HAVING FUN: IT'S MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU THINK
By John C. Harrison
Program Director, National Stuttering Project
Early April of my 12th year was a time of gnawing fear. Our
seventh grade class was planning to present a scene from Shakespeare's
"A Midsummer Night's Dream," and I was assigned a minor role. I can't
remember my exact part, but I do remember a particular line that's been
engraved in my mind these 45 years.
The line was, "I came with Hermia hither."
My anticipation of delivering that line wrecked my life for a
month. For the secret truth was that I stuttered, and one of the sounds
I stuttered on was "h". Often as not, I would lock up on the "h" sound.
Simply stop talking. And then to hide my embarrassment, I would pretend
that I forgot what I was saying, or I'd substitute another word.
The problem was, I was stuck with Shakespeare's words. I couldn't
substitute. So for three weeks I had nightmares of standing before the
entire grammar school with the words "Hermia hither" stuck in my throat
and the deafening silence of the auditorium pounding in my ears.
I got through the performance, just barely, by rushing into
"Hermia hither" with a kamikaze-like abandon reserved for skydivers on
their first leap. My secret was safe. I had survived another speaking
As you might gather, speaking was no fun for me as a kid. Nor is
it for most people, young or old. A survey of the public's ten greatest
fears places public speaking number one on the list with death trailing
behind in the number three or four position.
I eventually got over the stuttering problem. But it wasn't
simply because I worked on my speech. I also worked on my ability to
have fun while I was speaking. That took the pressure off the
performance, got me in touch with myself, and transformed the experience
into something positive. I have since wondered why having fun is not
universally recognized as one of the most powerful catalysts to change.
Fun is usually presented as the icing on the cake. That little
misguided belief has created more havoc in my life, because what seems
to be true is that having fun is not just the icing, **it's also the
cake**; it's the wellspring of my strength, identity and creativity.
Right now I can imagine some harried mother saying, "For god's
sake, George, don't let the kids read this!" When your kids want to
horse around at just the time they should be scrubbing in the tub or
struggling with their homework, the very last thing you want them to
hear is that fun is "the cake." After all, we know that fun is not
serious. It's what goes on **after** the bath and the homework are
done. It's recreation. It's...it's...well, it's FUN. Right?
We keep thinking about fun like we do about sugar. It tastes good
in small doses, but in quantity, it'll wreck us.
Quite the contrary.
I have seen what the power of having fun can do.
THE LIBERATING POWER OF FUN
A few years back at a chapter meeting of the National Stuttering
Project we were taking turns making short talks, when eventually we got
around to a diminutive lady named Lila. As Lila began her speech, she
spoke in her typical voice, a flat, brittle voice punctuated by frequent
blocks. It was also apparent that she was locked in her survival mode.
You know, unsmiling, eyes staring into space, looking like she'd rather
be doing anything else than standing there talking to us.
I thought maybe I could help her out and halfway through her
presentation I took the liberty of interrupting her.
"Lila," I said, "are you having any fun?"
"I'm afraid you aren't g-g-g-going to l-l-like what I say."
That was easy to believe. Her whole manner said "Don't be mad at
me. I'll be good. I'll do it right."
"Lila," I said. "Why don't you start over, but this time, speak
the way you've always **wanted** to speak. Forget what we want; do what
you want. Be dramatic. Be silly. Be outrageous. Whatever it is that
turns you on. Whatever you do is fine with the rest of us."
Lila began again, her voice stronger but still tentative.
"Fantastic," I coached. "Now even more energy. Liven it up.
Have some fun. We know you're a ham!"
Well, that touched a nerve. It turned out that Lila was a closet
ham, and for the first time the world had not only recognized it but
actually encouraged it. She didn't have to play the shy, retiring type.
Lila cut loose, and her energy, her whole demeanor changed.
Within a few moments she was fooling around, and as her confidence grew,
she came totally alive. But the most remarkable thing was that once she
began to have fun, **Lila didn't stutter**
Now, we weren't speech therapists. We were only encouraging Lila
to have fun, something she was evidently not willing to do for herself.
Having fun liberated Lila's power; it set her free. And that, in turn,
liberated her ability to express herself without holding back.
What became clear that evening was how deeply we can be affected
by our willingness, or unwillingness, to have fun.
HOW WE'RE PROGRAMMED
If you're like me, you were told a lot of things as a kid. You
were told how to eat, dress, behave, grow up. And later, how to make
money, raise kids and, if you read Hemingway in English 101, how to die
But not too many people enlightened me about fun. Oh, they told
me what was supposed to be fun and what wasn't. But the **having** of
fun was left up to me. Consequently, I learned about it on a catch-as-
catch-can basis and developed some beliefs that may sound familiar.
