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Using play, optimism and curiosity to unlock success in your job search

Especially in these challenging times, consider taking a playful approach to job searching and career planning.


In a time of unforeseen change, as well as dealing with stress and high pressure to perform in new environments, play is not necessarily high on the priority list for businesses or academic institutions. Nor is play typically connected to job searches or career planning. Yet, we know there are many benefits to play.

Engaging in play relieves stress and is a strategy in counselling and therapy. Play-based learning (i.e., activities that are self-chosen, enjoyable, unstructured, process-oriented and involve “make believe”) has long been applied in education and many of these methods can also be applied to adult learning (check out Reconnecting Adults with Playful Learning and Play Matters: Six Play-Full Practices For Higher Education).

For instance, Sean Michael Morris, a senior instructor of learning design and technology in the school of education and human development at the University of Colorado Denver, recently shared an article linking play and scholarship. He argues that there is a symbiotic relationship between knowledge and imagination. Lisa Forbes, an assistant clinical professor in the counseling program at the University of Colorado Denver, argues that play is a powerful means to establishing safe and trusting relationships in the classroom where students can take risks, speak up and truly engage in their learning. As graduate students and postdocs, you are creating new knowledge through your research and course work. Your imagination is at play as you develop new hypotheses, make connections from theory to practice, and apply new methodologies to new situations.

Hope and optimism

Similarly, I encourage you to consider taking a playful approach to career planning — especially for your non-academic job search. This is not to disregard the frustration, anxiety and challenges a job search can bring. However, we know that optimism and hope are positive indicators of career and job search success. In a Harvard Business Review article, Michelle Gielan points out that optimists are better at finding jobs. Several career development theories also support the positive impact that hope has on career planning. Optimism and curiosity are also two key factors in the planned happenstance theory of career development (Mitchell, Levin, and Krumboltz, 1999).

Playful job search strategies

How can we channel the benefits of play into our career and professional planning, a notoriously stressful process? Here are a few simple ways to take a playful approach to your job search.

  • Build a model: Use building bricks or other items to imagine new possibilities for your career or if you are stuck in your job search. LEGO Serious Play (LSP) is a form of play that is used in business and learning environments. By using models to convey abstract thought, LSP facilitates conversations and helps participants see new ways of solving problems. For example, Brock University uses LSP with students in their career preparation, skill-building exercises in the classroom and reflective practice in experiential learning.
  • Create a career vision board: Use images that represent your career and professional goals. This process can help to clarify ideas and generate focus for your next steps.
  • Role-play/gamification/simulations: Act out or consider various scenarios similar to a “choose-your-own-adventure” concept. Or, take on the role/perspective of someone else in your situation. For example, what would that recruiter say if you reached out and asked them about the job position (instead of assuming that they won’t talk to you)? What if you called up and asked about job possibilities with your dream company? Act out the scenario and see if you can remove your own barriers to the process or unlock a new idea. Playing out various scenarios can help to connect new ideas and generate possible solutions to your current situation.
  • Brainstorm ideas: Have fun with this and let the ideas flow. Mind map your way to new solutions for your job search. Experiment with new approaches. If you are feeling stuck in your job search or unsure of your career path, create a mind map to generate new possibilities or methods to your approach. Get creative – draw, create images, free flow ideas.
  • Memeify your life: Create a fun meme to represent your future career or job search efforts … laugh, have fun and don’t be too serious. This can be a fun, quick way to take a pause from the serious aspects of your job search and help to clarify your situation.
  • Engage in physical play to de-stress and reset your brain: Get outside if you can. Use your imagination with what you have on hand (especially during lockdown measures). Swing, kick your feet, imagine, cloud gaze. Put on music and dance for five minutes. Act out your “happy dance” when you get the job offer. Feel the joy you experience and harness that optimistic outlook.

Give it a try

Of course, there is serious work involved in achieving your career goals (such as converting your CV to a resume, writing cover letters, researching job leads and applying for positions, preparing for interviews, updating your LinkedIn profile, identifying and articulating your skills, following up with leads, information interviews, building your network, and attending events). However, making time for play in the process will keep you authentic and genuine, allow your curiosity and creativity to inform your career exploration, while keeping hope and optimism at the forefront.

In times of uncertainty, taking a few moments to play on a regular basis can bring great benefits. Even five minutes of unstructured play can bring new ideas when you are feeling stuck. If nothing else, you have allowed your brain to rest and body to de-stress for a few minutes of your busy day.

Marisa Brown
Marisa Brown is the career curriculum manager with co-op, career and experiential education at Brock University.
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