Today, Jeff Harry is helping adults tap into what drove them as a kid by entering a state of play and rediscovering their true selves. Through play, we can add more joy to our lives and feel just like a kid again.
In this Interview:
- Jeff’s Influence Growing up
- Jeff experience being part of a minority race
- Starting Rediscover Your Playground
- Why did we stop playing?
- How Does One Play in Adulthood?
Let’s get right into it!
Jeff’s Influence Growing up
TW: Racial Discrimination
Jeff, growing up, was a “nerd.” Being “Philipino and Black” and living in a predominantly white suburb, he couldn’t change much physically to fit in with the ‘it’ crowd. He tried matching their hairstyle, getting the bangs, and styling it with moose, but that only resulted in a disaster resembling a “raccoon’s butt.”
That didn’t stop him, he did whatever he could to be cool and accepted by the popular crowd. So when an exclusive pool party came around the corner, he begged his friend, Antonio, a Latino, to take Jeff with his friend (Joey). However, once he got there he experienced something that would change his life forever.
From the entrance, Jeff heard a fight going on inside, between the guys who threw the party and a couple of Jeff’s “Black” friends. At one point they pushed each other, and the ‘leader’ stated, “we don’t want any niggers at this party.”
At that moment Jeff was scared. Scared they’d find out he was one. Scared they wouldn’t accept him. With all the time and energy he spent trying to fit in, he couldn’t think about his friends. All he could think about was himself, he wanted to get in. And then they saw him.
The guys scanned Antonio and Joey by Jeff’s side, finally looking up at him, and back at Antonio asking, “Is he with you?” To which, Antonio plainly replied, “he’s Latino.” And they let him in, without saying a word.
That nonchalance was everything for Jeff. But walking in he felt like he was leaving a major part of himself behind. Finally surrounded by the popular crowd having fun around him, Jeff felt the loneliest he had ever felt in his life (at that time). In that moment, Jeff made a pact – he was done being cool.
As freshman year came, Jeff spent most of his free time inventing games and having fun in his basement. Soon he was joined by more ‘nerds’ who were tired of trying to fit in. They made a place of comfort and fun, somewhere they could openly be themselves, playing ridiculous games they made up. Because that was what resonated with Jeff.
And what’s ironic about it all, is that that is the work Jeff does now. He creates safe spaces for people to address challenging issues through play.
“Because that was the one safe place, in my basement, where I could be me and let other people be themselves.”
Dealing with being bi-racial
In the book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson talks about the bias in stereotypes that we all unconsciously have about “Black” people, and Jeff defied almost all it; paired with being bi-racial growing up was tough. He remembers how his sisters and he got rejected by both the “White” and “Black” kids.
“I always felt like I was an Outsider.”
This was true anywhere he went, even in his parents' home countries – the Caribbean or the Philippines.
“I took on that vail, of the Outsider… because that's how I really felt. I really felt like it was my coping mechanism.”
It also didn't help that his last name was ‘Harry.’ People often made it, taking up different combinations of his name like “Harry Dick” if his name was Richard, and that was his nickname for close to a decade. But Jeff believes that the only reason he has humor today is to cope with that time.
Jeff experience being part of a minority race
Being named Jeff Christopher Harry (which sounded like a classic “White name”) was interesting. He believes that in many situations people often hear his name expecting one type of person, and are immediately taken aback to see him as Jeff Harry.
“Depending on what organization or company I was at, I remember feeling I had to code-switch a lot.”
When he was working at Toys R Us at the corporate office, Jeff believed it was a dream come true, a stepping ladder to designing toys. But unfortunately, any input he ever put in was almost always overlooked. He remembers thinking about why he was in an organization that doesn't value and care for him or his opinions.
Starting Rediscover Your Playground
Influenced by the movie Big, Jeff wrote to toy companies from a young age, because he sincerely believed that his path was the same as the protagonist. So he wrote them on his word processor from 5th grade to high school, and he would constantly get rejection letters sent back. He believes that the companies thought he was an adult as he typed and spammed letters to each and every brand he knew of.
Eventually, a company wrote back, advising Jeff to take up Mechanical Engineering. Later on in life, he enrolled and attended Tuff for the very same. But he soon realized how much he hated the path, but he stuck to it, head held high to please his father. After which, he moved to New York and applied to every toy company he could find.
Similar to young Jeff, he got countless rejections, that is until he wrote to Toys R Us explaining they needed to open up their toys and play with them in-store, getting him an interview into the company. He soon was offered a job, the very same that made him realize how corporations treated him.
When the 9/11 terrorist attack stuck and the twin towers fell, Jeff was sitting in his cubicle and upon hearing the news realized he didn't want to die there, in a cubicle. That day he chose to leave the corporate office and join the store in time square (which would come to be known as the biggest toy store in the world) and played with toys for a whole year.
After eventually leaving the company and New York, Jeff went to the Bay, worked for numerous other companies, but he always felt like something fundamental was missing.
“Each time I worked for them, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. It felt like they were selling plastic and weren’t actually fun… There was no play for them.”
Fortunately, Jeff came across a Craigs’s listing where 7 people were teaching kids engineering through Lego, and he took the job. Over a decade later, he and the team grew the company to over 400 employees and became one of the largest Lego-inspired STEM organizations in the country (if not the world).
“The whole time we were doing it, we were just making it up. We had no idea what we were doing. We were just playing. And we would also hire people who were down to play.”
