Gwen Gordan: The Future of Work is…play

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Gwen Gordan in conversation with Nikki Stefanoff
Illustrations by Craighton Berman

Gwen Gordon is an Emmy award winning Creative Director who started her career building Muppets for Sesame Street. She’s gone on to build furry computers for kids at MIT and been San Quentin Prison’s artist-in-residence. Passionate about the power of play, we chatted with Gwen about her career and just how she persuaded even the most powerful corporations to get playful.

Nikki Stefanoff: I’m fascinated by the work you did with Sesame Street. What did designing and building muppets teach you about the importance of play?
Gwen Gordon: The whole workshop was bursting with creativity and just sheer wackiness. Finally I wasn’t the wackiest person in the room anymore. While that raised my game and made whole new levels of creativity possible, it also helped me to see where my own blocks to play and creativity were. I discovered how I could turn a dream job into a stress trap. So, I got a taste of the heaven of a play-saturated life and the hell of blocking it. But more than anything, it planted the seed in my imagination that it was possible to play for a living and that there isn’t any real separation between work, play and mastery.

You have since gone on to work in San Quentin Prison, which is a long way from Sesame Street! I’ve read a lot about the importance of yoga and meditation in prisons, but what was it about the importance of play that made you want to go into San Quentin and speak to the men there? What did you teach them and what did you learn once you were there?
During my residency, I supported an inmate who had become a mentor to younger prisoners and was developing a program called Keepin’ it Real to help fellow inmates face some of the patterns that led to their incarceration. I helped him design the program with skits and playful exercises throughout and supported him during the program. This was a great context for bringing play, since the topics were pretty heavy and needed the extra oxygen that play brings. I learned that the innocence of our playful, true nature isn’t ever completely crushed, even by the most extreme circumstances. It can take a lot of care and effort to create the safety that makes it possible for some people to play. But the same conditions that make play possible – emotional safety, connection, acceptance, appreciation – are also the most healing in general. And oh, when a frozen face cracks a smile or the withdrawn, shy guy who hasn’t said a word for weeks does a happy dance, I felt my own prison bars that keep me feeling separate from some of the most marginalised members of our world, start melting away. I started seeing everybody around me as a potential playmate.

How do you approach play differently when dealing with, say, inmates and global corporations like PepsiCo and IDEO?
Taking a basic human-centered, design-thinking approach to my work with any client, I just have to really understand who I’m playing with and meet them where they are. At San Quentin, I developed heightened awareness of power and privilege, race and gender and how to create safety for myself and others in the face of that. The play started out very structured and defined, but drew from the inmates own language and culture. At IDEO, I was the only outside consultant on a team working with a government client to design training for 80,000 airport security officers to create a more humane passenger experience. There were five different cultures involved: IDEO, the government agency (TSA), and three types of security officers (the ‘first job out of high school kids’, people on a career track and retired patriots showing up to serve in response to 9/11). We just had to continually put ourselves in their shoes, pilot the heck out of the exercises and then make a strong security case for whatever we came up with to sell it to the directors. On top of all that, I had to learn how to play in the IDEO sandbox, which is a very specific culture with strong norms for play. It was an immensely complex project and yet the final product was full of play because in the end, when the play fits, it is the best interface for any user. The trick is to get into the shoes of your user, whoever they are and learn to code switch as needed.

How do businesses become more playful? What’s the difference between a business who recognises the importance of play and one that doesn’t? I guess I’m wondering what’s that elevator pitch that a CEO would think: Ah, I must learn more about this?
I’ll start high altitude: For centuries, we saw the universe as a dead machine that obeyed predictable, rigid, linear laws. But in the past century a new picture has emerged. We now know that the universe is alive, indeterminate and that everything, everywhere is in constant non-linear flux. In a mechanistic universe, it makes sense to run businesses with a focus on efficiency, performance and productivity. But we’ve come to the limits of what we can do within a worldview that doesn’t match the way the world actually works. With the acceleration of change the need to constantly adapt and innovate in a creative economy requires that we start going with the grain of the universe. In a living universe, play generates possibilities, creativity turns those possibilities into actualities and innovation makes the creations useful. The foundation for evolution itself is play and research now shows that the most generative play is playful. When people are doing what they love, it’s safe to take risks, follow hunches, challenge assumptions and fail brilliantly.

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So, you go into businesses and run workshops? What are they like?
Yes, I have a workshop/training on creativity, innovation and play, which helps people retrieve the genius that had as children to engage real world challenges. I also have a training called The Playful Leader, supporting the shift from a battleground and proving ground mindset to a playground mindset at work and I’m currently developing a collaboration training. They consist of non-threatening experiences that help liberate our playful nature and connect us to what I call the ‘playground mindset’, then exercises that apply that mindset to business issues so people can feel the value of play at work and then tools for continually shifting from the battleground and proving ground to the playground.

