September 26, 2021
When it comes to on-the-spot thinking and creative projects that make the client go “wow,” Strategic Play Expert Gary Ware knows the secret. It’s play, of course! With a motto that “employees that play together, stay together,” Gary shares how play is the “superfood of behavior,” and the benefits it can provide to employees’ and business’ well-being. Listen now in this special episode of The 19: Entrepreneur Edition.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:00:05] This is the 19. In 19 minutes or less game-changing insights from Orange Label. Well, actually this one, we broke the rules because we had so much fun with Gary Ware we went a little longer than 19 minutes, so I hope you enjoy this episode.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:00:24] Hello and welcome to the 19: Entrepreneur Edition! I’m Rochelle Reiter, President of Orange Label. Between the last quarter of the year and the holidays quickly approaching, life always seems to go into overdrive. To combat the stress in the workplace burnout that may come along with this today’s episode is all about the importance of play. And who better to talk about this topic than creative play strategist Gary Ware? Gary is the founder of Breakthrough Play, a training program that teaches professionals how to embrace the power of play, and he’s given TED talks, webinars and thousands of workshops about it. Gary, welcome to the 19. We’re thrilled to have you here today.
Gary Ware: [00:01:01] Thank you so much for having me. I am so excited to be here.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:01:10] I know you’re big on play in the workplace, so I thought we would start this episode off with a game if that’s OK with you?
Gary Ware: [00:01:17] Oh yes, my favorite way to kick things off and the game that I have in mind, especially since we’re not physically in the same location, is a game called Crisis Situation. And in this game I’m going to state a fictitious crisis that I’m having and a random object. Then you’re going to state a fictitious crisis you’re having in a different random object. Then it is my job to find a way to solve your crisis with my object. And for you to solve my crisis with your object. And it may sound a little confusing, but the goal here is to think outside the box and then afterwards, we’ll talk about it and see how it goes.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:02:02] Awesome!
Gary Ware: [00:02:02] All right. I’m going to kick it off.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:02:05] Ok.
Gary Ware: [00:02:05] All right. All right I’m having. Oh my gosh, I’m having such a wacky day, I locked myself out of my house and all I have is an avocado.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:02:20] I was driving in to this podcast today and my car broke down, and my random object is a rubber ducky.
Gary Ware: [00:02:28] Great. Ok, so I’m going to solve your crisis with my object. I have an avocado and this is what I’m going to do. If I cut open the avocado and take the avocado pit. I think it might can conduct electricity, and I will. I will put it up to your battery and see if we can get just a spark to get your car running again. And if not, then what we will do is we will take the avocado meat, and I will use that to give myself enough energy to run and find a mechanic.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:03:06] Awesome. I love it!
Gary Ware: [00:03:09] So how are you going to help me get into my house with your rubber ducky?
Rochelle Reiter: [00:03:12] So what I’m going to do is put that rubber ducky on your porch and hopefully you have a ring doorbell and I’m going to ring the doorbell and somebody is going to see the rubber ducky and know that they need to come and open the door.
Gary Ware: [00:03:30] So smart. So smart. Yes! Crisis averted!
Rochelle Reiter: [00:03:34] All right. Yeah!
Gary Ware: [00:03:36] And that’s the game, Yay!
Rochelle Reiter: [00:03:38] Awesome! So those are types of games that you could play at work, and that’s why we’re here today is to talk about that. So tell me a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today?
Gary Ware: [00:03:51] Yes. So my I guess quote unquote technical background is in marketing and communications. That’s what I went to school for. Prior to jumping and switching gears and going into facilitation and team building and coaching, I was in marketing, digital marketing specifically. I worked my way up the ranks across various agencies in San Diego, and early in my career, I was in Los Angeles and moved back to San Diego. And I thought, you know, my, you know, thing would be to eventually own my own agency, which I did. And that unfortunately didn’t work out as well as planned. And me and my business partner had a falling out. And after, you know, sort of picking myself up and thinking, What am I going to do with my life? I decided, you know, I got so much value out of growing the teams that I led through improv and play and I can talk about, like how I got into improv in just a moment, I decided, you know, maybe I should. Instead of just getting another agency job, maybe I can start something new. And it’s been going on year number four, running my own business Breakthrough Play, where I lead team building, team bonding and development activities, using play and applied improvisation.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:05:16] Awesome. So you mentioned burnout in one of your TEDx talks and how did you get to that place and then decide that play was really the breakthrough for you?
