Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author David Thomas of Fun at Work Is Helping To Change Our World

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An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

When in doubt, create: I think this is a corollary of the other rules. I think people live to make. They make things for each other, they build relationships. The make business and create art. I’m not particular about how people bring things into the world. But I do think making is the best way to test your values, keep you out of a bad place and re-engaged you in the world. Simple. And effective.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Thomas.

David is the professor of fun, sharing his research and insight about how play can transform life and work. A former videogame journalist and currently a university administrator and professor of architecture, David has a special interest in how fun can revolutionize the workplace. Whether helping university professors bring play into their classroom or working with organizations seeking to improve their innovation and engagement, David brings the toolkit of fun to people ready to expand their potential.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was a normal kid growing up on cartoons and sugar cereal in the American suburbs in the ’70s. I didn’t realize it then, but I was living in the golden age of pop culture. Star Trek was in re-runs on the TV, McDonalds still had cool toys with their meals and Star Wars was about to appear and change my life. All this matters to me looking back because while pop culture was, and in some sense, sill is, considered a distraction from the “real world”, I’ve grown to see it differently. In a nutshell, traditional, “serious” culture — everything from opera to high brown movies — exists to tell you a story and, in a very real sense, pushes a perspective on to. The goal of most traditional art is to educate you around specific important cultural values. And usually, those values are about how people and things from the past deserve respect if not outright reverence. I like to joke that the traditional aesthetic understanding of the world works like this: If you don’t like opera, it’s not opera’s fault; there is something wrong with you. You just don’t get it.

Pop culture works very differently. We might dismiss mass culture as worth less than fine art and the contents of our museums. What it gives us though is this gift of letting us make your own meaning. If you don’t like Gilligan’s Island, that’s fine. That’s a choice you get to make. And if you want to think about Gillian’s Island as a deep metaphor for the psyche with the skipper as the ego, the professor as the super ego and Gilligan as the id, go for it! Pop culture is open for you, the fan, to make of it what you want. Fine art tells you what to believe and value while popular culture leaves all that up to the fan.

This is of course a super compressed version of what I study and think about. But when I look back at it, growing up on pop culture rather than fine art and high culture, I learned that not only were cartoons and science fiction fun, they also were much deeper in terms of what I could make of them than the more traditional arts.

Which brings me to another moment in time in my life that I think I might have been a turning point for me to become a scholar of fun.

In 1981 our family jumped in the blue Oldsmobile station wagon with the wood paneling and headed down the East Coast to Disney World. At the time, EPCOT was under construction and we stayed at the Contemporary Resort, right by the Magic Kingdom. Rules must have been a bit more loose then, because at one point, I walked across the parking lot at the resort to inspect the topiaries I had seen when we were riding the monorail to the park. To my surprise, all these exotic bush sculptures in the shapes of Disney characters were made of wire armatures. Rather than organic shapes trimmed to achieve the effect, the plants were just growing around the wire forms. I suppose in my imagination some fantastic gardener was out there sculpting these bushes with some exotic tools. In fact, it looked like a bunch of wire with bushes stuck in them.

Rather than disappointment, I realized for the first time that Disney magic was practical. And I became obsessed with the parks. Not only was this more pop culture, but it was also the start of an academic interest in how you make things magical.

All these years later, I am the professor of fun. And while I didn’t become a Disney Imagineer, I have grown a deep understanding of what makes things fun, why pop culture matters and how to put it all to work doing things that people often think of a serious. But it all started with sugar cereal and a big surprise at Disney World and now ends up in books like Fun at Work!

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

Growing up, I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was a kid. But something about the magic of C.S. Lewis’ world really stuck with me. Lord of the Rings wasn’t on my radar initially. So, everything I knew about world building I learned from Lewis. While school wanted me to read about the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Sherlock Holmes or dig into Animal Farm or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I wanted to escape to Narnia and explore and wonder. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe sent me on an adventure in a fantasy world that has inspired a lifetime love of fiction. And while I don’t find myself reading much fantasy these days, I can see that the wonder and the good and the power of those stories stuck with me. When I am working with a group of university professors or a talking to a room of worn-out business executives, what I am doing when I introduce play is trying to bring them back to that moment of wonder that I felt reading those books. In our talks and books, we will reference the future of work, leadership 3.0, pop futurism and more. Underlying all of that is the joy and wonder that was brought to life in books when I was kid.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the messages the book is that failure is part and parcel with innovation. So, over the years I have developed a perspective where failure isn’t so much this painful moment of learning as it is just the world announcing that you need to do things differently. For me that looks like an ongoing series of silly missteps and remarks that I regret in the moment but learn from and move on from quickly. I guess you could say in this sort of worldview, I feel like all mistakes are funny mistakes and they happen every day I am willing to put myself out there to make a difference and create something new.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

