“To survive spiritually as a member of an organisation, one must possess some special talent which makes one so indispensable that almost any outrageous behavior is pardoned.”
W.H. Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer
It is as important to bypass bureaucracy now and then as it is to skip occasionally so your walk won’t turn into a trudge. The “special talent” Auden refers to here, required to survive the flattening weight of tiers of institutional hierarchy, might simply be a capacity for play, which is to say the ability even to imagine the outrageous behavior that might require pardon. Professionals who remember how to play are a rare breed. I met an enterprising entrepreneur who gives workshops to business people on how to bring laughter back into the workplace. The very fact that she markets spiritual vitality as a skill testifies to the atrophy she proposes to arrest. The play impulse is one of our deepest survival instincts.
Organizational life, even at its most humane, tends to suppress play. Protocols forestall inspired shortcuts. Parliamentary procedure squashes all but the most determined spontaneity. Legal language precludes the pun as an agent of insight, and turns wit-flexing pith to syntactic soup. Ad hoc committees perpetuate themselves, and so hoc becomes nunc et semper.
The sickness most deeply imbedded in the bureaucratic body is intolerance for eccentricity. No virtue in itself, selective eccentricity nevertheless often provides a needed goad to collective self-reflection. CEOs need a good eccentric on board as urgently as King Lear needed a fool. Eccentricity of the kind I am thinking of is almost synonymous with playfulness. It is willingness to tinker with what works–hence to defy the tyranny of the tried and known on the off chance that something else might work better–or be more fun. It is, for that matter, a conviction that what is more fun does work better. It is the mental athleticism required to switch point of view, step outside the frame, or suddenly recognize an unanticipated success in the very moment of failure. It is not always convinced that forward, onward, or upward is the obvious direction in which to move. Or that a straight line is the best way to get there. It is willing to sacrifice efficiency for a little ecstasy or progress for process.
Play is not buffoonery. It is eminently serious. The play energy the truly playful person expends is generated by hard work, thought, and focused interest in the problems at hand. Real play is not distraction, but concentration. The paradox is that such concentration and exertion is as revitalizing as deep rest.
Play is a response to the call of the moment. It works through the muse of sudden inspiration. It is not calculated performance. Divested of ego, it is pure consent to what is suddenly recognized as possibility. So the person who plays is not a slacker, but does his or her own work well, and finds in that work occasion for play as the calligrapher does not neglect the word to be copied in designing the decorative flourish. Play has a quality of what the old theologians would have called “moral beauty” or the philosophers, “intellectual delight.” It comes from the spiritual center, it calls forth creativity in others, and transforms the court or the corridors of power into places of discovery. It is, to return to Auden’s observation, work done so well and with such utter attention that the act of working “heats up” and expands into play–not departing from the task at hand but doing it as though for the first time.
Abraham Lincoln’s legendary playfulness is a case in point. His epigrammatic observations (“I can make more generals, but horses cost money”) stopped people in their tracks and invited them to reframe. He introduced quirky criteria by which to judge people’s ideas (“I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it”). He loved the kind of paradox that spun conventional wisdom in a new direction (“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”), and the kind of simplicity that subverted the often self-serving complexities of institutional protocols (“I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day.”)
Lincoln amused his intimates puzzled his colleagues and outraged his enemies. The “special talent” he possessed—the kind Auden recommends we seek in hiring and promotion—is one worth cultivating in ourselves and our students: the capacity to dislodge what is stuck by the sudden reframing laced with wit and grounded in humility. And willingness to play the fool—a role, Shakespeare taught us, indispensible to the health of the state.