Gary Ware: [00:05:27] Yes. When I was younger, I used to play all the time. I was this silly kid, that class clown, you know, that was always, according to my parents, the center of attention. And my dad, he gave me, you know, some wisdom that stuck with me and it was, you know, something there’s a time and place for play. It’s important to get your job done first and then you can play. And so again, that helped me, you know, get through school, get through college. And it stuck with me when I was growing in my career. So here’s the thing I feel like in the day and age that we’re in now, there is more work than anyone can do in a lifetime. Sure. And so if your goal is, hey, I will only play when the work is done, you will never play. And so I thought again, you know, the overwork and stuff was what you were supposed to do. And in fact, I used it as a badge of honor. You know, it would be at networking events or talking to people. And you know, the normal question, Oh, how are things going? Oh my god, I’m so busy. I worked 12 hours. I did this, this and this. And then I found that when I finally did get a chance to take a break like a vacation, it took the first three days before like, I can acclimate and feel like normal again. Then I felt like the vacation was over. And then as soon as I got back into the work. Like that, I felt like one of those old iPhones that by noon is already depleted.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:06:55] Right.
Gary Ware: [00:06:55] And so I didn’t realize that I wasn’t following good sort of work balance techniques. I was just working too much. And then as luck would have it, a mentor of mine suggested, hey Gary, why don’t you take an improv class? Because at this point in my career, I was a director at this digital marketing agency called Covario. At the time, I was the director of paid media, so I was in charge of the teams that did paid search across our whole portfolio of clients. And I wanted to get better at public speaking. I did Toastmasters and all those things. It just wasn’t my jam. And my mentor said, hey, have you considered an improv class? And like most people when you mentioned improv, they’re like, Oh no. Why would I do something like that? I’m not buddy. However, through his persistence, I took the class, and I’m so glad that I did. Matter of fact, I almost didn’t go the first class because I was so accustomed to always work, always work, always work. It was a Monday. The class was on a Monday, and if you are in the agency world, you know that Mondays can be kind of stressful with after the weekend, checking in with clients and reporting. And so it’s the class starts at 7:00. It’s about 6:30. I haven’t left yet, and I’m at that point where I’m weighing. All right. Can I make it in time? Should I go? And then I heard his voice in my head. Take the class.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:08:15] Let’s do it, yeah.
Gary Ware: [00:08:15] So I yes, I did it. I went in that class and I and they were 15 other people, just like myself. And for two hours, we played these silly games like the one we just did. And I was completely present.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:08:27] Yeah.
Gary Ware: [00:08:28] I was not thinking about anything that was going on, and I was having fun. And then I went home and my wife was like, Are you drunk? And I was like, No, I’m not.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:08:39] That’s so funny!
Gary Ware: [00:08:40] And that was the catalyst that got me to realize, Oh, what I’ve been missing was play. I was hooked. I thought improv was the answer. Improv is, you know, one of many ways that you can incorporate play. But that was the moment that changed everything for me.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:08:58] Sure. So, so how do you incorporate play into the workday? And I would love like one example of a remote play scenario and one in office? Many of us are doing a hybrid situation right now.
