Are you a human being? Or a human doing?

I don’t remember who said it. I don’t even remember where I was when I heard it. But I know this. I was in a bad place. I was looking for solace, or maybe a way to understand why I felt so sad, so stressed out.

Some of my clients playing . . .

Some of my clients playing . . .

“Ben,” my angel said, “it sounds like you’re a human doing, not a human being.”

And thus began a slow unpacking and examination of how I exist in the world, and why. It’s taken a few therapists and years in the recovery movement but if I could distill it, my ”human-doingness” comes from this: I never felt I was good enough and so had to work extra hard to get the emotional support others seemed to receive effortlessly. And like all of the scars we bear from our origin stories, this one is a paradox, with both positive and negative attributes. On the upside, I became an over-achiever, a leader and maker of events, art, and classes. On the downside, I felt like if I didn’t, I would be a neglected shade plant in the corner, ignored and starving for sustenance.

About to play with my improv ensemble . . .

About to play with my improv ensemble . . .

A “human doing” is a person who lives under the sword of Damocles, constantly responding to the “or else”: I have to do this, or else that will occur. It’s a life lived under continual threat. And since it’s a condition developed in childhood, usually in response to what the child perceives as a survival strategy, as we age we lose awareness of it and it simply becomes our experience of living, as unconscious as the air we breath and every bit as consequential. It leads to codependent relationship problems (“I have to do ______ or else she won’t _______”), tyrannical leadership styles (“Do _______ or else I will make sure _______ happens”), and a generally transactional behavior pattern (“Let’s do this, so that that will happen.”)

Besides the pernicious and exhausting stress of living with the constant “or else”, something more subtle but more problematic happens. When I am a human doing, I am never where I am. I exist in a perpetually self-created anxious future. The thing I am doing I do not for its own value or experience, but in order to manage an event that doesn’t exist because it hasn’t happened yet. And because it doesn’t exist, it is a future event I create in my own anxious imagination. A human doing finds it difficult to enjoy an experience for its own sake, without attempting to know what the consequence will be in the future - a knowledge which is fundamentally unknowable.

I would love to report that I have been entirely cured of my human doingness, and that I now live in a swami-like state of pure presence. Ha. What I can report is that I am deeply aware of my own tendencies in this direction, and I know some warning signs. I can fall in to an anxiety spiral about the future and I know what that feels like. When I feel that way I do some breathing exercises, I go to a recovery meeting or talk to a friend about how I’m feeling. I take some medicine that helps too. And I look for opportunities . . . to play.

Playing with people with disabilities . . .

Playing with people with disabilities . . .

Yes, play. What do I mean by play? For me, play is an activity done with others that has no explicit purpose other than the activity itself, and which engenders a shared joyful emotional state. There is a ton of research on play and since I am not a data person or a researcher I will let you go and find it. But I have read a few books and listened to a few podcasts and my takeaway is this: playing is an essential activity in the development of healthy humans, it begins in the year after we are born and continues throughout our childhood. And then for many of us . . . it stops. There are many reasons our playing stops, and it varies from person to person. But one of the most common is that we become “professionals” and enter workplaces driven by projections and outcomes. In other words, workplaces that succeed with a workforce of human doings, who exist to make sure that if they do this, that will happen.

In this light, being a playful person might be seen as an act of rebellion against the demands of professional expectations. But here’s what I know from years of applying improvisation to workplace dilemmas through a program I created called Creative Corporate Training - cultivating a playful mindset in the workplace:

  • leads to innovative thinking

  • deeper problem-solving

  • more productive co-working

  • more efficient teams

  • happier and healthier workers

  • retention of those happier an healthier workers

About to play with some pharma workers . . .

About to play with some pharma workers . . .

Introducing the playful mindset is a gateway to any number of explorations: mindfulness, self-care, conflict management, emotional intelligence, better customer service, and the list goes on. Improvisation is the ideal delivery system for the playful mindset, because in improv all you have is the present moment and the other person. Improv teaches us that we are enough - we have all the wisdom, creativity and courage needed to build joyful connections to others as we work towards common goals.

So take a moment today to just be. Sit quietly somewhere nice and take a few deep breaths. Notice what rises up in your experience - no judgment! If you find yourself obsessively speculating about the next thing, and the next, and the next . . . maybe it’s time to play.