Updated: Jan 26
“Play is the swing off the rhythm in music, the bounce in the ball, the dance that delivers us from the lockstep march or life. It is the ‘meaningless’ moment that makes the day memorable and worthwhile. I believe we live in a playful universe.”
Not long ago I had a conversation with an old friend where he shared a reflection that gave me goosebumps. He told me about several road trips he took across the country, during college, with his friends, resulting in some incredible memories. We are around the same age, late 30’s, so we were both in college at a time before Google Maps. He reminisced about how they had to navigate using an atlas or printouts from MapQuest (remember that?), and often got lost on their journeys. What caused the hair on my arm to stand up was what he said next, that the memories he looks back on most fondly are the times they got lost, and that, “The shame with Google Maps is that we don’t get lost anymore.” That last sentence sent a chill down my spine and brought a tear to my eye because my best memories are of times I got lost or when things didn’t work out as planned. This is also happens to be the premise of every episode of Seinfeld.
Getting lost is a relic of the past. Modern life provides us with all sorts of methods, systems, protocols, progressions, apps, and well trampled paths that act as a Google Maps for navigating all aspects of existence. We lose so much more than frustration when we give up on exploring the undefined path. We lose the opportunities for surprise and the learning that comes with it. We lose our playfulness.
My Instagram feed is an endless stream of impressive looking humans doing impressive activities. Images of weights being lifted, shapes being created, and techniques being demonstrated, make my mind melt with amazement. But I see a lot of focus on strength, mobility, and specific moves, staged in controlled environments. The disciplined systems and protocols being employed are valuable tools. But where is the "getting lost"? Where is the playfulness? Where is the surprise? Sticking to protocols, progressions, and systems is the Google Mapping of movement and fitness. This mapping, which takes the most efficient, well-worn path, is not without consequence. The cost of avoiding "getting lost" is the absence of the surprises that comes with it. Google Mapping forces us to rely on only a small fraction of the strengths we are born with, bypassing much of the magic we are capable of. If I’m strong but not creative, I might attempt to muscle my way through situations. If I’m mobile but not adaptable, I might be able to do the splits, but not bend to a new scenario. If I have moves, but I’m not cooperative, I might only know how to dance on, rather than dance with.
There is no warmup or preparation needed for getting lost. The best way to develop the qualities needed for welcoming it, is to do it! But where to start? To play is to be lost. Play has many different names; improvisation, open form, free play, sparring, rolling (BJJ), and I’m sure you can add to the list. Play is when there is no script and you’re left with the present situation and its constraints. Play is finding questions rather than answers. Play is where you learn the things that can’t be explained in words. Play is the celebration of who you are today and not what you think you’ll be someday. Play is rolling on the ground while listening to Dua Lipa, tossing a tennis ball to a friend while pretending the floor is lava, and dancing with your two-year-old nephew while making beats with sticks and PVC pipe. Play is taking a barefoot walk on a dirt road, having a conversation on the subway with the random person next to you, and doodling on the back of your Trapper Keeper (Do kids still use these?).
These unscripted, unmapped moments feed our creative, adaptable, and cooperative qualities and provide feedback on what strengths, mobilities, and moves to invest our time in. Rolling on the ground might unearth that I’d like braver knees and new rolling techniques. Tossing a ball could reveal that improved shoulder mobility and hand-eye coordination would be helpful. Dancing with my nephew could show me that I need to be bouncier and to find some more Vogue moves for the next jam. Living and experiencing is the great feedback loop on where to invest time in the gym, shop, or classroom. All of this to say, strength, mobility, and moves are the sub-categories to creativity, adaptability, and cooperation.
There are no placement medals in an unmapped approach. We cannot rank what we cannot calibrate. I speak from experience when I say that reporting back to friends on my daily practice with “I just had fun,” isn’t celebrated in the same way as the “hard work” of a one arm handstand or 400lb back squat.
Somewhere along the way fun became stigmatized, as if it isn’t valuable. No map, no path, no race, no glory. However, if fun, and the feelings of joy and happiness, weren’t important, evolution would have done away with them, along with our tails. In the book Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta says, “If people are laughing, they are learning. True learning is a joy because it is an act of creation.” Playing is an act of creation. Playing is learning. Playing is the act of being lost and creation is what we do while we are in it.
When we welcome lost, we’re dancing, and dancing is a joy. The playful are always dancing. They’re grooving to any song that turns on, with whoever is standing across from them, and on whatever dance floor they’ve found themselves on. They dance with life. Dancing with life is being in the moment with whatever is unfolding with you. These unfoldings are going to happen regardless. The question is whether your eyes are open wide enough to groove with them. Unfortunately, the more we limit lost, surprise, and uncertainty the less likely we’ll be to see the opportunities to dance. Google Maps gets us where we think we need to be, but we might be shortest routing past the greatest raves, discos, and parties of our lives. Turn off the app and turn up the music.