I grew up in a traditional, middle-class family in India.
I was raised with the simple idea that hard work was the only way to succeed, and therefore there was no room for play. “If you focus on your playing and not your studies you will never succeed,” my parents told me over and over. My teachers mentioned often, “Make sure you’re concentrating on classwork; play is only if you have extra time.”
So, at a very young age, I bottled up the playful person I was to fit the mold so I could succeed in life. And then I moved to America.
I got a master’s degree and a corporate job. I did what I thought I was supposed to do—work long hours so that I could climb the corporate ladder. But all the while, I felt a vacuum somewhere inside. There was a little voice trying to tell me something that, at the time, I didn’t know how to decipher.
Then things hit a low point when my dad fell seriously ill seven years ago.
My initial shock turned to sadness and helplessness and finally guilt about not being able to help him enough. I traveled to India multiple times for months on end, working the graveyard shift while physically taking care of his medical needs during the day. My remote offshore work situation quickly deteriorated, my personal relationship with my spouse and friends took a hit, and it came to a point where I was almost in a state of physical and mental paralysis. I was completely burned out.
What does this mean?
The most common symptoms of burnout are physical and mental exhaustion, a sense of being cut off from ourselves and others, and a decrease in desire to do our home or work activities well. It mainly impacts highly committed and hard-working people, when their devotion to a cause fails to produce the desired results.
There is a silver lining. I like to think that burnout is our soul telling us that our current path has reached an end, and that if we recognize and accept this, it’s easier to be true to ourselves and start healing.
So, how does one avoid burnout or gradually progress from burnout to a more balanced life. My simple answer? Play.
The seven-year-old in me knows this is true. She also knows that by embracing play, we can experience tremendous success in life, maybe more success than if we were to bottle it away forever.
So, what is play? Is it just a game of tennis or pickleball? I like to think it is so much more.
Can tackling a work project or writing an essay be play?
Can doing household chores like cleaning, laundry, or cooking a meal be play?
Yes, and yes. If we are able to be completely engaged with the activity and it brings us contentment, then it is play.
When writing this essay, I didn’t think of it as a task, but a fun way to share my story and hopefully inspire someone reading it to add more play to his or her life. When cooking dinner, I don’t think of it as a boring chore because I could make it playful by putting on my favorite tunes and grooving to the rhythm of chopping my vegetables.
With more play, we build a state of mind where we are more engaged, feel joy, and energize ourselves to live life. Just like how we go to the gym to strengthen our body muscles, the more we bring daily mundane activities to life, the more we strengthen our “playfulness muscles.”
As I started bringing in more heartfelt positivity to my life, I was able to re-evaluate my priorities. I made some simple changes. I let go of some of my prior responsibilities. I paused more. I noticed my mind expanding, getting more creative, curious, and open-minded about things and activities around me. And the best part, my physical and mental health and well-being improved.
Play became a habit and I found the mental clutter starting to melt away. Life just got lighter.
This is the power of play. And I truly believe that it is the most powerful antidote to burnout.
So, would you like more play in your life?
Here’s an exercise. Time travel back to your childhood and think of the activities that truly brought you joy. What were they? Take a moment to savor the fun feelings you had while doing them. Then open up a notebook and write down a list of the things you used to love to do. This list becomes your compass on how to bring in your play—and therefore more joy, as an adult.
Your answers will be different than someone else’s. And that’s okay. Play around with playing and see what works for you.
As a child, I used to love playing hide-and-seek. Knowing that today, I’ll occasionally jump out of a closet or dark corner to surprise my husband. It makes me laugh out loud—and my hubby too, given he is a good sport. For that time period, my worries, my fears, my negative thoughts all disappear. I find myself in a more positive frame of mind, more resilient to the daily ups and downs of life, and more optimistic about my future.
I believe incorporating play into the rhythm of our lives is integral to any kind of success, however one defines that.
So, start small, celebrate the wins, learn from failures—and most importantly, have fun along the way!