Introducing play in tough situations can unexpectedly change your whole experience for the better.
The Arctic Challenge
Back in 2005 I got drafted for mandatory military service and spent a year serving in the Norwegian Army. I was stationed north of the Arctic Circle at a camp called Heggelia, where I experienced some extreme nature and weather conditions.
The dark winter months brought at times blistering snow storms and piercing cold. I personally encountered temperatures as low as -42 ℃ (-43.6 ℉) out on a training exercise. One night I actually found myself waking up inside our tent with my sleeping bag covered in ice.
But that same winter often revealed an astonishing beauty beyond what I had experienced before. The peaceful blanket of silence that follows a heavy snowfall. The crystal clear night skies packed with more stars than I had ever seen before, and the Northern lights slowly dancing across the atmosphere. It was where I first recognised that the light pollution from cities is a theft of wonder.
Then there was the surreal midnight sun in the summer. Weeks where the sun never set. I remember getting into an 'MB', a Mercedes-Benz military Jeep, with a group of friends from the base after midnight, and driving up a mountain road to the top. We watched the sun shining on the landscape as if it was midday.
Heading back down at 01:22 in the morning.
I experienced a lot in the army. Some things were more challenging than others. Fully submerging myself in a frozen lake to simulate falling through the ice, and learning how to get out on my own. Entering a small, sealed hut in the forest and having tear gas canisters lit inside to experience their effects first hand. Surviving hell week with very little food, very little sleep, and an unprecedented amount of strain on the body and mind.
We operated in physically and mentally tough conditions, and many of the tasks and challenges presented to us were simply not fun, just hard. In those situations, everything boils down to your mindset. With the right frame of mind you can do the most excruciatingly demanding or tedious work and still have fun. The secret is to play. To allow room in your mind for playfulness, even when you are tired, frustrated, hangry or otherwise. Let me give you an example.
Toward the end of a 3-week long NATO winter training exercise, Battle Griffin, my team was tasked with setting up a communications hub on a snowy mountain, about 500 metres (1640 ft) above sea level. We would be connecting other nodes in the surrounding areas to the network, and building redundancy into the system.
Note: Redundancy in this case means that you are connected to the network via multiple routes. That way you are not reliant on any one node, and a single point of failure will not cause a loss of communication.
There were four of us in the team. I was the team leader and with me I had the driver and two other soldiers. Our means of transportation was the all-terrain carrier BV-206. This vehicle is similar to a tank in that it runs on tracks rather than wheels. It can go almost anywhere (and is even fully amphibious, too!). So we were able to drive up the steep, snowy mountain side to the designated location for setting up camp.
Still, it was hard work. At the back of our BV-206 we had a normal road trailer with additional equipment. Since the trailer did not have tracks we had to park it on a tractor road about 100 metres (328 ft) below the campsite. This meant that we had to carry quite a bit of heavy equipment through the snow up the last stretch.
After some days up on the mountain, nearing the end of the exercise, our supplies were running low. The paraffin which we used to power the heater/cooker in our tent soon ran out. We had contacted Provisioning prior and had been informed they were running a day late, which meant we would not get any paraffin for the night. The temperature was far below freezing and we had to keep the heating running somehow to stay safe.
The particular type of heater we were using is called a Multi-fuel, which, as the name suggests, can run on multiple types of fuel. Including firewood. We were all cold, hungry, and exhausted after three long weeks, and chopping down frozen trees in deep snow was not exactly on anyone’s wish list. Yet, it was something we had to do.
Thankfully, our driver realised that there was an opportunity to play, and to incorporate fun into the task. He suggested that instead of our axe we use the BV-206. A 6.9 metres (23 ft), 5+ tonnes (11,000+ lbs) unstoppable axe. What a phenomenal idea. His playful mindset instantly spread throughout the team.
Instead of trekking through the deep snow and spending tons of energy chopping down a frozen tree, we could essentially mow it down with tremendous force and feel like action movie bad-asses. It did not matter that we would still have to cut the tree into logs afterward, all the tedium and dread had been whisked away from the situation and replaced with a joyful spirit.
It became fun.
What About You
While this story is quite a specific example of play, I think we can all take away some important lessons into our daily lives.
Play At Work
If you are having a tough time at work – perhaps you are working on a troublesome project – why not inject some playfulness into it? Have a bit of banter with your colleagues, add some fun challenges, and make the situation more enjoyable for everyone. It is such a good thing for your mental state. Before you know it, you are not dreading work, you are having fun. And fun is infectious.
Looking back at all the places I have worked at, the most enjoyable times were always when we allowed ourselves to play, no matter which projects we were working on at the time. (Special shout out to DNEG 2015 vibes!)
Play In Life
I think the same thing is true for relationships, fitness, and finances.
You might be going through a rough patch with your partner, perhaps lockdown was particularly hard. Allow yourselves room for play and make spending time together fun again! Do something unusual and interesting to break up the monotony and get back on the right track.
You might be struggling to lose weight or to gain muscle, but could you perhaps create fun challenges to help build momentum? Is there a better approach to your problem than what you are currently doing? It might be hiding in plain sight.
Or, you might be struggling with finances. Could you make saving into a game or a challenge: how much can you save per day, week, month? Any creative solutions for saving more or spending less? Maybe you can automate it and lessen the mental burden.
Shift to a positive mindset, I promise you it will be worth it.
Be Open To Playful Solutions
By allowing room for play you are inherently allowing room for creativity and for creative solutions to your problem. Perhaps doing something silly is the right thing to do. We had fun acquiring that firewood, but our approach was also hands down the more effective one. We saved time and effort using our unconventional method.
Similarly in life, it could be worth it to try a more playful approach. Perhaps there is a golden solution waiting to be uncovered.
I hope you found this story insightful. For more reflections, see Advice.