Gary Ware: [00:09:14] Yes. The first thing is for people to realize that plays just not a frivolous activity. Play is something that can energize us, can help us connect, can help us be more creative. Play has so many different benefits. A mentor of mine, her name is Gwen Gordon. She once said Play is like the superfood of behavior. Play is like Kale. In that it has so much benefits. And to be honest, the reason why we’re suffering as much as we are is because we’re probably going through play deprivation. That’s the main thing that people need to realize that this is important. We are wired for play and there’s different ways, different modalities that you can incorporate play. That’s why I call it Purposeful Play in that you need to think of, like, what is the outcome that we want to have? And what is the quote unquote activity that we can do to get that outcome? So if you’re in a remote virtual environment and you’re kicking off a Zoom meeting or whatever type of meeting. Most of the time people when it first checks on, you know, everyone’s just like sort of like doing their own thing. And, you know, it’s kind of awkward. And then they jump into the meeting. The one thing that we take for granted from when we were in person and we would have meetings, we would have these connection points. And when we had those connection points, whether it’s like, you know, high five or, you know, elbow bump or whatever it is that we do, we were in person, you know, small, you know, small talk. In our bodies we were creating the neurochemicals that are going to allow us to be focused, to be creative, to connect and to remember those. I have an acronym. It’s called DOSE. D-O-S-E. stands for dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. Those are the newer chemicals that our brain produces to help us be more creative, to trust each other, to feel like we belong. And you know, at the end of the day, you know, feel good in a virtual environment. We, you know, in an effort to be efficient, we skip all of that small talk. So I invite teams to what is some sort of quick little icebreaker, something fun that you can do to lighten the mood to help people connect with each other. And it can be as simple as you know, Hey, let’s do a quick round of two troops on the line, you know? And in that, you know, each person goes around and they say two things that are true and one thing that’s a lie. If you don’t have that much time, it can be as something. Hey, let’s quickly check in. How are you currently feeling if your emotions were a weather report and so it can go? You know what? I’m currently feeling a little overcast, but the sun is peeking through. And again, it allows people. A fun and playful way to be vulnerable and share how you’re really feeling so that people know and that’s one of the challenges with virtual is that it’s kind of hard to pick up on. Yeah, how people feeling? And again, it’s just something quick, something fun. It’s playful and it allows us to connect so that we can be focused and get to business. And so that’s a virtual. So if you’re in person, we have a little bit more leeway. And one of the things I love having teams do when they go into meetings is bring something you know, you remember when we were kids and we had show and tell.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:12:23] Yeah.
Gary Ware: [00:12:23] You know, that was really fun. Like we again, the whole intention here is how can we continue to get to know each other? How can we create psychological safety so that people can be their true selves? And that’s where the work is really going to get done if we don’t like Brené Brown says, if we don’t have to have all this armor on and trying to be, you know what we think people want us to be. If you can be your true self, you can be creative. You can say what really needs to get done. So I invite teams to just bring something for their desk and they go around. And so there’s a few ways that you can do this without even being prompted what the theme is. I just said, bring something from your desk to the meeting and then you have like between 10 and 20 seconds. I give him a prompt. How does what you just brought relate to whatever the topic of the meeting is? So if we’re talking about changing perspectives like, you know, there’s a client meeting and we’re talking about, yeah, we need to help our clients see a different perspective. And I happen to bring a hacky sack. I, you know, again on the spot, I would have to figure out how does hacky sack have to do with changing perspective? And again, it’s not about being right. It’s just about saying something. It’s just like the crisis situation that we just did,
Rochelle Reiter: [00:13:31] Allowing you to be very present.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:13:32] How do you see the team get involved and how do they react to it?
Gary Ware: [00:13:36] Well, there are three types of people. There’s the people that are, yeah, alright cool! And then there’s the people that are a little bit, you know, they’re on the fence. And then of course, there’s the people that are hesitant. They’re like, really, we’re doing this again? They have like PTSD for like team building.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:13:53] Right?!
Gary Ware: [00:13:54] They had one or two or two events that went horribly wrong, and they can’t they can’t get past it. And that’s normal. And it’s natural. And one of the things about play, play is an experience that you have to be invited to if you’re forced into it. Yeah, you might do it, but you’re not going to get all the benefits. And so as a facilitator, I know that not everyone is going to be quote unquote ready. And so I like to invite people to come as they are and just let people know that, hey, this is, you know, this is meant for these outcomes. You know, this is what we’re trying to do. You know, you can show up as little or as much as you want, you know, give them that free space so that they can make a choice. Now, what usually happens is those people that are gung ho are going to be that catalyst and they’re going to start to, you know, get things moving. And then the people that are on the fence are going to realize, Oh, this is fun. We’re having fun. All right. Cool. All right. And then there and then by the end, the people that are resistant usually come around and say, all right, I’m going to do it. Then this is the cool thing about this is that because play is inherently vulnerable and you’re doing this experience where we’re not making fun of each other.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:15:03] Right.
Gary Ware: [00:15:04] We’re connecting. And you are seeing firsthand that when you shared something, no one put your idea down, you know, they embraced it. Then unconsciously, you start to trust the people a bit better.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:15:19] Yeah, that’s amazing. So out of these playful experiences at work, there’s trust building productivity, deeper connection and creativity, I would assume, and being in a creative field. I think that’s important no matter what role you’re in.
Gary Ware: [00:15:37] Yes, I’d like to say creativity is a verb, not a noun. I know in the agency world, you know, there are certain people that it’s in their title, Oh, we’re creative.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:15:49] Right.
