Hannah Mello, MEd
About 4 years into a senior leadership role, I didn't like the person I had become.
I wore clothes that were more conservative than my personality, wanting to be respected and taken seriously.
My face was often resting in neutral, which felt more like a frown, because my wellbeing homeostasis is being quick-to-laugh—finding humor and play in everyday situations.
I didn't like how I felt in group meetings and in one-on-ones with my direct reports.
I had a way of giving updates, talking about what's next, or providing feedback about quality and performance that may have been normal or expected to others—but felt guarded, protective and like low-key anxiety dressed up with forced smiles and upbeat intonation.
Slowly this realization had started coming about.
One day, in my group staff meeting, I said: "What would it look like if we had more fun? We don't have to answer this question now, but it's something I want to ask myself, and would love for us to explore that together. Can we do that? Let's see what comes up!"
A month or so later, the team dynamic had completely transformed. I felt new and different. We all did. A deep re-membering and returning to joy. Not just that, but our office transformed.
One of the many examples of how that came about was a new "award giving" practice.
Every few weeks, we decided as a team to nominate a coworker for an award, based on a contribution or way of being that we appreciated.
At an appointed time (after checking calendars to make sure there wasn't a VIP guest in the waiting room or Dean's office), we would march with kazoos in procession to the person's office, kneeling before them. We would present a custom graphic designed medal, unrolling a parchment tied with a bow, reading aloud the proclamation of their award, reading it aloud—handing it to them, and placing the medal in their hand or around their neck. Every time, they were delighted. Childlike, warm, beloved delight.
On a second date with my ex-husband, we took a 12 mile "tree to sea" hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In his backpack, he had a lovely packed lunch for us and the sweetest, most colorful banner he had made with the word "Play!" When we got to an often-populated viewpoint, we hung it together as an art offering for folks to enjoy. (I found an Etsy account that creates similar banners, so one of their images here.)
One of the aspects of my ex-husband I appreciated so deeply was his playfulness. To this day, when family says 'buon appetito' at meals, I say; "Or, as Clint would say: 'Buon Tapatio.'" (A play on words in honor of the yum hot sauce brand, which also was often table side.)
Since I was a wee child, I was known to make all kinds of facial expressions. Here pictured, a classic photo pose. And me singing with a guitar in-hand that I made with cardboard, a stick, and rubber bands—playing it for my grandma who was visiting.
I slowly had allowed Joy to erode. I contributed to a painful, unhealthy marriage. I bought into limiting beliefs about what it requires to "be taken seriously" at work. Many other agreements that impacted my choices and way of being in the world. I deeply missed my childlike sense of wonder and play.
I could cite so many books that are behind me in my library as I write this. In summary: we're not at our best when we're not ourselves. When we're not ourselves, we can't be our most creative. Others aren't able to connect to the real us. When we're not healthy, our contributions can become unhealthy. Sadly, it's hard to hide. Folks can sense inauthenticity subconsciously. That has impact socially and relationally more than we realize.
Taking responsibility to stop, shift and try something new takes risk, humility and is worth it every time. And, it may take time. (Also so many books that I could cite—stories of that taking shape!)
I met with a career coaching client this week, and my first question I ask in that space is: "When you were a kid, what did you naturally find yourself playing at?" The answer to that question is often a doorway into play and joy we may have lost.
A challenge. April Fool's Day is coming up. What's a way to play on that day? Something wacky or silly that you might do if you were on SNL (Saturday Night Live) or playing as a kid?
What would it look like to have "More Fun Everyday"? (Pictured here, a stenciled cardboard sign that my friends made and gave me. It hangs in my dining room as a daily reminder.)
What is there to celebrate?
Who can we thank or honor?
Where can we be silly?
What's an inside joke we can elaborate on with friends?
How can we relax more and enjoy our coworkers?
Can we go outside today and jump around?
What route to / from work can be more fun?
What play is calling to you?
Real life—the messy and the beautiful.