005 – We Need to Play with Gary Ware

In this episode, I chat with Gare Ware, a play consultant by day, and an improv comedian by night. Gary reveals the benefits of play and shares some tips on how we can become more playful.

[00:01:00] Mission and vision
[00:02:11] Bigger why
[00:06:55] Purpose of play
[00:09:10] Major misconceptions
[00:11:03] Better mindset
[00:18:11] Managing expectations
[0022:26] Playful rebellion

Resources mentioned:
Breakthrough Play
Gary’s Twitter
Gary’s Facebook
SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully
Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety
The Third Door: The Wild Quest to Uncover How the World’s Most Successful People Launched Their Careers
How I Got to Sesame Street (Gwen Gordon’s TEDx Talk)

Note: Some of the resources above may be affiliate links, meaning I’d get a commission if you use that link to make a purchase (at no cost to you).


Welcome to LIFT, a podcast for you – the entrepreneur, the leader, the creative – who leads change with heart. If you don’t have it all together, you’re in the right place. I’m your host, Sharlene Sobrepeña.

In today’s episode, I chat with Gary Ware, improv comedian and founder of Breakthrough Play. We talk about why play is so important, the misconceptions around play, and how we can open ourselves up to becoming more playful. My biggest takeaway is learning that most people think of play as a waste of time. As someone who values play and relaxation, that was actually a surprise to me. Let’s get to it!

Sharlene: I hope you don’t mind if we go deep right away.

Gary: Yeah, bring it.

Sharlene: Cool. First question is, what is your mission with your work? And the second question is, what is your vision for the world?

Gary: Got it. My mission is to help over one million adults and children self-actualize through the power of play. And that’s basically, what that means is using play and improvisation, as a tool to help them find their bigger purpose, their bigger “why” and be able to connect better with other people, be more creative. So, the vision is this: we live in this world where things are super complex. There’s a lot of unknowns, and play, in my opinion, is just as important as breathing, as oxygen. We’re wired for play. However, especially as adults, we don’t play and we don’t utilize the benefits of play. So, I see, to be honest, play being a tool to actually help bring more peace to the world.

Sharlene: I love it.

Gary: Thank you.

Sharlene: You want to use play as a tool to help people find their bigger why. How do you do that?

Gary: Yeah. So, whether it’s on an individual level or in a group level, I use games that are very specific, that have a deeper meaning. So, the game in and of itself is a lot of fun and it brings a lot of joy and it gets you out of your comfort zone. However, when you reflect back on how you showed up in the game, what came up for you in the game, you will start to get some clues on some bigger ways that you can make shifts in your life. Because I have this strong belief that how you do anything is how you do everything. So, if you’re playing a game and you’re realizing that you’re getting stumped in some aspect of the game, I like to ask, “How does that relate to your life?” Whatever you’re focusing on: whether it’s work, relationships, personal things. And then, that is like a clue to something bigger.

Sharlene: Have you seen it, first hand, make some big changes in your client’s lives?

Gary: Yeah. One interesting story that I tell all the time is this. I was trying to think. I’ve had some really big ones that shocked even me and this one, I think, for the purpose of this podcast, I’ll tell this story. So, I was working with this health organization here in the States. It’s called Kaiser. I got contracted to work with their Public Affairs group. So, they have this big conference every year where all the different Public Affairs officials come together from all the different offices, all the different branches, and they have a big sort of conference. The theme was innovation and we were playing some of these games. One of the games that we were playing was called “The Human Machine,” and “The Human Machine” is like this: one at a time, each of the participants goes to the center and they do a movement and a sound. And the objective is that each movement and sound connects to the other person. So, when it’s done, you get this big machine. And then the last person names the machine. So, we’re doing it and it’s a lot of fun. And we’re doing the debrief, and this gal, she’s almost in tears. I was like, ‘Uh-oh, what happened?’ And I said, “So, what came up for you?” And she said, “Oh my gosh, I finally realized why I’m here and the importance of the work that we’re doing.” Because she said, “Normally I’m in my office. It’s like me just doing my little part. But I realized that you have to sometimes look at the bigger picture. And I have to do my part for the other person to do their part. But when you’re in the thick of things, you forget about that. And it wasn’t until this moment when I pulled back and I saw this beautiful thing that we all created together; I realized that I’m with an organization that is doing amazing things.” And she had that realization right then and there. It was that game that took her outside of it that allowed her to have that realization. And it was beautiful.

