My father likes to tell the story of growing up in Manhattan, and how he and the other boys on his block used to gather to play stickball in the streets. Sometimes, they’d venture uptown one subway stop and challenge the boys from that block to a game. They’d play all day.
I grew up in the suburbs. I played Little League. We had uniforms sponsored by the local fire department. Every player was guaranteed to play at least three innings. One of the moms would sell “50-50” tickets during the game to raise money. There were umpires, league standings and even playoffs and all-star teams. It was fun.
But somehow I don’t think it was as fun as the games of stickball my father describes.
There’s something seductive about the efficiencies that come from top-down organization. We think we can improve things through management, division of labor, specialization, and money. But my fondest memories of childhood are the times when I was just playing, improvising with my friends, solving our own problems as they came up. Top-down management tends to sanitize, and rob activities of their inherent joy.
Here’s another example. The traditional school where I used to work had a giant smoke stack that stood tall in the sky. It was a common custom for seniors to, in the middle of the night, somehow climb to the top of the smoke stack and spray paint the numbers of their graduation year near the top. It was seen by the students as an expression of class pride.
It was seen by the administration, rightly, as incredibly dangerous. So they would do everything in their power to stop the tradition, including blocking all reasonable entrances to the smoke stack and starting the school year with a threat of expulsion for anyone caught in the act. It never worked. Every year, the stack got painted. The thrill was just too tempting; the bond it cemented among the seniors was too powerful.
To me, stopping the tradition seemed easy. All they had to do was get Sherwin Williams to donate the paint, ask the fire department to set up safety nets, invite the local media and make it an all-school event. If they wanted to stop this behavior, all they had to do was take the joy out of it. And the best way to take the joy out of something is to strip away the spontaneity and manage the process from the top-down.