Could play be one of the best kept secrets of career success?

I think one of the most important things I’ve learned in my short and winding road that has been my professional career so far is to always be playing.

What do I mean by playing? Like playing video games?

At all of the jobs I’ve had, there have always been occasional times when there isn’t something super urgent to do. I’m a curious guy, so during these times I like to experiment with something I’ve seen that I think looks interesting. Maybe it’s a tool, or a new process, or a more efficient way of handling email.

While I was at NASA, I spent some downtime learning about wikis, even though at the time I wasn’t sure I’d ever use the stuff I was learning. It was just something that looked interesting that I thought I wanted to know more about. Pretty soon I was finishing my work as fast as I could so that I’d have a few minutes at the end of the day to keep experimenting with wikis.

I eventually got good enough at designing wikis that that became a major part of my job. I even got to speak at that particular wiki developers annual conference. But all of it just started as messing around.

Play is how I got started learning Photoshop. And Illustrator. And web design. All of these have helped me tremendously in my current career as a graphic designer and freelance presentation designer.

So by playing I mean experimenting in an unstructured, informal way with things I’m interested in that aren’t necessarily currently part of my current job. I look for things I think I might enjoy doing if it eventually became part of my job.

The funny thing is that no one ever gave me permission to look into these things. I just realized my job afforded me a little freedom to choose how to spend my time and I used it to try doing something I thought might be useful, or at the very least, fun. I think this practice more than any other is one I can point to and say, “That’s why I’m where I am now. That made a huge difference.”

I don’t know if it’ll work for you, too, but it might be worth a shot.