Sharlene: That’s amazing. That must be so fulfilling.

Gary: It is! And I tell people in the work that I do, there’s a lot of science and psychology of why it works, but I still sometimes get a little bit nervous thinking, ‘Is it going to work? Is it going to work?’ And it’s moments like that, that makes me very grateful for the work that I do, that I get the opportunity to do this work, because I tell people it’s not me. I’m just a facilitator. I’m here to facilitate these activities. It’s you, the participants, that’s going to make or break this thing. And I am very grateful that the people that I work with play full out. They really want to have this change. They really want to play. I feel like as adults, a lot of times we need permission to play. And when they get that permission, they have so much fun and it’s so gratifying.

Sharlene: Why else is play important to work? What are the other benefits?

Gary: Yeah. The easiest way to explain this is very simple. If you – I’m going to ask you a question, Sharlene. Would you agree that an animal in the wild, they only do the things that are necessary for survival? I’m not talking about house cats or dogs. I’m talking about a bear or mountain lion, something that’s out there that is just living in the wilderness. Would you agree that they don’t do frivolous things, right?

Sharlene: I would say initially, but then you see videos of them playing sometimes. And that’s not necessary for survival.

Gary: Yes. So, that’s the thing that us humans we take for granted. When you play, it makes you very vulnerable. It makes you very open for attack. But animals, especially those in the wild, they play. That’s my exact point, because they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t mean anything. That’s what a lot of biologists discovered, that they only do the things that are necessary for survival and they play. When you play, play has different purposes. So, play can help with learning and we see that a lot with kids, mostly with kids. Because I have a 21-month-old son as of the time of this recording, and everything my son Garrett does is through play. When you play, it actually activates a different part of your brain that’s different from the logic part. It allows you to connect things. It allows you to synthesize things. It allows you to learn quicker. There’s a stat that said that through normal repetition, you can start to master things with, I think it was over 150 different times. Through play, you can start that mastery through 20 times. So, it’s an accelerant. We talked about how to accelerate things. Play is one of those accelerants. Also, when you play, it brings about those neurochemicals in your brain that makes you feel good like dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin – it helps with trust and relationships. So, there’s all these different things that play brings and that’s why I said it is an accelerant. If you want to get that edge, you’ll play. However, most people have a different association of play. They think it is something – we’re wasting time or they look at games and they think of the uber competitive. And that’s one way of play, but the play that I’m talking about is when you have the right mindset, when you see it through the right lens, you can really use play to your advantage.

Sharlene: So, you mentioned one misconception about play. What are others? Maybe you can summarize the major misconceptions about play in regards to work.

Gary: Yeah. So, most people think play is a waste of time. Most people think play is just something that just kids do and adults shouldn’t play. I think those are the big ones. And then, when people play – another one is, they think you have to be very competitive. And so, how I like to sort of reframe that is that if you go in and you have the right mindset – so, there is this researcher, her name is Jane McGonigal. She wrote this amazing book called SuperBetter and it’s about how you can be more resilient and get things done in less time through the power of play. And she said, there’s just as much research out there about how play is detrimental to our society and to our lives, as there is about how play can help. And the only difference is this: the times where it’s detrimental, the people, they see play, their purpose of using play is as an escape. ‘I can’t deal with this, whatever this is, so I’m going to play so I don’t have to deal with it.’ And when that is the case, then you will never get the courage, you will never get the strength to deal and it will become more of a habit, that anytime something tough comes up, you use play as an escape so you don’t have to deal, and then you procrastinate whatever it is. However, if you have the different mindset, the purpose of, ‘You know what, I need strength; I need to recharge, so I’m going to take some time and play or I need to connect better with this person, so I’m going to play’ – then you will see it for what it truly is.