One of my favorite thinkers about play was a guy called Bernie Dekoven. What Bernie spent his life trying to get people to understand was that a life without play wasn’t worth living. And he didn’t mean the kind of play that wealth and the luxury of leisure can bring. He wasn’t talking about ski vacations and golf games. He was talking about the joy that comes from throwing a ball back and forth with another person, the fun of skipping a rock on lake or the silliness of a bad joke among friends. His mission was to liberate people to feel joy and wonder. And while I have focused on how to bring fun and play to work, to organization and to education, the core mission is the same. I want people to find their playful self and enjoy all the benefits of living a playful life.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Wow. In a book called like Fun at Work, you can expect there are many fun and interesting stories. A personal favorite story in the book talks about the Polish Beer Lovers Party. This was a political party founded in Poland after the fall of the Soviet Empire. While all these Eastern Bloc countries were forming democratic governments for the first time in ages, several beer-loving groups popped up across Eastern Europe. The Polish Beer Lover’s Party was one of the most successful. As a political organization they claimed as their party platform that beer was Polish, beer was from the land and that beer was good for you. In fact, part of their perspective was that Russian vodka was responsible for alcoholism in the country, and that beer was a better substitute. It was all a bit tongue in cheek. But the funny part was, they won several seats in Parlament and were an active political party for a number of years. I like the story because it’s almost too hard to believe. And it shows how having a playful attitude can lead to meaningful change in the world.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been working on the subject of fun and how it can change organizations for the better for years. But something was missing. Several years ago, my friend Lisa, who happens to be a counselling professor, handed me Barbara Fredrickson’s book Love 2.0 and told me to read it. Basically, Fredrickson studies positive emotions and concluded that love was the penultimate positive emotion. More important, she didn’t see love as constrained to the classic romantic love of books and TV or even the kind of love shared in families. She believes strangers can experience that positive impact almost in passing. She says that high-fiving a stranger when the home team scores or laughing at something odd with a fellow by-passer on the street are all forms of people sharing the feeling of love.

I read the book and wham, it hit me. Love is another way of talking about the feeling we feel when we experience fun. Going a little further, Lisa and I coined this phrase: fun=love. And in a deep sense, it’s true. Once I made that connection, I never thought of my work on fun as silly or pointless. Well, maybe silly sometimes. Beyond that and fundamentally important, fun is also about our deepest connections and desire to make a better world. That inspires me to think about and make fun come alive every day.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

In some ways I feel like the piped piper, always talking about and sharing fun wherever I go. So, I like to imagine the impact I am having is a little, all the time, everywhere. But let me give you an example of how I have seen that impact made visible.

One activity I do in some of my workshops is hand out Sharpies and balloons. I have the participants blow up the balloons and then I have them answer a question like, “When you were a kid, what was something you did that you really enjoyed? And how did that make you feel?” I have people write that feeling on a balloon. Once everyone is ready, I have them bounce the balloons into the air and batt them around. Without fail, the room erupts in this joyful noise. It’s what you’d except when you get a room full of adults playing, knocking balloons around. That’s a moment of visible joy that tells me fun is making an impact. After a minute or so of balloon fun, I have everyone grab a balloon. No one ends up with their own. But now they read the feelings out loud. And hearing those feelings, you get a second wave of repones, audible feelings. A room of professionals all excitedly reading off words like — free, excited, wonder, joy — and you get that moment of seeing right in front of you — the power of play and the importance of fun.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

At the core of my message is the freedom of the individual to play, to have fun. Now our schools and businesses and community organizations do a lot to constrain and control play. Some of it is overt — sit down in class and don’t make noise. Some of it is structural, work hard your whole life and then you can have fun when you retire. But honestly, I don’t think there is a law or a movement or a massive change that will really help unless individuals just see that play is important to them. The world would be a better place if people just had more joyful authentic fun, through deep, meaningful play. That might sound a little facile. But really it is empowering. It starts with you and then touches the people around you. And it can start today.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is putting yourself and your resources in the service of supporting others in reaching some goal. Leadership is both as simple as standing up and pointing in a direction and as hard as putting aside your comfort for the benefit of others. In terms of the fun work, I see leadership as embracing the power of play and then showing others that it can work by taking the risks, trying things first. When I stand up in front of a big crowd of seasoned businesspeople, and tell them to play, I am in my leadership role. I risk a lot telling people who have likely been very successful by showing seriousness and telling them to have more fun, encouraging them to allow more fun in their organizations. That is never a comfortable place. But I am doing the work of raising the issue. And you know what? Afterwards, when someone comes up to me and says: Thank you. You made me feel sane. You made me feel heard. You make me want to share the fun I already have in me with the people in my office, I know that it was worth the time, the effort, the discomfort and the risk. There are other forms of leadership, to be sure. But I think being the person to take the risk to pave the way is central to my conception of the leader.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Not only would say these are things that I wish I knew when I started, I would say these are things I have to remind myself about all the time!

