The Dangers of Playing It Safe

Playing it safe can be hazardous to your health and your career. Playing brings life and energy. Here is a valuable lesson you can learn about the difference between the two from my experience in a college art class.


(c) Thinkstock

I signed up for a basic design and color class because I thought it would be fun and different. I wanted something to round out the semester. Little did I know what I was getting into.

The Class

We started with black and white. Putting black shapes on white paper to learn the effective use of white space, the element of surprise, and more.

I made my designs and thought they were pretty good. Not great, but good. And every time I took my finished work into class, the teacher criticized it. It was too symmetrical, too dull, too safe. The design wasn’t lively; it didn’t hold your interest.

My Plan

I couldn’t imagine how I could make them different, and in fact, I LIKED my designs the way they were. I also began to get nervous about the class. I decided on a two-action strategy:

  1. Get the teacher to like my work by making it as weird as possible. I figured that our taste in art must clash. Thus, every time I got an assignment, I thought about what I would like. Then I turned it around and thought, “What would I hate? What would be the weirdest, most strange thing I could think of to do for this assignment?” And I made that.
  2. I took the course pass/fail. That was a back-up plan in case my first strategy didn’t work. Even if she still hated my work it wouldn’t negatively affect my cumulative index.

Guess what? It worked! She began praising my work. Soon every assignment became a game – how much more strange could I make this project than the one before? How much could I hate what I did?

One that I particularly remember was this: glue objects with different textures onto a board and spray paint it all one color. The purpose was to show that the same color looks different because of different textures. I found all kinds of stuff to put on my board: used cigarette butts, carpet fuzz, toilet paper rolls, and who knows what else (it was a long time ago). I had fun finding the most bizarre items possible. As I assembled the collage, I laughed at how silly it looked. I sprayed the board blue and turned it in.

What was going on at my art class?

By taking the class pass/fail, I was playing it safe. Don’t risk your college career because of a class you thought would be fun. Go for success. Control the situation to the best of your ability. Don’t risk failure. Good grades are more important than learning something challenging or stretching yourself.

On the other hand, when it came to creating the artwork itself, I was definitely playing. I thought I was gaming the system by trying to figure her out. However, now that I look back, what I was really doing was trying things for the fun of it. By freeing myself from having to make it look good, I was free to try anything. And, although I didn’t see it at the time, the result was more interesting and creative art.

Seth Godin is a huge proponent of playing. Saying “This might not work.” Daring to make art that could result in an epic fail. In his latest book, What Do Do When It’s Your Turn, he says that he who fails the most wins.

That is what it means to play. To do something and see where it leads. Experiment. Take things apart. Break the rules you’ve constructed in your own mind that can imprison you. Risk failure, embarrassment, ridicule.

It’s when we play that we create true art. Why? Because we breathe life into what we are doing. The Bible tells the story of God creating Adam. After he creates Adam, God then breathes life into him. When Adam was created, he existed. When God breathed into him, he was alive.

When we bring our whole self to our work, we breathe our life into it. Our work becomes imbued with us – it becomes more human. We also become vulnerable. If people reject our art, it feels like they are rejecting us. It is scary.

Even though it is scary, making art this way transforms us. As we put ourselves into our work, we are more alive. By giving ourselves away, we gain a greater sense of who we really are. We are enlivened.

When we play it safe, a part of us dies. Sometimes a big part.

And here’s a secret:  Playing it safe isn't safe.

Why not?

When we play it safe, we run the risk of becoming invisible. Ignored. Overlooked. The opposite of love is not hate. It is apathy. When you play it safe, over time you will cease to matter. It is easy to lay you off in the next downsizing. You look like everyone else: merely a replaceable part. There are cheaper replaceable parts in Ireland, India, or Indonesia.

Isn’t it better to be scared than dead? Or invisible?

Playing makes us more alive to ourselves and the world around us. Sure, we risk rejection, but rejection at least means that someone cared enough to respond. It is much closer to love than apathy. We just need to find the right audience. The right setting.

Back to my college art class. At the end of the semester, the professor talked to me. “I hope you’re going to take more classes. You showed a lot of potential, and grew quite a bit this semester.” I choked back laughter and said, “No. I was just taking this one for fun.” (Unsaid – It’s time to get back to the serious subjects.)

Then the professor said this, “I’m sorry to hear that. I would love to have you in another class. [dramatic pause] I also see that you took this class pass/fail. That’s too bad. I gave you an A.” –And I got a C in Shakespeare.

Play. Experiment. Have fun. Let yourself go. Try something just for the sake of doing it. At work, bring your human, playful, creative self. It’s really not more dangerous than playing it safe, and a whole lot more fun.

Is there an aspect of your life where you are playing it safe right now? What might it look like if you played instead? Click here to add to the conversation.


To Go Deeper

Play by Stuart Brown, MD

1. How often do you play it safe?  How can you add a little more play into your life?
2. Is there a particular part of your life where you have settled out of fear?  What would it take to be more bold and experiment with a new approach?
3. Do you feel guilty if you play?  How could you change your mind about the benefits of play?
4. What would you put on your play list?