Sharlene: That makes sense. So, do you have any tips on how to develop the better mindset?

Gary: Yeah. First and foremost, mindset is the first thing. You have to be open to this different way of seeing play because if you’re not, then unfortunately, you’re not going to reap the benefits. Actually, some people will beg to differ. But I like to say, just be open to something new, number one. Number two, start slow. What is your intention? So, I like to tell people this. Let me ask you a question, Sharlene. If there was something that will allow you to work harder, faster, longer, and be more creative, you would do it right?

Sharlene: Of course.

Gary: Yeah. And so, that’s where play comes in. This is a true fact. A lot of people that are uber ambitious and that entrepreneurial mindset, whether you’re in a company working for someone or working for yourself, they say, ‘Hustle, we’ve got to hustle’, right? ‘We’ve got to keep grinding it out.’ True fact is, you can only sustain top productivity for a certain amount of time. Would you agree?

Sharlene: Yeah, for sure.

Gary: And then you’ll start to be prone to mistakes. I think they said something along the lines of, continuous work, it’s about 90 minutes and then along the given day, it’s about six hours. And then anything over that, you are prone to more mistakes and stuff like that. However, would you agree, a lot of people are still like, ‘Got to power through it. I’ve got a lot of work to do,’ right?

Sharlene: Of course, yeah. Definitely.

Gary: And they’re prone to more mistakes. Now, this is one of the things where if you are just honest and you really understand – I like to say, the people who get it – they have an abundance mindset. They’re not scared that other people are going to take things from them. And we’ll talk about the mindset of seeing the world as a playground versus a proving ground in just a moment, but my point here is this: if you understand what I just mentioned, then at that moment when you start to have that, ‘You know what? All right, I’m not as fresh as I have been,’ what people normally do is something that is very detrimental to their IQ and detrimental to just everything as a whole. They’ll scroll Facebook or they’ll check email. That is their break. But that doesn’t give them the lift that they need. What you need to do is you need to just take 10, 15 minutes and what if I told you that 10, 15 minutes will give you an extra hour of productivity? And in that 10, 15 minutes, do something that’s going to invigorate your body. Take a walk. Maybe have something very tactile that you can play with, just something to take your brain off of what you were doing and allow your brain to rest because your brain is a muscle and just like any muscle, when you strain that muscle – like if we were in the gym and it’s leg day and we strain our legs, because that’s how we grow, what do you do afterwards?

Sharlene: You stretch it…

Gary: You stretch it…

Sharlene: And you relax, let it rest.

