Deep Play is something I have been practicing for years but never talked about specifically. It’s neither a mental model nor a philosophy. For the lack of a better word, let’s call it a lifehack.

This note got triggered after a brief conversation on Twitter with Tom Critchlow and Jonny Miller about the importance of closed communities and play.

Amidst that conversation, I tweeted a quippy definition of Deep Play that made me ponder: “Deep Play = playing with ideas, debating over weak signals, turning them into prototypes, and when something passes the quality threshold, collaborate.”

I discovered the term Deep Play from anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s essay on Balinese Cockfighting. In Balinese traditions, an cock-owner spends years of effort on training their cock for public cockfights and even in additional to betting a big chunk of thier life-savings, they attach their personal honor to the outcome of the cockfight.

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight - Wikipedia

The term Deep Play, however, originates not from Geertz, but from 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who described it as ‘a game where stakes are so high no rational person would play it’.

My definition is quite different and without that negative connotation. I see Deep Play as taking that extra chance where I can’t justify the ‘risk-reward’ equation instantly, where the ROI is currently illegible and even ambiguous. Still, the experimental exploration aspect of the subject matter involved or the particular activity is so personally compelling that I can’t ignore it.

Cheery Nihilism to the Rescue

The key to building a habit of Deep Play is to add a pinch of cheery-nihilism to the mix of DIY experimentation and rational optimism. Once you internalize that the “big game” that you get so engrossed in has real limits to what it can give you in terms of material returns as well the meaning you can derive from it. As my internship guide Ioannis Poulios told me once when I got too entangled in the project that it started affecting my everyday life, “Vinay, Take it Easy”. This seemingly obvious advice stuck with me over the years and has become my go-to-phrase for self-advice while honing my Deep Play instincts.

–>illustrations by Vijay Verma

I first consciously used a version of my evolving understanding of Deep Play in dating and had some spectacular experiences that would have been unlikely to happen if I always avoided ambiguity and let the lack of logic override my strong instinct. Being grown up watching romantic Hindi movies, starting to “take it easy” in any romantic relationship has allowed me to unlearn and peel off the distorted mental models of intimacy and companionship.

When you make a habit of Deep Play, you get comfortable with future uncertainty and fear turns into a sense of thrill to try new things for the experience of doing it. Doing that regularly can open unpredictable opportunities & spontaneous conversations can become deep collaborations. It can also be tiring at times to process the ambiguity of not being able to chart the ROI of your short-term actions.

After I started to more keenly observe my self-learning process, it became apparent that I was developing a Deep Play approach to learning as well. I would discover a fascinating new concept, practice, or even a new field, I would jump in for hours of digging on the web. From Wikipedia rabbit holes to binging YouTube interviews/talks to trying out new models and products that are being developed at the state-of-the-art edge in that field. If the subject matter continues to hold my attention, within a few months, I find myself at the intermediate level where I can grok the conversations happening between the most interesting pioneers of the field and sometimes even participate at the margins of the conversation. Deep Play is like Deep Sleep, in a sense. Both are temporary states when you lose consciousness of the rigid structures around you or you refactor your perception of them to fit it to a new structural framework you just came up with. Also, in both these states, you play with new possibilities that might pose an existential risk with your status quo. In Deep Sleep, you do it with dreams and In Deep Play, you do it with experimental DIY. You can chart and experience new ‘adventures’ with others in Deep Sleep but usually, you don’t have the conscious control of choosing your co-adventures. In Deep Play, you have that conscious control.

Margins to the Core

Now I engage often in Deep Play. It is usually initiated through prolonged conversations with people who share my interests/aspirations but might be working/learning in a domain/context that’s neither immediately relevant to mine nor immediately adjacent. After soaking the ramp-up knowledge of a field that continues to hold my interest for over a month, I like to jump in the deep end of the play sooner than later. I use the cutting-edge products as a beta-user, start my small side-collabs with interesting acquaintances, and participate in messy conversations inside closed communities where the behind-the-scenes stuff happens before the sanitized version appears out in the public. This has pushed upwards my ratio of deep play to light play(equivalent to deep sleep / light sleep) by 3x in the past year.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. How does this overlap with the product development process in an interdisciplinary context?

  2. Is Deep Play a differentiating habit of experimenting generalists like me or even expert generalists (who prefer having a grand unifying theory and belief in the inherent meaning behind the universe) practice this in some other form?

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