Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Summers are mostly consumed with baseball for my family. Both of my sons play Little League and also on local tournament teams. I have helped coach with several of their teams over the years. Baseball is an interesting game to me – it is a team sport and an individual sport at the same time. No teammate can really help the pitcher or batter, but yet defense is clearly dependent on a team.

And when you are 10 or 12 years old it is pretty easy to put pressure on yourself on the pitcher’s mound or in the batter’s box. One of my favorite encouragements from coaches (of which I have done as well) is, "Have fun out there, kid." During one game this year I wondered what that actually meant. There is the pitcher, usually struggling, out there on the mound alone. The pressure of the moment has usually caused the player to over-think, aim the ball and most often, not have the best result. Moving from that point to “fun” is a hard place to get (if you don't think so, trying "having fun" after a horrible golf shot!). In this context, “having fun” really is shorthand for relax, enjoy the game and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

The thought of fun resurfaced in my new gig with Delta Dental of Iowa. I recently became the CEO after 20+ years with The Members Group, TMG Financial Services and their affiliated-companies. I joined the company at an important time in the health care and insurance industry. As I have said to many people, Health Care Reform doesn't wait for the new guy. There is change all around. In my first month, the team was working on the implications of new regulations, the public insurance exchange (now called marketplaces) and our strategic reaction to these changes. It has been a whirlwind and I would say I am having "fun." Challenges abound for sure, but we are charting a new course for the future (as is every other insurance carrier). While things can be stressful at times, I can say that I am having fun.

Lastly David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) posted a blog recently asking, "Are you having any fun?" His point was trying to clear your mind of clutter so you can enjoy yourself when you are not working.

So I have asked myself in multiple contexts, what does it actually mean to have fun? In my coaching of youth sports, I have often had to define fun (or maybe what isn't fun) for the team. I have said that fun isn't screwing around at practice, being silly and doing whatever you want. That might be fun on the playground or outside of our practices. Fun for the team (as least as I define it) is working together towards a goal and accomplishing that goal (usually that means winning). Few players suggest that they aren't having fun as they win a championship. When my Little League team won its first game, you could see the joy from the 10-12 year olds. They were smiling ear-to-ear. When I asked, “Wasn't that fun?” the answer was a resounding "Yes!"

But we can’t win all the time. In every baseball game there is a winner and loser. Sometimes there should be two winning teams; sometimes there should really be none. Great teams rarely have fun just because they win. They have fun because they have performed at the top of their capacity – and usually won. But even losing teams can have fun in an extraordinarily played game. Think of a tennis player who has just lost a close match telling their foe "that was a fun match." Commentators knowing that a special game has just finished saying, "that was a fun game."

So what is fun? And certainly, what is fun for those of us that can’t report a score at the end of every day.

A friend of mine provided a piece of sage advice that I often remember. He said that when you get up in the morning and get into the shower, if you are thinking about problems, you should figure out how to fix them so you can be thinking about opportunities.

I think that is a part of fun in a professional sense – are we chasing after great opportunities or are we grinding out another day? Are we playing at the top of our game or mailing in another day at the office?

As I think about the times when I have had fun for an extended period in a professional sense, a few things come to mind. I was an integral part of a high-performing team. I was engaged in work that challenged the limits of my talent and the talent of the team. I was working a project worth doing. And I could see some result of how our team could be successful.

That being said, not every project, endeavor or opportunity challenges us at that level. It would be hard to keep that pace for months and years on end. And, let’s be honest, everything we do at the office is not fun. Some of it just needs to be done.

But we spend as much time at the office as we spend in almost any other aspect of our life. If, on average, we aren't having fun, then it is probably time to find a new way to earn a living. Not fun in the "go to the (party, park, concert, etc.)" type of fun, but fun where you feel engaged in a pursuit worthy of your talent. I think having fun, to some extent, is a measure of attitude. Some might suggest the banking and insurance industries aren't their definition of fun (shock!). Yet I have made a career of having a blast in both of those worlds.

So in the end I believe that, "are you having fun, yet?" is a question that depends on how you approach it. Are you engaged in something that truly challenges you? Are you a part of a high-performing team? Do you see your work as an integral part of your team/department/company’s future? And do you show up every day with the intention of having fun. As with many things in life, it depends on how you approach your work.

I aim to have fun every day. Do you?