Gary: Exactly. But we don’t do that to our brains and we wonder why we’re getting so burned out. So, that’s just one easy thing that you can do to start to bring on the power of play. Other contexts are this: Sharlene, in the beginning, you were talking about you want to go deep. Most people, this is something that again, part of my vision of helping to just bring people together is we have so many shallow relationships. So many people are lonely. So many people wish that they connect on a deeper level, but yet we’re just at a surface level. Play, I like to say, “People who play together stay together.” I’m just going to be honest. If you really want to enhance your relationships, whether it’s a romantic relationship or platonic relationship, or business relationship, there’s nothing like playing with them. It just sounds funny saying that and a lot of people are like, “I don’t do that.” But there’s this guy, his name is Charlie Hoehn and he wrote this amazing book called Play it Away and he talked about how he was able to reduce his anxiety to slim to nothing by playing. So, instead of going to coffee with someone, invite them out to play catch or go for a walk. This is something that I started doing when people want to meet up with me for coffee or pick my brain, I’d say, “Yeah, I’m down to do that. But I don’t do the traditional stuff. How about we meet at the juice bar? We’ll get some juice and we’ll go for a walk.” And when you are doing something in synchronicity with someone, your brains, believe it or not, are actually in sync. And then you’re going to start to trust them on a deeper level. And that’s all play. You know, again, this is seeing play in a different light. I like to say it’s a playful mindset and yeah, we’re just playing. We’re just having fun. We’re enjoying each other’s company and as a result – so talking about getting an upper edge on things: there’s a really good book that I loved so much that I listened to it twice. And it’s a new book, as of this recording it’s probably been out less than a year. It’s called The Third Door. The author, his name – I’m going to butcher his name so please forgive me – his name is Alex Banayan, I believe his name is. And the whole point of the book is it was his quest to uncover how the world’s most successful people launch their careers. And the third door is an analogy for a nightclub. So, we have the people that are waiting in line and it’s going to take forever to get in. And then there’s the celebrities and the elite that sort of have that other entrance. And then the third door – in order to get in the third door and get an edge, you have to sort of jump the line, run through the alley, bang on the door, jump through the window, escape through the kitchen to get into the club, to get access. And all of us, we want that access but most of us are waiting in line, wishing that we had an advantage. Play is an advantage and, in that book, he was talking about how he was able to connect with people like Bill Gates, with Lady Gaga, with Larry King; all these big celebrity type people that have influence, that have access, that you can’t just go up to them and request a meeting with them, right? And what you need to do and he talked about this in his book, is all the times where he was able to get access, he had a deep relationship with people. So, play is that shortcut to that.

Sharlene: How do – I would say that a lot of entrepreneurs are pretty competitive and like you said, they want to get an edge. How do competitive people manage their expectation about the benefits of play because it kind of contradicts the purpose of play?

Gary: Yeah. You bring up a good point. So, there is different types of play. Competitive play is one.

Sharlene: How do you help them manage?

Gary: And I think it’s all about the mindset. So, you can still be competitive with yourself, with other people and stuff like that, without getting manic. See, this is where I feel like there is an extreme. When you get so competitive that you would do things that at any cost – you sort of essentially violate relationships and stuff like that, that is too far. And that’s where I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs, in their quest to become the greatest, they do that. And this is where I mentioned earlier, talking about this whole mindset. So, I learned this from my mentor. Her name is Gwen Gordon. She worked on Sesame Street. She worked for IBM Park. They’re the people that created the mouse that Steve Jobs ended up using in the first Macintosh. She is an amazing person. I highly recommend looking her up. She has an amazing TED Talk, and she talked about this mindset. So, she said one of the mindsets that we most have – and it’s a default, we tend to go back there – it’s seeing the world as more of this competitive ground. And when you see the world as this competitive ground, everyone is a competitor. They’re trying to take your position. We tend to do that. We tend to go there. And then when you do that, you’re going to overwork yourself because you’re like, ‘I’ve got to stay ahead of the competition.’ And you think your competitiveness is your edge. But in reality, it becomes like a battery and it gets to the point where you burn yourself out, but you think that’s just all part of the game. But what if you burn yourself out so much that you’re unable to do the work that you want to do? And she said there’s a better way. What if you saw the world as a playground and instead of competitors, these are your playmates? And it’s almost like if I were to tell you to try so hard to lift this weight, you’re going to try so hard, you’re probably not going to be able to do it. But if you are more relaxed and at ease – and this is the woo woo-ness in me, so forgive me – I’d say, what if you saw things as an abundance? Instead of seeing things as a net sum game, in order for you to succeed someone else has to lose – that’s what a lot of people, that’s what makes them so competitive – what if you saw it as, ‘You know what, what if they can succeed and I can succeed?’ So, it’s not for everyone, but for the people who adapt that mindset, these are the people who don’t bring themselves out as much. And if you think of the uber successful people in the world, they are the ones who get it. Richard Branson, would you agree he’s a pretty successful dude?

Sharlene: Yes.

Gary: He does things that make him feel good. He plays tennis. He’s very goofy. He does these silly pranks. These are all very playful things and it doesn’t set him back. If you think of the CEO of Patagonia, the CEO of Patagonia wants all of his employees – if they want to go surfing, to go surfing.

