doll on a blanket on the floor.  She pauses and searches the room, finds a washcloth nearby, shakes it flat and lays it over the dolly. A few attempts and the cloth is smooth and where she wants it. Lucie squats down, kisses her little baby and pops up again. This time she finds a story book and lays it on the doll’s lap. A walk around the room and she grabs another doll to join the first. A pause. She embraces the doll. The hug turns into a quick dance. Now the doll is placed beside her doll friend on the blanket.

Here’s what Lucie taught me about meaningful, playful work.

To the kitchen Lucie goes. Random and meaningless? No. The play kitchen has food. Babies must eat. Lucie chooses the wooden toy bottle labeled “maple syrup”. Gathering this and a little plate in her chubby hands, she carefully maneuvers the small stair leading to her dolls.

I'm amazed by how much work is in each step.

Satisfied that her dollies are fed, she seemingly moves on, making her way through three rooms to the winter hat basket by the back door.

Rummaging through, she samples a couple of the hats to find one that suits her. A large mitten on one hand apparently feels just right and then it’s back to the babydolls.

Nothing random about it! She picks up a doll and her intention is clear. She plays that they are taking a walk outside. After a brief amble about the living room, her mama asks her if she’d like to go out for a walk. Yes, she nods. And she’s on to her next adventure.

Here’s what Lucie taught me about meaningful, playful work and why it’s so important that I want to share it with you.

  1. Play is not just a joke, downtime or hilarious moments with friends.

Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute of Play says, “Stepping out of a normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, embracing a little risk, and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life. These are all qualities of a state of play.”

Don’t you want novelty, serendipity, a little risk and pleasure in your work? I do! Imagine what you can accomplish with these life-giving characteristics leading the way.

  2. Play is your natural way to learn and grow.

As I watched Lucie move and create her story, I realized that her play is meaningful. She is putting together ideas, remembering what she has learned and rehearsing for her future. Creating as she goes, her mind and body get what they need as naturally as a plant reaches for sun in the springtime. And when you’re in a natural state of workflow, isn’t that what you are doing?

You take what you know and use it. New growth comes out of the soil made up of all you’ve absorbed through the years. It’s easy to see this truth in a toddler as we know the totality of their life experience. But is it any different for you and I? How wonderful to allow our playfulness to pull together all that we hold inside and create it anew.

 3. Worry blocks your ability to experience playful, meaningful work.

As you grow, you become more and more aware of yourself and other people’s responses to you. This is a good thing. A toddler is just as happy to pick her nose while playing! But when internal worriers are overactive, they shut down the essential qualities of play such as risk, novelty and unexpectedness preferring control, constriction and certainty. Imagine a child, animal or plant surviving under those conditions! Now imagine your work under those same conditions. You may actually know what this looks like. Dull, safe and routine, work stifled by worry is just work. Creativity (play) is lost and along with it goes the meaning that makes work productive.

4. By calming worry, you release the playful, meaningful capacity of your work.

As you’ve grown into a life characterized by more and more worry, the parts of you that long for free creative expression get pushed aside for safer measures. Meet your worries and hear their concerns, and you can help them relax and step back. This action allows your creative and playful parts to re-emerge. Each time I write for public view, I have to reassure my worrying parts that I will do my best and that any small errors won’t have catastrophic results. Not an easy sell to my little worriers who have evidence to the contrary from my past. However, when I remind them that I have survived and am here for them, they calm. Then and only then can I begin to write to you. Playfulness can come out as I write, providing meaning as I think of the people I care about. It’s fun. How will this manifest for you?

5. Playful, meaningful work leads to lasting self-confidence.

Each time I visit Lucie she is more capable. Shaky steps have become certain. She can manipulate her environment more and more in ways that satisfy her. Similarly, when you calm enough to find the playful flow of your work (whatever that work may be), you will notice a sense of your own capability. As you recognize how capable you have become, your accomplishments fuel self-confidence. Life and work are more meaningful as you engage your whole self in the process without constraining or controling parts that wish to play.

Does playful, meaningful work feel like an impossibility? There’s much more help for you in my ebook.

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