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September 26, 2006

Why We Do It

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

I met my old friend, Andy, at Chrissy Field this weekend. He had his family and I had mine. Plus, we had a Frisbee, four bottles of water, a slowly deflating football and two sand buckets. Not ten minutes into it, we started to make up a game. This is Andy’s specialty. In fact, as he outlined the rules, I could see the faded outlines of a hundred previous games. A speed round where you run with a bucket upside down on your head, bonus points for making a catch with a toddler on your hip, negative points for whining—all the makings of a game that could entertain us all for an hour. And it did, even as we appealed to Andy for clarification on one rule or another. Suffice it to say, Sunday was one of those completely satisfying days where you feel like things really couldn’t be any better.

Then came Monday. Bad day, Monday. A children’s book I have been tinkering with (well, okay, more like laboring over) for oh, six months or so was slapped down by an agent at ICM in New York. Then, an article I pitched to a magazine that no one I know reads (no sour grapes here) was rejected as unoriginal. This, from a magazine that has an article on flattening your abs each and every month. (Again, no sour grapes.) Oh, and the pedal on my daughter’s new bike fell off and she’s been asking me to fix it every day for a week now. Suffice it to say, Monday was an ugly mix of frustrated and overwhelmed.

Then I talked to my husband—stick with me here—who had just finished a long meeting about the new product his company is developing. The feature list is apparently growing as each engineer thinks up a new bell or whistle that will make the product irresistible to the market. Just when the work seemed like it was about to cross over from challenging to grueling, someone laughed and said, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” My husband quoted his old boss at TiVo, Mike Ramsay, the guy who thought up that most wonderful of all gadgets. When asked the same question by his team, Mike said “Smart people will make tasks complex enough to make them interesting.”

Oh, so that’s what we’re all doing. That’s why my friend Beth breads and fries chicken for her kids instead of grabbing a big bag of frozen nuggets at Safeway and why Amie makes Halloween costumes fit for the cover of Martha Stewart Kids. That’s why Christine signed up to be a room parent while she’s writing her PhD dissertation and why John volunteered to coach soccer while he’s remodeling almost every room in his house. Besides wanting to do right by our kids, we all crave a certain level of complexity. Complexity keeps things interesting.

So now, when I find myself adding projects to my To Do list, when I see my hand go up for the fundraising committee, when I decide to keep pushing my children’s book up the hill, I just shrug my shoulders and think, “You did this to yourself, Kelly. Admit it, you like it. You could kick back, fixing broken toys and keeping the fridge stocked but you’d miss the speed rounds and bonus points.” And so would everyone you know, whether they are opening a small business or planting an herb garden. That’s what makes them compelling, evolving people—they know how to make up a good game.