BELIEF #1--Work isn't fun. My father cleared that up for me one
summer's day while I was still in high school. I was making extra
spending money typing envelopes at his office. It was a boring job, and
I must have complained because he turned to me and said, "Work's not
supposed to be fun. Work is WORK!"
Got it? Fun is what you do in the off-hours. Work is where you
**struggle** and deal with **problems**. I heard about taxes,
inefficient employees, missed deadlines; I heard about everything that
went wrong. But very seldom did my father, or anyone else for that
matter, ever tell me what they loved--or even liked-- about their work.
I still see that tendency in myself and in others; we talk about what's
wrong, but don't put as much energy into talking about what's right.
BELIEF #2--Fun is a reward for being good. This is a spin-off of
belief #1. It sounds like this:
"Do your homework, or you can't go out and play."
"Clean up your room, or I won't take you to the circus tomorrow."
To have fun I learned that you had to barter and be a certain kind
of person. The currency was usually good behavior.
BELIEF #3--Fun is always second to achievement. I wouldn't say I
had a particularly difficult childhood. But I do know that having fun
was not a major emphasis in a middle-class upbringing. It certainly
took a back seat to good grades and other visible signs of achievement.
Typical example: one afternoon I came back from the golf course
having chosen not to play but practice instead. I had hit out three
buckets of balls on the practice tee until my hands were red, and I
really felt satisfied with my performance. I'd belted `em a country
mile. When I walked in the living room, my father looked up the from
"How'd it go?" he asked.
"Good," I said.
"What did you shoot?"
"I didn't. I just hit balls."
"You should have played," my father said, his disappointment
barely hidden. "You need to score to know how you're doing."
End of conversation.
Well, he was right there. Nobody ever shot an 82 on the practice
tee. But on the other hand, it didn't seem that my having a good time
counted for anything. In fairness to my father, I should say that his
response was not much different from what any of my friend's fathers
might have said. Maybe it was a characteristic of their generation, but
I never heard adults put pleasure on a par with achievement.
BELIEF #4--Other people know what is fun for you. God knows they
are persistent in telling you. When you're a kid, the adult world is
full of helpful suggestions:
"Go outside and play baseball. It's fun." (I hated baseball.
They always stuck me in center field, and I dropped every fly ball hit
"C'mon with us. You'll have fun at Aunt Jessie's." (Sitting
around with a bunch of grown-ups was hardly inspiring to a 10-year-old.)
"Fun" is having to attend to the children's symphony at Carnegie
Hall when you'd rather be out playing cowboys and Indians with the kids
Such are the ways that attitudes are formed in childhood. And it
doesn't really change when you get older. Want to know what constitutes
fun? Just read "Playboy", the travel brochures or watch the beer
commercials on TV. The media is full of advice on the good life. So
people flock to the Friday night bars looking for a good time. And they
buy faster cars and take longer vacations and still deal with that
nagging feeling that something is missing.
The truth is, fun is a process, a very personal process that
involves not only what you're doing but how and why you're doing it.
This story will elaborate.
Back in the Dark Ages when I was 25, I was living in New York City
with some of my old high school buddies and bringing my laundry back to
my parent's home on Long Island. You get the picture. One day, more or
less on impulse, I made a plane reservation to San Francisco. Two weeks
later, I was three thousand miles from home and on my own for the first
time in my life.
It was a grand adventure. I located a place to live, found a good
job and discovered what independence felt like.
One night I was in the middle of washing my socks, when I suddenly
realized that this inane activity was actually fun. I couldn't believe
it. For years I had resisted doing anything useful around the house.
And now here I was up to my wrists in Tide, squishing socks in the sink
and having a grand old time. Buddha had his great epiphany beneath a bo
tree. I had my revelation in the Baker Acres Residence Club over a sink
full of soapy socks. In that moment I understood that having fun is
another way of saying "I'm doing what gives me the greatest sense of my
own self worth."
All my life other people had washed my socks. Now I was on my
own, looking after my own needs, and it felt terrific. The experience
of fun helped to clarify what had been missing in my life: my own sense
of independence. And it helped to set the direction for the years that
followed. (Since then, having served its purpose, washing socks has sunk
back to being a bore.)
FINDING YOUR DIRECTION
Taking fun seriously can be extremely useful in establishing a
career path. Some years ago I met a woman named Susan Hanan who was
Director of Career Counseling for a major bank in Spokane, Washington.
