"There oughta be an ethic"

By Pat Kane

"The trivialization of play was the work ethic's most lasting, and most regrettable achievement."

When anthropologists first visited the !Kung bushmen in Africa's Kalahari region, they were struck by the amount of leisure time that the people enjoyed. Hunting and gathering chores accounted for only a few hours each day, with the remainder given over to simple tasks of socializing, nature watching and lounging. This led them to describe the !Kung as "the original affluent society."

Today, it seems inconceivable that modern worker could survive on just a few hours of labor each day. We are maxed out and overwhelmed by labor. Overwork has now become a parallel epidemic that has grown in tandem with obesity and diabetes. Scholars have documented the trend, most notably Juliet Schor in her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure.

And, to make matters worse, when we finally do finish with our work for the day, we go to the gym, pool or track and do a "work-out" that is also dominated by a work ethic.

Obviously something in our lives and our culture is fundamentally out of balance. If the !Kung bushmen were the "original affluent society," we are creating the inverse, a culture in which work obliterates all other human interests.

It's tempting to simply complain about this state of affairs, but some people are actually offering a solution. Pat Kane, in his remarkable new book The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living, makes a compelling case for an alternate way of looking at human enterprise. His proposal offers an essential counterweight to the laborious, workaholic madness that engulfs our modern world.

The Play Ethic is a profound book that offers compelling ideas on many levels. Rather than review them all, I offer a side-by-side description of the work ethic and the play ethic and let the comparison speak for itself. Some of these descriptions are Kane's, some are my own.

The Work(out) Ethic
  • productive, practical
  • values discipline, control, routine (safety, deliberation, planning)
  • highly judgmental, seeks accountability
  • assumes a state of scarcity (the zero-sum game)
  • puts a premium on efficiency
  • novelty is something to be managed, eliminated, ignored or rejected.
  • outcome and achievement oriented
  • conservative, utilitarian, specialized
  • explicit, literal, linear, sequential
  • strong emphasis on rank
  • future oriented, goal oriented
  • grim, warrior spirit
  • militaristic, denial of death
  • failure to keep the pace is a humiliation, a sign of personal inadequacy

The Play Ethic

  • generative, creative
  • surprise and novelty are embraced as delight, as material for further investigation
  • fundamentally bushy, embraces tangents
  • assumption of abundance: there’s plenty of pleasure to go around (the game is non-zero-sum)
  • messy, non-linear, embraces ambiguity
  • intrinsically oriented, values pleasure
  • no particular interest in objectives or outcomes
  • experience and process oriented
  • liberal, liberational, egalitarian
  • impish, romantic, disruptive, revolutionary, subversive
  • skeptical of laws, rules and external controls
  • present-oriented
  • affirmation and celebration of life
  • no failure


When we look at this side-by-side comparison, the imbalance becomes obvious. Our workaholic culture not only ignores the play ethic, it tries to eliminate it from the human experience. As it is practiced today, the work ethic is imperialistic, oppressive and tyrannical.

Beyond the obvious, we see a more subtle point. That is, we can place these two value systems together to form a greater whole, a yin-yang totality that is immensely promising.

The first implication is simple: work needs play. Without a counter-balancing play ethic, work (and working out) becomes pathological, both to individuals and to our culture as a whole. A play ethic not only keeps people happier, it also encourages creativity. Paradoxically, this gives the work ethicists the innovative results and productivity that they desire.

It is also the case that play benefits from work: add some rigor to play and you will find that you can play on new levels. This is particularly clear in physical training and conditioning. If we exercise a little harder or a little more often, we can do more with our bodies and in the process, have more fun. The idea is simple: work hard so that you can play at a higher level. The harder you work, the more fun you can have. (up to a point, of course!)