Sharlene: That’s so cool.

Gary: So, I feel like it starts with the mindset. And in starting to shift the mindset – and I get it, when you have all of these things that have been reinforced over time, it’s hard to think about changing that because it’s sort of been stuck in stone. But, that’s why I said, let’s start small. Let’s start small and that’s why I spend a lot of time reading about very successful people, how they got their starts. And you find that all of them, when they got too competitive, when they got too cocky, that’s when things actually started falling apart. And it wasn’t until they let it go, were they able to start to rise up.

Sharlene: How do we introduce play in our work, if it’s never been part of the culture, though? I mean, you could be all for it, but how do you get your co-workers to want to be a part of it?

Gary: Yeah. So, first things first, is you have to be brave. You can’t convince someone by sort of forcing them. You could, maybe if you’re sort of a VP. But I’d like to say, lead by example. And this is challenging. This is very challenging. It’s going to take a lot of effort to do this because you and I both know that you’re the average of the people you surround yourself with. So, if the culture is a very toxic culture where people are very cutthroat and they don’t take breaks and stuff like that, you’re going to feel like you’re doing something wrong by getting out of your desk and doing actually what is necessary for you to be successful. However, if you’re brave enough to take these steps, to start inviting people to sort of like playful things, taking breaks and doing things that are going to fill you up, people are going to start to see a difference in you and they’re going to wonder, ‘What are you on?’ And then when they start seeing that you’re actually getting results, they’re going to want to get in on that. So, I’d like to say, let’s start a playful rebellion. It starts with you and then maybe before a meeting, you can ask – so this is the thing: if you want to be an influential person, a person with influence, you have to realize that we are humans and there’s a way that we all connect. And if you know that cheat code – since we’re talking about play, I’m sort of using play terminology – but if you know that cheat code, the easiest way to short circuit and really connect with someone, like I said is through play. You can start a meeting up with a question. You know like, “Hey, before we get started, I have a question for everyone. What is something that you used to do as a kid that you wish you could do now?” We’re just goofing around but people are going to start to [laugh] and they’re going to actually start to have an affinity towards you. Now, you’re building rapport. Now, you started the meeting on a high note and they’re actually going to start to feel good about themselves and good about you. And it’s going to start that playful spirit. You can’t just all go out, “We’re all going to play now. That’s a mandate!” You’re going to go, nope. You have to start small. Start with yourself. Start to build up and then once people start seeing and feeling the benefits, they’ll want more.

Sharlene: Love it. I think I want to end strong on that note. Thanks so much, Gary, and where can we find you online and if there are any projects you want to share?

Gary: Yeah. You can find me on my website, breakthroughplay.com. I’m on Instagram or Twitter through my name, Gary Ware. And a project that I’m considering and we’re talking about how can we accelerate things. And so, I’m sort of sorting it out there to see if there is any interest. It’s how to be a master communicator, how to overcome the fear of public speaking, and I have a very playful way of doing that. So, if you’re interested, then hit me up. Once I get enough people that are interested, I’m going to share the secrets that I’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars to learn and I’ve created a very gameful way of doing that, that will help you whether you’re on the stage or in the boardroom, be able to communicate in a way that is more of yourself and less like someone else, and as a result, be able to get what you want. So, that’s something that I’m working on. But more importantly like I said in the beginning, we’re in a very toxic environment right now. We need to connect on a deeper level and if you can take anything away from all the stuff that I said over the last 20 to 30 minutes of this: start to inject a little bit of play into your life so that you can have more joy, and start to spread that.

Sharlene: Thanks so much, Gary.

Gary: No, thank you Sharlene. I really appreciate you for bringing me on.

Thank you for sharing your time with me and listening to LIFT. If this episode resonated with you, I’d appreciate it if you would take a moment to leave a review. That way, more people can discover this resource, and together, we can accelerate good change in the world. Thanks so much. Until next time.