An outgoing woman in her late 30s, she had a keen appreciation for the
need to do work that is pleasurable. As a career counselor, she used
the pleasure principle in guiding people toward a rewarding career.
"There are so many people who are unhappy with their jobs," she
said. "And much of it stems from not working at things that give them
pleasure. We've been taught to get an education, choose a career, and
get a job. Bingo, just like that. But we're encouraged to do all this
without paying attention to what we like, to what turns us on, to what
is fun. So is it surprising that people in their thirties and older go
through identity crises in their work?
"When people are considering a career change, our workshop teaches
a methodology that seems amazingly simple. We tell them to start at the
bottom; namely, look at what you **like** to do. Get in touch with
those activities that make you feel powerful, turned on, excited. Is it
helping people, solving problems, managing others? Define it. Then
look for people whose jobs involve these activities. Find out how they
got where they are and what you need to know or do in order to get there
yourself. It's just amazing how it works."
That's just arse-backwards from the way most of us were taught to
choose careers. It puts status, money and doing what's "right" in the
back seat behind enjoying your job.
"When you approach work this way," said Susan, "you may find that
your present job, the one you thought you wanted to change, is ideal
after all. To make it work for you, you may just need to expand it so
it includes more of what you like to do."
So fun turns out to be a kind of psychic compass. Even in foul
weather, it can keep us pointed in the right direction by giving us a
clear indication of what things are really important, not to other
people, but to us personally. If you think about it, you'll probably
agree that it's most often when you're having fun that you have the
clearest sense of who you are. It's also when you do your best work.
On the other hand, when we lose our capacity for fun, we tend to
drift, sometimes for a lifetime, or fall prey to someone whose clearer
sense of direction and purpose we adopt for our own.
How do we rediscover what's fun for us? Here are some ideas:
BEGIN NOTICING WHAT'S GOING ON. The path to enlightenment, says
the Zen master, is to observe without judgment. During the day, stay
tuned into to what you're doing, feeling, thinking. It's not easy, but
keep watching. You don't have to act on your observations at this
point. Just keep noticing.
TRUST WHAT YOU SEE. One of the things I learned from various
personal growth trainings such as EST and Lifespring is that I didn't
often trust my own observations. I'd believe others before I'd believe
myself. No wonder I had little self confidence or sense of what I
EXAMINE YOUR BELIEFS OBJECTIVELY. Beliefs are deceiving, because
we tend not to see them as beliefs at all but simply as "the way things
are," I'm reminded of the woman who goes to the psychiatrist with a
"Tell me how you spend your day," the psychiatrist says.
"Well," replies the lady, "I get out of bed. I put on my slippers
and robe, I go to the bathroom, I brush my teeth, I throw up, I..."
"You THROW UP?" exclaims the psychiatrist.
"Yes," says the lady. "Doesn't everybody?"
As this story illustrates, it is often hard to separate the real
world from your perception of it. Many beliefs are so ingrained that it
takes major "surgery" (like running off to San Francisco) to develop
Jaret Elbert, a San Francisco advertising copywriter and ex-New
Yorker recalls some of her past beliefs about fun. She sees them as
part of the culture.
"My society looked at fun the way it looked at eating chocolate
chip cookies. There wasn't much nutritional value. You had to be good
to get any. And if you got too much, you'd develop an upset stomach or
"And," she adds, "it was a foregone conclusion that anyone who had
lots of fun couldn't be very deep."
BROADEN YOUR IDEAS ABOUT WHAT'S FUN. Most people see
fun as only recreational. But that's just one definition; there are others. I
found it fun to do this article, though I bashed the word processor a
few times, tore my hair (what's left of it) in frustration, and threw
away most of what I'd written.
SEE WHETHER YOU'VE SET LIMITS ON FUN. Frequently, people
have an alarm clock that tells them just how much fun they are entitled to
have at any one time. After ten minutes, ten hours or whatever--
rinnnnnnnng!-- the alarm goes off and the fun comes to an end. If
that's something you do, begin looking at why you don't deserve more fun
than you give yourself.
Come to think of it, having fun isn't something you deserve, any
more than you "deserve" two arms and two legs. It's simply a part of
who you are; an important part. And it has a remarkable ability to
heal, as author Norman Cousins reported in a book in which he described
how he defied the doctors and cured a life-threatening illness by simply
increasing his capacity for fun.
To have fun is to rediscover your unique self and to capitalize on
your greatest strengths and resources.
So what, pray tell, are you waiting for?