Soon tech companies started contacting them asking if they worked with adults too, they said yes even though they were not in that niche. Jeff remembers that during the team-building workshops, he would see adults talk about creativity and collaboration seriously, with no play. That was when he realized that there was a deeper problem to be addressed. Hence, the birth of Rediscover your play.
“Let's get to the root issue. Let's talk about toxicity in the workplace. Let's talk about a-holes in the workplace. Let's talk about ‘how to not be racist by accident in the workplace.’ Let's talk about how to play with your inner child.”
Jeff believes that there's a lot of damage that you may have had as a child, and that is affecting all of your work right now. And that is what is at the core of his company today.
They hold workshops where they target hard-hitting issues that occur in workplaces to bring in empathy. They put people in other people's shoes, to help them have harder conversations and build an environment of exclusivity.
Why did we stop playing?
There's an interesting study by Dr. Stuart Brown – The Doctor of Play – and he studied the firsts ever school shooter from the 1970s, looking into his life and brain. Dr. Brown found that he never played, he suffered what he referred to as, Play Deprivation.
That brings us back to a popular saying “the opposite of play is depression.” Jeff states that we’ve reduced the time of play (recess) in schools every year! And the amazing thing about this session is freedom of choice for the children. They can choose whatever they want to do during their free time, they could play, watch, sit down, and talk… the world was open. Jeff believes that taking away that time, from either schools or home lives as parents have ‘scheduled plays.’ It takes away the opportunity to be truly autonomous from the child.
Jeff states that in recent times our human culture has created a certain ideal for all children to follow – people are constantly telling them what to do. Growing up parents often guild kids down careful paths, and by the time they reach school children are taught to raise hands for each and everything.
“By the time you are 14 0r 15, you have heard over 40,000 ‘No’s. From Parents. From teachers… It’s being indoctrinated that there's a certain way you're supposed to show up and that certain way is not you. If you are being yourself you are being mischievous.”
This is why Jeff really loves the title “Unmistakable Creative” – for you to be creative is almost a rebellion against all of the certain ways stated by teachers, parents, friends, and society. For one to step aside and follow their curiosity is revolutionary, and the irony behind it is people and schools praise the creative rebel.
“There’s something about pursuing where the fun is…. The future is where the fun is”
Jeff’s Advice to Parents
“First, try not to live vicariously through them.”
As much as they are a reflection of you, they are not you. And one of the greatest gifts you can allow them to have is to figure out who they are. But if you are constantly telling them what they need to do, then they never have time.
“Second. Allow them to play more!”
In Randy Pausch’s last lecture he stated that his parents let him draw over the walls, they gave him the freedom to find out what he loves – the freedom to follow his curiosity.
“Third. Your kids do not listen to your word, they watch your actions.”
Children often take examples from the people they see around them. They’re constantly watching and mimicking actions. Therefore, “regardless of what you say, actions speak volumes to them.”
How Does One Play in Adulthood?
Jeff advises that people need to schedule playtime. They need to allocate time to get bored and listen to the voice of curiosity. For example, write that blog, make that video, try this recipe, etc. He recommends to shut off from the world, socials and all, and sit till boredom consumes you, with that silence curiosity will lead you to a path of play.
“I've never seen someone go through personal transformation until they get tired of their own bullshit” – Elizabeth G
He believes that people often tie their value to productivity, which was a challenge especially during the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic. But the boredom invited curiosity and people, including Jeff, got over their bullshit and followed the path of creativity and play.
“It challenged me to be creative and create stuff with no result.”
The way Jeff defines play is – anything you do that brings you fully present, where you are not thinking or regretting about the past, or anxious about the furniture, you’re fully in the process. And when you’re fully in the process you allow yourself the ability to get into flow.
“You know you're in flow when you forget about time when you’re fully immersed in something.”
Jeff challenges you to find that flow. Reach out to your friends, ask when about the last time they saw you truly happy, present, full of delight and joy. Have many people reflect that back at you, and that the snippet of play that you need to start to explore.
People often become result-oriented, where they focus on the perfect process, disappointed by any other path. Jeff believes that this, having instant gratification, is where people miss out on opportunities. That is why he pushes people towards finding that flow, and to have a more play-oriented mindset.
“I refer to the play-oriented mindset, to where you are just saying yes to everything… Pursuing your curiosity.”
The Role of Technology
Would you consider video games as play?
Jeff believes this is a debatable topic, to truly understand if an activity is play you have to look at the markers:
- Does it make you fully present?
- Does it meet your difficulty and skill level?
- Do you sometimes feel in flow?
If video gaming agrees with all these questions, then yes, video games can be play, at times.
Another example would be social media. There's healthy social media where you show up, talk to a few friends, do something creative, and then leave. Then there's unhealthy social media, where you show up and are just scrolling for 4 hours, maybe more.
With technology, the aspect of play can be tricky. For example, if you were binge-watching Netflix, at some point you’re going to say, “I need to stop, I’m starting to feel sick” like you’ve eaten too many Cheetos. Jeff believes that like everything, it needs to come in moderation, you need to ask yourself – why am I doing this? How do you feel? Does it bring you joy?
Because if it’s not joy bringing, stop, do something else.
There's moderation and humility where you know, “I’m not going to be happy all the time, I don't need to be, but I can always follow my curiosity. I can always explore stuff. And when I don’t like it then I move on to something else.”
Jeff’s thoughts on what makes someone an Unmistakable
“When you were your weird, nerdy, strangest self.”
Allowing that inner child, and bubble up is unmistakable. The people you think of that are unmistakable are super weird, they’re super strange. They’ve gone completely against convention and they’re just shopping up as themself without apology