The Broken Metalude: Play, Self-Care and Hustle Culture

Self-care is a popular subject these days, but only to a certain extent. It's fine to talk about getting a mani-pedi or going to a yoga class. But to question the wisdom of "rise and grind" and #ThankGodItsMonday - that's a bridge too far.

In her January 2019 article for the New York Times, Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work, Erin Griffith wrote about a generation's obsession with ambition, grit and hustle. This about sums it up for me:

"Even the cucumbers in WeWork’s water coolers have an agenda. 'Don’t stop when you’re tired,' someone recently carved into the floating vegetables’ flesh. 'Stop when you are done.'"

My experience with Corporate America made me physically ill and sent me to therapy. But does it have to be that way? Is that the only option?

Say No to Hustle Culture

In the face of a growing wave of anxiety and depression, I’m going to join in with mental health practitioners and say the answer is absolutely not.

Of course, as we grow up, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and contribute to society. But that doesn’t mean we have to work 18 hour days and adopt the "Never Stop Hustling" mantra.

It's not easy to get ahead. It does take grit and persistence. But who benefits from your burnout? Not you. And how effective are you really when you can barely keep your eyes open and hands on the keyboard? Caffeine until sundown then booze to get to sleep?

Self-care is important, but I want to make a case for play as one of the most important things you can do to take care of yourself. Real play. Not just going for happy hour or seeing a movie. True play, the kind we think only kids have access to. It will make you better at life and your job, and you can keep a childlike glimmer in your eyes while you kick ass and crush your goals.

But can adults even really play? Like kids play?

Your Brain On Adulting

After a certain point, we important adults with our very important work lose contact with the imagination that kept us awake at night when we were children. We feel guilty at the mere thought of running out onto a playground and leaving our cares tucked away in our laptops for a while. We’re sure the sky will fall if we let ourselves indulge, even for a moment.

We're optimized down to the second. With every thought, we’re solving problems like FY20 planning or childcare scheduling or what to wear to the meet and greet with the new boss. With every action, we’re working toward a goal and measuring the return on investment of each movement we make via our fitness trackers.

We’ve read that multi-tasking isn’t a thing anymore, but we still cram each waking moment as best we can. We’re working toward a bright and shiny someday retirement bliss that may never come.

So what’s the alternative? A bright and shiny today? Yeah, right.

I didn’t believe in it either. I wanted to. I started a podcast about it. I thought it would be a really great topic to encourage grownups to loosen up and have some fun because that's what I wanted for myself. But I had just as much trouble with it as anyone else. I had no idea how to let go and become playful.

So What's a Metalude?

A few years ago, I learned something from a session at the US Play Coalition’s play conference led by Greg Manley, Director of Production at City of Play in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

His talk was about adults and play. But he started by referencing something called the "play cycle" for children. There were several steps in the cycle that I won’t go into because the first one stopped me in my tracks. It’s called the metalude.

The Mental Shift Into Playtime

The metalude is kind of like the kickoff whistle for playtime - it marks the mental shift from whatever we were doing into a mindset that’s open to play. Mr. Manley described it kind of like this:

Imagine a child sitting in class working on math problems. The giant hands of the weird school clock would tick into place at the precise time and voila! It’s recess time! The child runs out onto the playground and looks around. The metalude isn't about deciding what to do to play, it's the moment just before that - when we've realize that it's time for play.

Metalude: the mental shift from whatever we were doing into a mindset that’s open to play.

When I was a kid, as soon as that bell rang, we quickly put our work away, lined up at the door and went out to do whatever it was we did at recess - swings, kickball, trading stickers, playing on the bars, or finding a shady spot to read the next chapter book in that one awesome series.

Can Adults Even Do That?

I don’t know about your school, but I don’t remember too many kids practicing spelling words on the playground to get a jump on class time. We didn’t shame each other for looking forward to recess with too much enthusiasm. Recess was time that belonged to us and we knew it. It wasn’t even a question.

Our identities were shaped more by our playground time than the time we spent sitting at our desks. And that doesn't change when we grow up (it's science!). But in the infinite wisdom of adultland, we’ve turned it all upside down.

We’re competing to be judged "Most Indispensable to the Bottom Line." We wise adults created the nightmare that is hustle culture. For most of us, the metalude is a thing of the past, discarded with the boxes of toys.

We Need a Spark

My favorite definition of the word Metalude comes from a PDF hosted on the Oxfordshire City Council website called “The Play Cycle.” It says: "The Metalude is an inner reverie or contemplation that precedes play.

The word itself comes from

“meta" = something that precedes or is above

and

“lude" (which comes from the word ludic) = spontaneous and undirected playfulness.

Just after defining the word, they ask a question, “Do we have thoughtful, stimulating spaces, objects or images that will spark metaludes?

So, do we? Do we have space in our lives to experience the "inner reverie or contemplation that precedes play?” And more importantly, can we?

“Do we have thoughtful, stimulating spaces, objects or images that will spark metaludes?”

For most of my adult life, the answer has been no. I drank the adulting Kool-Aid before there was a hashtag to go with it.

As a kid, the recess bell meant shifting gears. But as an adult, especially now, the end of the work day doesn’t mean the end of anything. We might work for a few more hours or rush off to pick up kids, make dinner, answer some more emails, finish the deck for tomorrow's meeting then numb ourselves with whatever brings us down so we can sleep.

Then it's up for another day of the same thing.