Without sounding like Debbie Downer, there’s no doubt that we’re going through a collectively tough time at the moment. Do you think that play is more important now than ever?
Thank you for bringing that up! Play is not a distraction or an escape from reality. It is a way of meeting the world exactly the way it is and engaging it with a full heart and a clear mind. We are in a collective contraction from the proving ground mentality, which has dominated modernity for the past century, to a battleground mentality caused by fear. Within the battleground paradigm, winning is everything. The problem is, even if we win, we’re still on the battleground. Playground play (not all play is playground play), shifts the paradigm entirely from battling to win or proving to succeed to playing to keep the play going for everyone. The key isn’t play itself, since play can be co-opted by battleground or proving ground mentalities. What’s critical at this time is to shift to the playground mindset, which is a state of freedom that comes from knowing we’re safe no matter what. This is, ultimately, a shift of consciousness. For the past year, I’ve focused on how to use play to shift consciousness. When we play for the joy of it, without being attached to an outcome, we catch a glimpse of the consciousness we need and that can help. It also helps to play with the obstacles to the play, the parts of us that are scared or critical or want to do it right and look good. Engaging in any other practice playfully helps. In the end, though, play alone is not enough. We need to do the deeper psycho-spiritual work of healing traumas and removing projections. This is not just an individual personal journey, it’s also a collective process that we can engage in our communities and at work. It takes support, community, guidance, but right now, it’s really the only game in town if we want the play to go on.

You like to get the audience involved when you speak. Do you find? And what is the definition of play to an adult rather than how a child chooses to play?
Ah, where to start … 200 years under the thumb of the Protestant work ethic hasn’t helped. A few more 100 years suppressing the body and equating piety with seriousness was also sort of a buzz kill. The West got off to a serious start when Plato suggested that play is only the province of childhood. But we could probably go back further to the rise of agriculture, property, class and privilege. The bottom line is that we play to the extent that we feel safe and that safety is based on a sense of connection. We often don’t get the connection we needed in childhood to feel safe playing throughout our lives but even if we did, we grow up in a hyper-individualistic, alienated battle and proving ground where we’re rushed through childhood at younger and younger ages to battle and prove our way to become successful adults. While the forms of play may change, there is no special definition for adult play that’s different from children’s play. As we grow up we develop the capacity to play in increasingly complex ways.


'But more than anything, it planted the seed in my imagination that it was possible to play for a living and that there isn’t any real separation between work, play and mastery.'

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‘Play is not a distraction or an escape from reality. It is a way of meeting the world exactly the way it is and engaging it with a full heart and a clear mind.’


I loved what you said about how tech companies have become synonymous with ping-pong tables and that these alone wouldn’t take the stress away from the cut-throat nature of ambition. What do you think they should do instead?
To create true playgrounds at work we need to shift the culture. This can require structural changes as well. As anybody in an organisation knows, this is about the hardest task to do, but bringing play to the process makes it possible.

You said that the Muppet Animal lives inside your head. How do you tame him? There’s no taming Animal. Animal is Animal! Welcome the maniac. Give him some room to play. Let him knock himself out. Then simply create enough space around him so he isn’t knocking against everything and breaking stuff. We do that by noticing the space around him and letting him do his thing. Eventually our attention stays on the space and, like any animal, when you stop paying attention to them, eventually they settle down.

What’s the one thing we could all do to tap into our essence of play? Right now, notice what’s gotten sparked by this interview. Can you feel the part of you that wants to play more? That wants to be free and just let loose? What would letting loose mean to you? Imagine yourself doing it in its fullest form. Now. Right now. Find some part of that expression you can do. Go ahead, get up if that helps. Turn on some music and dance like a maniac for one song, if that’s your thing. But find a simple, expression of your way of playing that you can bring into every day.

Finally, how would we all benefit on both a personal and professional level? Without play: A dry, rigid, gray, spiritually constipated box. With play: The Amazon jungle with a river gushing through it.

As Erik Erikson wrote, “The opposite of play is death.”
As Brian Sutton Smith wrote, “The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.”
As Bernie de Koven wrote, “The opposite of play is rigidity.”
As Kermit the Frog said, “Time is fun when you’re having flies.”

This interview was produced in partnership with Pause Festival and features in issue 1.
Click HERE to pre-order a copy.

Nikki Stefanoff is editor of Matters Journal. After spending 13 years editing and writing for newspapers and magazines in London, Nikki now uses her journalism background and love of a good chat to find powerful and meaningful stories to tell.