  1. Failure is an option, in fact it is necessary: As we were talking about failure, I am reminded it is one of my favorite topics. Failure is a part of life. Failure is feedback. Failure is inevitable. And the truth be told, failure is often just crummy. I have joked that while people like to talk about their successes, we are just as much a record of our failures — our broken bones and broken marriages, ideas that have gone bust and bank accounts run dry. Skipping past failure is called luck. Working past failure is called grit. And that’s the source of real success.
  2. All the good advice you get when you start that tells you your idea is not practical comes from the heart, but it’s someone else’s experience and they are probably wrong: This isn’t exactly the kind of advice that fits on a bumper sticker. But the sentiment is really — All advice is good advice/Ignore advice. It’s a real puzzle you know? It’s like in the movie The Graduate where a young Dustin Hoffman is urged to “go into plastics.” The movie makes it clear that this should crushing advice. But you know what? He probably should have gone into plastics. He might have been happier at the end of the day. I suppose another way of thinking about it is this: Listen to the advice you get and then measure it with your heart. And remember, advice is always retrospective. People telling you what to do in the future are guessing based on their past. If you can see a different future, then you need to ignore the advice of the past and build that future you see.
  3. Nothing matters more than human connection: I’m an ideas guy. So, I always thought the best idea would win. I suppose I should have studied history more closely. The reality is that humans are wired for connection and if you want to get something done, assemble your tribe. Build a network of people around your ideas. Bring your idea to life in the hearts and minds of others. You can move mountains with others. All you can do by yourself is dream.
  4. It’s OK to play: It’s taken me most of my life to get back to what I knew when I was a kid — how to play. How to have fun. As an adult, we compartmentalize play until it’s another job — morning bike rides, ski vacations, golf dates, book clubs, cooking and dance classes — the list goes on and on. And while I don’t want to suggest that these leisure activities have stripped all the fun out, I don’t think they fill our fun bucket all the way up. Think about it, when was the last time you took out a piece of paper and just drew on it? Threw a rock into a pond? Climbed up on a concrete planter for the thrill of jumping off it? We forbid ourselves these things because we see them as childish. And sure, children like to play. But play is also part of being alive and should be as present as anything else we value in life.
  5. When in doubt, create: I think this is a corollary of the other rules. I think people live to make. They make things for each other, they build relationships. The make business and create art. I’m not particular about how people bring things into the world. But I do think making is the best way to test your values, keep you out of a bad place and re-engaged you in the world. Simple. And effective.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I know that quotes are supposed to be pithy and short. But here is a quote I often share with audiences and my classes. It speaks deeply to the sort of change I think we need to make. It’s from Bernie Dekoven, in his book, The Playful path:

“We have been taught to distrust play. Worse, we have been taught that we are not and should not be playful. We have been taught that play is childish, immature, destructive. Taught by people who have themselves lost the path, who were themselves taught by people who believed that fun was, can you believe this: sinful. Taught by people who have inherited a broken culture where common sense has been replaced by common senselessness. Taught that if we work hard enough and long enough and live a life that is dull enough, we will be rewarded — when fun is the reward.”

This one punches me right in the chest every time I read it. It’s a quote about chasing what we already have. As I mentioned before, when I started researching fun, it was, well, fun. I just liked having an area of academic study that was fun to learn about. But as time has gone on, I realized I am digging back up a human experience that is essential to our happiness and connection in the world. And that’s why this quote matters to me. It reminded me that while I was having fun, I also had a chance to help save the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Well, there are so many awesome people in the world that I’d like to talk to or talk to again. But when it comes to living a playful, and successful life, I’d vote for lunch with Sir Richard Branson. Not only does he appear in the book a couple of times as an example of living a fun life in business, but I also just think he’d have a lot of insight into how to bring more fun into the boardroom. I could learn a lot over a lunch with him!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find out more about the book and topics related to bringing fun into your workplace at: That’s the easiest place to stay up to date. If you are interested in the work I do in higher education, I’d suggest checking out

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author David Thomas of Fun at Work Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.