Henry was a problem for his elementary school teachers. He never seemed to pay attention, or if he did, he would ask the teachers questions they struggled with. For him, school seemed to be a lark.

When he entered junior and senior high school, he was known as a brilliant student, but his assignments never seemed to fit the mold that teachers were looking for. His science project was so advanced that the judges couldn’t evaluate it. When he was denied first place, he just laughed.

Henry had the highest test scores of any student in his school’s history. He decided to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the country on a full scholarship. But it didn’t take long for college to be a disappointment.

Henry hated the restrictions that faculty imposed on assignments. For his freshman English argumentative essay, he composed it as a Dear Abby letter. The teacher noted that the writing was superb and the argumentation was brilliant. But he was given a failing grade because it didn’t follow the required format. For his ecology assignment on sustainability, he proposed a national ban on printed textbooks using the carbon footprint of the book for the class as an example. The teacher was not pleased.

Things went from bad to worse when his freshman research topic was rejected for lack of references.  The work was so original that no references were applicable. As a joke, he provided references from such distinguished sources as Onion, Mad Magazine, and Playboy. He was given a failing grade. Henry withdrew from college and never looked back.

Not wanting to go home, Henry took long walks as he thought about his future. On one of those walks, he met an elderly man who seemed to be struggling. When Henry came to his aid, Henry and the man started a conversation that would eventually turn into a mentoring relationship. The man helped Henry channel his playfulness into something useful. “Henry, you need to become a disruptor”, he said. “Bring me an idea and I’ll help you launch your own disruption.”

Twenty years later, Henry was honored for his contributions to the American economy. The citation read in part, “for your bold breakthroughs in technology and your organizational encouragement of innovation through playfulness as a key to the corporate culture of the 21st century.” 

We rarely think of playfulness as a trait of intelligence. That’s because we associate playfulness as something to call attention to yourself. That wasn’t this reason for Henry’s playfulness. His playfulness was to challenge conventional thinking. And that upset others. It was his mentor who helped him turn his playfulness into something purposeful.

Think of what playfulness comes from. It results from curiosity, imagination, creativity, and a willingness to take risks. Playfulness expands the part of the brain that responds to new experiences. It is a trait of intelligence that is often discouraged, but one that is vital to society.

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“When the playful me shows up, I am ready to be a serious learner…a culture of playfulness is closely related to the capacity to learn.” – Rosemary Sutcliff (Children’s Author)

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Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.