Gary Ware: [00:15:49] Everyone is inherently creative. If you look at a child, they are so creative. In fact, NASA did this study. They followed a cohort from kindergarten all the way through high school, and it’s a study on creativity. And they gave them this test to see how sort of quote unquote out of the box they can think. And they found that kindergartners, five-year-olds had genius levels of creativity.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:16:17] Wow. I believe it.
Gary Ware: [00:16:19] This yeah, it’s true. If you’ve been around a child, you would see that the things that they come up with are, it’s ridiculous. I have a four-year-old and he comes up to me and he says, Hey, Dada. How about we play this game where we take all of our farm animals and they’re going to be spies and we have these and is this the elaborate like sort of thing? And I’m like, OK? And again, super creative, they’re thinking outside the box. And trust me, if a child wants something, they will figure out a way to make it happen. My son is so persuasive.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:16:54] Yeah.
Gary Ware: [00:16:55] This is the thing. Yes, genius levels of creativity. As we get older, we, in my opinion, I feel like it atrophies. Some people. Yes, they you know, they stay creative. Others, they don’t think that they’re creative around puberty, 13, is when the levels start to decrease. So much so with this study. By the time they were 18, it was only three to five percent of those people had genius levels of creativity.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:17:22] Wow.
Gary Ware: [00:17:22] It was so depressing they had to stop the study like, Oh my gosh, what are we doing? See, here’s the thing. We’re all creative. It’s just that it’s a muscle. It’s something we have to practice and play. Is that sort of gym for your brain that helps you stay limber?
Rochelle Reiter: [00:17:36] Right. So for us, older folks, how do we activate our play drive? How do we do that?
Gary Ware: [00:17:43] Yes. And in my TEDx talk, where I was talking about my experience with play and how I was able to reactivate that, I realized that there were five things that if you, you know, continuously work on, you can be, you know, just as playful as you were when you’re a child and the big one. And this is still prevalent, especially in the space that we’re in now, is rest.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:18:08] Mm-hmm.
Gary Ware: [00:18:09] If we’re not rested, we’re going to activate our sympathetic nervous system or sympathetic nervous system. Is that fight, flight or freeze? And that takes our play drive off line. That takes our creativity offline because now we’re operating through our limbic system, that’s our lizard brain. And that what happens there is all the blood is taken from, you know, the parts of the brain that will help us be creative and playful and put into our extremities like our arms and legs because our brain thinks that we need to do something to survive.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:18:40] Mm-hmm.
Gary Ware: [00:18:40] And so when we are not rested, we can’t be creative and we can’t be playful. And so rest is important. And I know, especially in the creative field, you know, it can be challenging. However, that is something that we need to prioritize. I know they say, Hey, eight hours is appropriate. I’m saying get something. And matter of fact, not all rest is created equal. There are three types of rest. There is macro, micro and mezzo. And just really quickly with that micro are those breaks. And I’ll talk about that in just a moment. Macro is sleep, you know, prioritizing sleep. You know, if it’s not eight hours, is it six hours? And if it’s six hours or however much can you optimize that? Are you the type that goes to bed with your cell phone in hand after just scrolling social media? Well, you’re probably not going to get proper amount of sleep.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:19:34] Mm-hmm.
Gary Ware: [00:19:35] So there’s that. And then the mezzo and this is important for creatives is stepping away from the work, taking a day to do something that is going to spark joy. So those are the three types of wrist rest is crucial. And then step number two. This is important to activate in your play drive is your mindset. As I mentioned, if you see play as a frivolous activity, your mindset is like, Oh my gosh, this is a waste of time. Why are we doing this? You’re not going to take full advantage of it. Researcher Jane McGonigal, she had this amazing book called Super Better, and in her book, she talks about her research of exploring the benefits of play through people who do video games. And she found that there’s just as much research to showcase why video games can be detrimental to your life and your health and stuff like that as helping you to be resilient. And she found the one key thing is your mindset. If you see your playful activity as a way to rejuvenate, as a way to help you be able to tackle tough situations, well, then it’s going to happen. However, if you see play as a way to not tackle, as a way to not deal, to escape, then that’s going to be your pattern. So mindset is, you know, step number two, you need to rest so we can have the ability to play so we can have our creativity online. And then to we need to see the things that we do that are playful as beneficial and number three. This is important and this is something that we probably as adults, as sort of elder children, as I’d like to say, we probably put aside and I like to say, follow your curiosity, what are the things that bring you joy? In his book play, Dr. Stuart Brown talked about there are different types of play and the way that you can figure out what type of play resonates with you is to do what is called a Play History. It’s very simple to do. Think about what were the things that you did when you were younger that brought you joy and how can you incorporate that in some way, shape or form as an adult and you might have to get a little creative. So, for example, my sister growing up, yeah, she loved to like, nurture things she loved, like play with dolls and stuff like that. And now, because, you know, the underlying thing, it was like the nurturing aspect of it. And now she uses that and she nurtures plants and especially during the pandemic. You know, she has all kinds of plants. And again, this is a way of being creative, but bringing something that brought you joy and bringing it to your adult, you know, self. For me, I did. I was in band and I did a lot of stuff with music. And for me, my form of play is improv, improv theater. I still, you know, perform and whatnot. But what is it for you? And how can you incorporate that? And that brings me to the next thing is scheduling play. And I know that might seem like an oxymoron because oh, is it supposed to be spontaneous? Yes. And we’re adults, and if it’s not in my calendar, I will not do it. That’s just how things are.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:22:46] It’s like working out, right? Like putting a workout in your schedule.
