Where Work is Play
As always, it is a joy and a privilege for the president to have a small part in this unique pageant, otherwise produced by and starring our graduating seniors. Baccalaureate highlights two of the most remarkable things about Bates: your talents, and the value of student responsibility and participation.
The Class of 2006 and I came to Bates together, first-year students and a first-year president. At our first Convocation, in 2002, although I knew relatively little about Bates, I made some rash predictions about your experience in the next four years, and at this time of reflection it seems appropriate to inquire into the accuracy of my forecast.
Four of my predictions were safe bets. Observation suggests, and I believe each of you will agree, that you leave Bates having experienced to varying degrees all of the following:
1. Some sense of the vastness of the universe of knowing and the limited nature of your own place and perspective in it. You are able to say, “I know what I know, and I know how to find out what I do not know” with both humility and confidence.
2. A close intellectual relationship with one or a few adult members of this community. Attending a Mount David Summit, reading a list of faculty-student publications and presentations, or talking to almost any graduating student suggests to me that those relationships have been abundant and meaningful.
3. A strong sense of self-reliance and the recognition that what you get out of anything is proportional to what you put into it.
4. Friendships that will last a lifetime. You were each set adrift four years ago among a cohort of perfect strangers, and since then each of you has found among those strangers a handful of soul mates with whom you have formed lifelong bonds.
My fifth prediction demands closer inspection because it is harder to be sure whether it has come true and how it has come true. Yet at the same time, this prediction is arguably the most critical part of the promise of a liberal arts college experience. I suggested that if you were lucky, in addition to humility, self-reliance and friendships with mentors and peers, you would also discover what it is that you love to do. Therefore, although you would work hard at Bates, you would often be unable to draw a clear line between work and play.
Unsure of just how to measure the accuracy of this more complex and highly individualized prediction, I decided — in the spirit of this day and place — to ask a few of you to tell me in your own words what you had learned about work, play and love in your time at Bates. I thank those of you who took the time to respond to my question. I learned a lot from your responses.
First, I learned from a few of you that in making my original prediction I hadn’t explained myself adequately. One of you — and to protect the innocent, I’ll change your names, so let’s call this student “Homer” — noted that the lines between work and play hadn’t really blurred for him, or at least that he would insist on distinguishing between “simple play” on one hand and the satisfaction he had taken from the hard work he had done at Bates on the other.
Homer acknowledged that certain things were indeed a lot of “fun,” like debating serious issues with people of different persuasions, but because he hoped these would someday translate into making real decisions, with equally real consequences, he thought they had nothing to do with play “per se.” Or, as Homer’s classmate Marge said, if her enjoyment of academic work is anything like play, it is more like Scrabble or chess than “more simple kinds of play.” Their friend Maggie responded a little differently. Viewing the work for social justice she has done at Bates and hopes to do after Bates as “a game of sorts” helps her to avoid burn out. Maggie’s response acknowledges the therapeutic element of play, which is not to be lightly dismissed.
But it is not exactly what I meant, and the responses of Homer, Marge and Maggie made me realize that I need to clarify my definition of “play.” At one level, simple play is indeed the opposite of serious work. Work is getting the chores done. Work is something that outside of college you will normally need to get paid for; work is practical, efficient, real. Play can mean neglecting the chores, doing something for the sheer pleasure of it, doing something that accomplishes no obvious goal; it often involves fantasy, earns you no money and indeed wastes time. Balancing these two different kinds of activity — work and play, labor and recreation, employment and enjoyment — can be important to mental and physical health.
Yet in another sense play is far more than the opposite of work, and integration rather than balance is the goal. As Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga argues in his most important book, Homo Ludens (1938), what distinguishes human beings as a species is our playful nature, our innate curiosity, our love of competition and our readiness to be diverted and distracted. Just as individual human beings must play as children in order to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally, so too everything important about civilization — ritual, poetry, music and dance, war and politics — grows out of play, yet never outgrows play in its most critical dimensions. In this sense, as William Gaver, professor of interaction research at the Royal College of Art, puts it, “Play is not just mindless engagement, but an essential way of engaging with and learning about our world and ourselves — for adults as well as children. As we toy with things and ideas, as we chat and daydream, we find new perspectives and new ways to create, new ambitions, relationships, and ideas. Play goes well beyond entertainment; it’s a serious business.”1
It is play in this sense, then, that I am interested in: not the mindlessness of being entertained (although even that may have its importance in our lives) but the moments and activities when we feel joyously caught up in something that makes us feel more fully alive and ourselves, doing something we would do whether anyone paid us or not. I was therefore delighted to hear from several of you that Bates had encouraged and enabled you to play in this serious way and to grow from your antic engagement. Ned, for example, told me he already knew quite specifically what he liked to study before he came to Bates, but then he found here the people, classes and resources that deepened his liking, his inclination and interest, into a passion that indeed blurs the line between work and play. For Mo, the experience was more expansive. The singular idea about himself and his interests that he brought to Bates has broadened significantly. His intellectual curiosity has been stimulated and he has found himself exploring other domains, doing other kinds of work that suddenly felt like fun too. Bates has enriched Mo’s sense of who he is and what he loves to do in surprising ways.
For at least a few other members of the Class of 2006, the effect has been even more dramatic, and your world has been changed forever. Taking advantage of the freedom you have been given to explore unknown territories, you traveled to a new place where you now do something that you never before did or knew much about, something you loved from the moment you tried it. Bart, for instance, has become passionately absorbed in an utterly unfamiliar activity. Especially in the beginning, he had to do “an incredible amount of work” before he could even “begin to explore [its] nuances.” Still “far from attaining any level of proficiency” in this new passion, Bart has found work whose meaning is hard to communicate, except to say that it “has made me happy.”
As Bart’s story suggests, when I predicted that the line between work and play would be blurred, I didn’t mean that every aspect of your work would be enjoyable or relaxing. As you leave Bates and begin to build your careers, you can expect there to be considerable drudgery, difficulty and effort in any job worth doing. But underneath it all is one of those rare win-win situations. For finding something you love to do is in fact a prelude to doing something well. In the words of Gaver, “Pleasure comes before performance, and engagement before clarity.”2 That’s why the AT&T ad says, “Find your passion first, job second.” If you love what you are doing, your work will not only feel better, your work will be better.
To close today, I can find no better exploration of the relationship between work, play and love than Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” The narrative of the poem begins on a day in April when the poet is splitting wood and two men passing through his yard observe him. They appear to be unemployed lumbermen, and one of them lingers on to see whether the poet will pay him to do the work that he, the poet, is happily, if not expertly, performing. The poet acknowledges the “logic” that he infers from the tramp’s silent observation: “I had no right to play / With what was another man’s work for gain. / My right might be love but theirs was need.” When love and need conflict, moreover, he agrees that need is “the better right.” But the poet does not hand over the ax; instead, in the final stanza, he articulates the goal of unifying work and play as another kind of human right and necessity:
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
I’ll close by turning my prediction into a wish. You have all enjoyed one of the greatest privileges of a liberal arts education: You have had four years to revel freely in “new perspectives and new ways to create, new ambitions, relationships, and ideas.” Coming thus through play in its deepest sense to understand more about your passions, may you too find work that unifies love and need.
1. Bill Gaver, “Designing for Homo Ludens,” I3, Number 12, June 2002, p. 2.
2. Ibid, p. 6.