Before putting my 3-year-old to bed a few nights ago I gave her some time to play. She was deeply focused on setting her table with toy plates and food, making sure everything was just so while quietly speaking to herself, I need another cup, no not this one... Yes, this one, that's good. Now I need a carrot...
It was thoroughly cute and I couldn't resist reaching over to hug her, only to be shrugged off: not now daddy. For her, this was real work and the most important thing at that moment.
While she arranged various wooden vegetables onto plates I began to think about some of my work stresses. What would she think of all that, if she was watching on? She'd probably find it quaint how I took my activities so seriously. I thought about how she sometimes comes into my office at home to tell me she's baked a cake out of Lego only to hear me say I'm too busy. It must look strange to her, seeing me sitting there with no toys saying I'm too busy to play.
I then applied this lens to people around me, such as friends, colleagues, and bosses, and I noticed this added lightness to previously serious situations. Missed deadlines or difficult characters didn't really matter much outside of the moments I had to focus on them, but I had allowed their footprints to step into other parts of my life.
Now, I'm being careful not to say 'you should treat life like a game' because when you think about games you think about playing tag in a playground or throwing soggy balls of tissue paper at unsuspecting passers-by (right?). My daughter was playing - but seriously.
Setting her dinner table, she was fully immersed in the moment and her play mattered the most. But once that game was done, the next thing mattered the most. And so it goes.
How often, I thought, do I let the last thing stop me from properly focusing on the next? Or how often do I let the next five things distract me from the current thing? How rarely do I feel like my daughter, completely in the moment, fully focused on that one thing while everything else can wait? How often do I let jobs, tasks, feelings, and thoughts get tangled into one another when they are either moments passed or moments to come?
On reflection, many of these moments are intangible in nature. They are emails and Word documents and unanswered messages on the 15 apps I use. Being able to pick things up like her toy plate, and later to put them away, probably gave her more grounding in the moment, in reality. Putting your toys away enables closure whereas in our heads and pockets we carry our digital lives around with us.
Obviously, 3-year-olds have an advantage in that they're borderline sociopaths with little regard for those around them. So, there is that. But her approach to playing, to life, is in fact thoroughly pragmatic. In light of this, I'm going to run a little thought experiment which I invite you to test: the next time I'm in a difficult bind at work or struggling with someone, I'm going to imagine my 3-year-old watching on and finding it all rather odd. That, I hope, should add some much-needed lightness to life.