Gary Ware: [00:22:52] Yeah, the things that are important to you, you will prioritize and in this day and age, the best way to prioritize is to have it in your schedule.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:22:58] Mm-hmm.
Gary Ware: [00:22:59] I’m saying five minutes.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:23:01] Yeah.
Gary Ware: [00:23:01] You know, five to like five minutes on the minimum, you know, window of time in your calendar. And how can you engage in that thing that you’re just doing it for the sake of doing it that ultimately has no meeting, but actually has all the meaning because this is the other thing. By taking that micro rest, you are giving your brain a chance to continue to work on whatever you were doing before you did that. And this is where creativity happens. Creativity happens when you can get into the default node of your brain, and that is not really thinking about the thing that you’re trying to do. Think about any sort of breakthrough idea that you had. I don’t think you were trying to come up with that idea when it happened.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:23:35] It usually it happens in the shower or on a walk, or it just pops in your mind.
Gary Ware: [00:23:40] Exactly. So guess what? Creating a space to play is going to create that fertile ground for those creative ideas to grow. And and then the last thing to activate your play drive is to involve other people get playmates, You know, and this could be people that you work with.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:23:56] Mm-hmm.
Gary Ware: [00:23:57] Or this could be, you know, friends, they will help you be accountable. In my TEDx talk, I was talking about, this was the time right after me and my business partner had our break up and I was going through a rough patch and my playmate Kia at the time, he would give me these little play challenges of like, Hey Gary, how about you go do this? And one thing that we did, we called it Play It Forward Friday.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:24:19] Oh, that’s fun.
Gary Ware: [00:24:20] So we had a little play mission on Fridays, and we had this thing where we went around town and we had these free hug signs. And then, yeah, it was. It was so much fun. We were spreading joy again. That’s playful for us. That might not be playful for you, but what is it for you that is going to give you a sense of joy? And how can you involve other people?
Rochelle Reiter: [00:24:39] That’s awesome. Thank you so much. I think we got so much content. Today it was awesome. If you had to give advice to our listeners, what would you say today to transform their lives from play?
Gary Ware: [00:24:52] You are enough. A number of people that come up to me and they say, I don’t I don’t know if I can play. I see people that play, and it just doesn’t seem like I can do it. Guess what? You’re not broken. We are wired for play. You just need to realize that your form of play may not be the same form that someone else is. However, if you put yourself in an environment where you feel more relaxed and you feel like you’re safe, that form of play is going to come out and you might have to experiment. But I believe that it’s possible, and when we are in that headspace, we are more creative. We can connect deeper. And that’s what it’s all about, right?
Rochelle Reiter: [00:25:37] Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining us today, Gary.
Gary Ware: [00:25:41] Thank you for having me. I had so much fun.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:25:48] Thank you for listening to The 19 Entrepreneur Edition with Gary Ware. To learn more about Gary’s professional training and coaching program Breakthrough Play, visit BreakthroughPlay.com. If you have additional thoughts on this topic, send us an email. You can send questions, comments and more to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:26:17] A special thank you goes out to our contributors, Senior Studio Manager Kelsey Phillips, Micah Panzich, who edits our show, and Ashley Ruiz, Senior Content Writer. Be sure to subscribe to The 19 on iTunes, Google Play and Spotify. And if you like what you heard today, leave us a review!