I don’t know about you, but the older I got, the less I felt there was time that felt like it belonged to me. But I refuse to write it off as “just the way it is.” And no, I won’t “get used to it.” I refuse to accept that grownup life is a never-ending slog. That’s how we get bitterness and burnout and the midlife crisis (which I highly recommend, by the way).

We Fear of Losing Control

In his New York Times opinion piece reflecting on Erin Griffith's article, The Harm in Hustle Culture, Roger Cohen gives us a great visual:

The system is rigged. I am no conspiracy theorist, far from it, but all the people out there who feel that their lives have passed out of their control, that they are caught in the maw of some implacable machine, have a point.

I think the reason why we don’t even try to play with abandon like we did when we were kids is fear. We live in that implacable machine but we don't see a way out. Our survival means compliance - playing by the rules by competing to win at all costs.

Letting ourselves really play again is scary. It's not the norm. It’s similar to the fear we have of letting our emotions out or even eating certain foods.

It might sound silly, but for some of us, it seems that if we let ourselves cry, we’ll never stop. For me, it applies to food too. If I allow myself to have chocolate-peanutbutter ice cream or pasta, that’s all I’ll ever eat for the rest of my life. Right? That can’t be good.

Trusting Our Inner Wisdom Feels Dangerous

But something inside of us always knows better. We just don’t trust that part of ourselves anymore. My little theory is that’s the side of ourselves we lose when we stop allowing ourselves to access the metalude - that inner reverie that precedes play.

We all have inner wisdom we don’t tap into anymore and we pay the price. If you let yourself feel your emotions, you will eventually stop crying. And if you allow yourself to eat ALL the things, your body will tell you when it’s time to stop with the ice cream and pasta. You might just find you’re craving chicken and steamed broccoli instead. (I actually did this experiment.)

We all have inner wisdom we don’t tap into anymore and we pay the price.

If you’ve been denying yourself for years, the idea of opening yourself up to the metalude might seem like stepping into another dimension - one you’ll never come out of.

You’ve believed for so long that the only way to get ahead is to push through like a steamroller. Why would you question that now after everything you’ve sacrificed just to be taken seriously?

Trust that Joy Will Come

If you do open up to the inner reverie that precedes play, there may be strong emotions. You may remember things you loved more than life itself as a child and mourn all of the years you’ve lived without it as an adult. But the joy of having those things back in any capacity will eventually override the grief.

You might be afraid that if you let yourself access those things, you’ll lose track of your goals - that the plates you’ve been spinning will come crashing down. I don’t know about you, but I still have that fear each and every time I choose to take time out for recess. But I do it anyway.

"Trust Me"

Just like my body has the wisdom to tell me when it’s time to eat something other than ice cream and pasta, my heart has wisdom too. It’s going to sound really cheesy, but I imagine myself as a child pulling grownup-me out onto the playground. Little me keeps saying, “trust me,” and I listen because she knows a lot more about enjoying recess than I do right now.

I still have a lot to unlearn. And I don’t know why I was surprised, but since I’ve been cultivating my playful mindset, my work life is more inspired. I have fresher ideas and handle stress and boring busy work better than I ever have. I read about this being a thing that would happen, but when it actually did, it felt like discovering a new continent.

I’m discovering that I’m still that same child. Except that I’m taller and about to enter peri-menopause.

And I’m not off holding hands with butterflies. All I’m doing so far is going for sunset walks on a trail near where I live, planting succulents in little pots for my porch, re-learning piano and (slowly) turning my old doll house into an art project.

I also got the audio version of my favorite book from sixth grade to see if my imagination still works, The Never-ending Story by Michael Ende. (It's so much more than what was in the movie!) I'm happy to report that my imagination is still alive. Every time I come to a passage I remember reading over and over as a kid, I get choked up.

I’m discovering that I’m still that same child. Except that I’m taller and about to enter perimenopause.

Asking For Professional Help

Now, just to be clear, this can be a very difficult project to undertake. And it might seem like I’m idealizing childhood. Maybe I am, a little. In an ideal world, children are protected and prepared to face the world of grownup evils when they’re older and stronger. But grownup evils can find us at any age.

And some of us grow up thinking we had a perfect childhood, only to realize that destructive patterns that plague us as adults were introduced at a surprisingly tender age.

Some of us aren't likely to rediscover the metalude without professional help, myself included. But it’s an important process to go through, especially if you’re currently struggling with mental health challenges, stress, burnout and/or addiction.

There’s a reason why therapists are always on our cases to go do “enjoyable activities.” And if you can’t access your metalude by remembering your childhood, you’ll find another path to it. It can seem scary, but it’s the most rewarding project you’ll ever take on.

Baby Steps!

So this week, take some time to imagine what the “inner reverie that precedes play” might feel like for you.

Can you hear your inner wisdom? Maybe open up that mindfulness app and start meditating (again). Meditation is a great place to start, or just get some playdough and start playing. Or pick up a forgotten hobby. Sometimes that can be easier than trying to meditate in the traditional way.

Whatever it is that’s coaxing you out onto the playground, trust it. And if you just can’t seem to get there, start looking for help from a trusted counselor or therapist. Your mind is a beautiful, complex thing that you can’t always understand from inside of it. But it’s so worth it to start trying.

And remember, your well-being is worth a lot more than any paycheck. (Yes, easier said than done.) It doesn't mean you have to quit your job and join a commune to feel better. Just rebel by blocking out some real, no-guilt time to be yourself and find your spark. That is all.

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Have you rediscovered play as an adult? What was it like? Maybe you never lost it? In the comments below, tell me what you do for recess time. What was it like for you to rediscover it?

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