Three words have lit a fire under me and motivated me to keep going when the going gets tough. These three words: just keep playing.
I’ve never been very keen on self-help and remain skeptical of “gurus” like Tony Robbins who preach that you can simply use positive thinking as the key to motivate yourself and unlock success in this world. But I must admit, the mantra works.
But what does it mean to just keep playing? When I go about my daily life—which usually entails a full-on blitz of obligations and to-dos—I continually foster a sense of play in everything I do.
In other words, I turn all my to-dos into a game.
Have an exam next Wednesday? Treat it like game day. When you do this, you turn that negative sense of pressure into a positive one. Don’t aim to ‘not fail,’ aim to win the game. Instead of agonizing over the approaching deadline for your eight-page history paper, focus on how good it feels to learn new things. You can make studying for a test fun if you gamify your learning.
I grew up playing three sports: baseball, football and tennis. Looking back as I begin my professional life, I realize that playing sports for the sake of pure enjoyment solidified my value of persistence. When I struck out, I didn’t quit; I just showed up at my next plate appearance. If I dropped a pass, we still lined up for the next play. Whether you play like a novice or division one stud, everybody strikes out; everybody drops passes.
Everybody fails—like all the time.
The concept sounds simple, but when said over and over again, it helps deal with the inevitable failure that comes with having career goals. I didn’t keep playing because I felt like I had to; it just felt so good to do well. I didn’t have any end goal, but I enjoyed being highly-skilled at something.
Fast forward four years. I’m a senior in college, and the game no longer happens on a football field but in the classroom, intern office and interview room. If I strike-out on ten job interviews, I’ll be there for the next one.
“Harmonious passions are very healthy activities that people choose to do without strings attached—the model train set that an elderly man has been working on since his youth, or the series of abstract paintings that a middle-aged woman creates in her free time,” psychologist Adam Alter wrote. Make your passions harmonious and treat them like a game.
Last week I sat on Landis Green at Florida State, excited to read my new book. A friend approached me and asked me the name of the book. I told him and he asked me what class the book was for. I told him I didn’t have a requirement to read it, but I wanted to read it anyway. He gave me a puzzled look, confused as to why I would read something not required by a class. Even worse, willingly choosing to read a textbook.
College trains us to check things off our lists.
We write the papers, take the exams and do what they tell us to do. “Get good grades and you’ll be successful.” It programs us to simply react. But where’s the proactivity? How come no one ever tells us to learn for fun? Professors never open up a discussion with, “So what books do you guys enjoy reading?” or “Let’s talk about something mind-blowing today.” Instead we stick to a rigid curriculum, where professors lecture through their boring slideshows as the majority of the class mindlessly scrolls through Instagram. What a waste.
The day I started being proactive rather than reactive changed my career. I’m a writer and I love taking on projects about things that put fireworks in my eyes. My friend at Landis didn’t understand that I enjoy challenging myself to learn more every day simply because it feels good. Nobody tells me to write articles. Nobody tells me to read one book per week, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. Ever since I started being relentless in my own personal projects, my grades skyrocketed. I fine-tuned my craft because I learned the right way to enjoy it—love it, actually. I taught myself how to make school fun like a game. When it becomes frustrating—those inevitable moments of self-doubt right before a research presentation—I remind myself that it’s all one big game. It sounds nerdy but it helped me tremendously.
With final exams approaching, I encourage you to turn your work into a game. If you fail, just keep playing. Learn for the sake of learning. Write because you want to, not because you have to. Be your own boss. Don’t let indifferent professors determine your intellectual fate. Just keep playing.