How to Live Playfully: Interview with Gary Ware

Gary and I met through our love of doing improv and sharing it with the masses. He’s now my go-to guy on all things playful. Read on for how to incorporate more play in your life, and attend his retreat next spring!

 Photo: Gary Ware

Photo: Gary Ware

What was the highlight of your summer?

The highlight of my summer was my annual trip to the World Domination Summit. I call it Burning Man for people that don’t like to get dirty. During that week long experience I went skydiving, lead some amazing play workshops, connected with some of the most caring people you can meet, and saw some inspiring talks.

How do you define play, and why is it so important to you?

Play is one of the most challenging things to define. It’s like defining a joke, when you do that it loses its magic. For me I like to think of play as a mindset. When you engage in an activity in a playful manner you are present, engaged, and not taking yourself too seriously. It is so important to me because I believe we are wired to play, yet it is something that is being taken away from us because it is seen as nonsensical and we are suffering as a result.

Can tell us more about your company, Breakthrough Play. What inspired you to start it?

The mission of Breakthrough Play is help adults win the game of life utilizing the transformative powers of play. I do that in a whole bunch of ways from corporate trainings to individual workshops to retreats. The inspiration for Breakthrough Play came from taking an improv class and reaping the benefits that came along with it. I started running games for my team, and soon after became the “play guy.” After years of doing this work as a side hustle the opportunity came to do this full time after having a fallout with a business partner.

What are the benefits of play for adults?

There are a ton of benefits to incorporating play in your life, but my 4 favorite are:

  1. Increased Focus: When we were young kids and in school we would have class then go out to recess. That small break to play actually made us more focused when we went back to class. If you ever find your attention drifting instead of popping on Facebook, or reaching for that cookie, get up from your desk and do something physical to get your blood pumping. It doesn’t have to be long, it can be as little as 5 minutes.

    Pro Tip: if you are running a meeting and you want your attendees to be focused and connected do a simple ice breaker game.

  2. Deeper Relationships: I like to say “people that play together stay together.” The reason for this is when you are engaging in activities like play This creates neurochemicals in your brain called Serotonin and Oxytocin which are responsible for trust and generosity. If you are going out for drinks pick a location that has board games so you can engage in play. In the workshops that I perform at companies and events more often than not people leave feeling closer to their fellow participants than before they started.

  3. Cultivates a Growth Mindset: I have this belief that if you are not growing you're dying. To activate the growth mindset is to learn something new, and play is a fun way to do that. In this scenario, you want to find something challenging like strategy board games, or mine and Lisa’s favorite IMPROV!

  4. Reduces stress: The hard truth is we are consistently put into the flight or fight state. Don’t believe me? Turn on the news for 10 minutes or take a scroll on social media and see how you feel. When we are in that state our brains produce the neurochemicals Cortisol and Adrenaline, great when we need to run from a tiger, however when we are constantly in this state we develop issues like anxiety, depression, digestive and sleep problems, heart disease, etc. The anecdote is play! When you play your body releases feel good chemicals like Dopamine and Endorphins. In fact, instead of prescribing drugs some doctors are prescribing play!

What have been your biggest insights from doing this work?

My biggest insight from my work is that most adults are looking for permission to play. When I finish my experiences I am filled with joy from seeing all the smiling faces, and hearing the laughter that takes place. Another big one is that play CAN change your perception about someone. I have done workshops where days later organizers call me up and ask “What did you do to my team?!?” When I press further I often get the response that since the retreat the amount of conflict among team members have reduced. Jane McGonigal talks about the science of why this works in her epic book SuperBetter.

How do you integrate play into your everyday life? What can others who feel stuck at work or life do to be more playful?

Being a new dad has really helped with this, aside from playing with my son Garrett I play with legos, perform improv, color, doodle. Since Play is personal if you are feeling stuck at work I invite you to think about how did you play as a child specifically before age 11. How can you take the essence of that experience and incorporate that in your life in some way? Try to do this in small time windows and work up.

In the book Play: How it Shapes the Brain Dr Stuart Brown calls this creating a Play History, and I feel it’s the 1st step in getting your play mojo back.

How old is your son now? How has being a new parent affected your perspective on play?

My son Garrett is 18 months. Being a parent and watching Garrett grow has also it is reiterated my belief that play is simulation, and is a low stakes way to get better at things. Garrett LOVES, I mean LOVES to stack objects and take them down and restack them in different configurations. Sometimes the tower of toys, boxes, and cooking utensils falls down. This doesn’t bother Garrett at all. He just strategizes a new way to do it. In my studies on Play I had read accounts of how you played as an child impacted how you play as an adult. Who knows, maybe he might grow up to be an engineer of some sort.

Since we love to talk about our fears and following them, can you describe a time when you followed a fear or pushed yourself outside your comfort zone, and what you learned?

The biggest thing of recent was skydiving at The World Domination Summit. What I learned from that experience I feel applies to all areas of life. To be successful the instructor told me that I had to do 3 things: Keep your head up, let go, and breathe.

Anything you’d like to share or promote this fall?
If you are looking for ways to increase your level of happiness so you can crush it at work and life I am doing a retreat in the Colorado Mountains in March of 2019 called Spring Into Happy. Also check out Gary’s CreativeMornings San Diego Talk.