Are You Playing or Are You Dead?


Go ahead, ask a kid what he likes to do. He says, “I like to play”.

What do you do when you’re not playing?

“What do you mean?” the kid might say, “I play some more”.

A kid can take a ROCK and then play with it. “Kick the rock”.

I’ll tell you the rules. I hope you and I can play this game.

You’re on one side and I’m the other and we put a rock in the middle and we try to kick it past each other. That’s it. And it’s fun.

No keeping score. No goals. We’re pushing and shoving and kicking and getting dirty. Some kid might say, “Whoah, that rock is a mineral!”

Who cares! We’re kicking and playing.

Ask an adult what he’s doing and he says something like, “I’m doing something serious.” We have to make money. So we can rise up some ladder. So we can make use of our education and afford our mortgage and our kids’ college educations.

Ok, I am not going to judge. I need to do this stuff also.

Well, when you’re not doing something serious, what are you doing?

“I like to relax,” an adult might say.

A kid never says “I like to relax”.

I can just picture myself and my 100% four-eyed friends back in the days of bikeriding, shoplifting, and McRibs.

Nobody ever said, “Listen guys, It’s been loads of fun today but I should relax now. Maybe listen to some jazz or opera.”

Kids only go “home” when adults tell them to.


Or if they have to go to school. Or a family event. And later on a job. Or a government event (a holiday like “Father’s Day” or voting or something really serious). Or a rehab facility.

Gradually kids become adults. They become walking standardized tests with all the circles filled in.

It starts with that ancient mystery: why can you only use #2 pencils? It’s called #2 for a reason.

We learn to be pessimistic and cynical. We learn to hide our feelings. We learn to get scared for more than a moment.

We crowd out the toys and songs and games we were originally blessed to know. We forget about play. That wonderful bubbling feeling that pours danger and excitement on everything we can see.

Of course, there are exceptions. Rock stars. Sergey Brin, Scarlett Johanssen, etc. They get to still play when they want.

But you can be an exception also.

You don’t need money to create the world you live in.  You play FIRST.

Sergey Brin started off poor as shit. He was a janitor in Stanford’s math department until he solved an ancient formula on the chalkboard.

Scarlett Johanssen lived in and sang in the orphanage until that rich bald guy adopted her.

But they played. And they kept playing. And the play made them special.

That’s how you unravel mystery, invention, WOW!, and all the things that create passion, enough money to provide, and whatever else your needs are.

You choose the world you live in. It’s an item on a menu. Right now you choose.

If you aren’t choosing, you’re excusing.

The sad thing is, I can tell you from experience, is that when you opt for “play world” (not as porn as it sounds), the rest of the world doesn’t like it. They spent a lot of time, effort, and money on being serious.

When you opt to find the play in the small events that add up to a day, a year, a lifetime, you will change. You will transform.

You will be the one person around you who can read between the lines and see that it was all meant for play all along. With no exceptions.

I hope you choose to come out and play. Kicking the rock. Building the fort. Painting with magic fingers. Small angers disappear in a flash of laughter.

But I’m going to warn you now. The adults are looking for you in the dark. They will drag you home. They will punish you if you let them.

Ignore them.

Please don’t let them switch off your lights.

I write this not as advice. I write this because it is the advice I need to give myself each day. I hope I follow this advice today. I hope I follow this advice tomorrow. And the day after that.


47 Responses to “Are You Playing or Are You Dead?”

  1. William Says:

    Happy New Year James ,! Thanks for you insights !

  2. Joe Choi Says:

    James, have you ever seen Improv Everywhere? I always like watching their videos when I need a good laugh. They like to “play” in real life.

    My favorites are the staged musicals. They also did a Star Wars scene on the subway once that was funny.

  3. Dawn Casey-Rowe Says:

    You’re right. I’ve been playing a lot this year. And it makes all the difference. Great post. Especially the reference to “them.” Because “they” don’t like to play…Reminds me of the Christmas special where the Burgermeister takes the toys…

  4. Jeffro Says:

    James, first of all great post. What do you think of the saying “Work hard, play hard” I think its a bunch of bullshit. People feel the need to do extreme hobbies thinking it will remove them from the depression of their cubicle jobs. However, I’ve discovered that the simplest of games are the most fun and enjoyable. People spend thousands of dollars on these extreme hobbies when they can spend a little bit of money and experience the simple pleasures of life, which are more enjoyable for me.

    • James Altucher Says:

      I think it’s BS also. What does “work” even mean? It’s somehow a word given to us by the prior generation so we “pay our dues”. But what does that even mean? Does it mean we have to be unhappy (pay with unhappiness) in order to be happy?

      • Jeffro Says:

        Thank you for responding James, and I totally agree. It is if we are preserving a perpetual cycle of unhappiness to pass on from one generation to the next. If we really wanted our children to be happy we would tell them to do whatever they want despite the salary! Not force them to major in Accounting

      • Osaghae Napoleon Irianan Says:

        I’ve always hated that saying…and to be honest it has NEVER once made sense to me, your “work” shouldn’t be separate from your life if it’s something you’re really passionate about!….I just wanna PLAY HARD!

    • Otaddy Says:

      People pursue extreme hobbies so that they can brag to their friends.

  5. wcvarones Says:

    me gusta

  6. Cherry Scoth Says:

    I have to say that I’ve been waiting for you post so much. And It is always excellent with a little touch of WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I found out that the main reason that I wanted to grow up when I was little was that I didn’t wanted to go home and stop playing. When I was laying down on my bed I still was (the pink power ranger, Link, Kula from KOF, green lantern, Wonderwoman, storm, super man…) On my mind LOL. I knew other girls only liked to play with me cause my barbies were dressed up as a super hero. And that’s really cool. There was my neighbor Yaneth that never liked my super hero costumes. But she allowed me to play with her cause she always wanted to be the princess and I was the one who saved her. And we were both happy I wanted to be the hero and she wanted to be the princess. We were both ok with that cause at end of day the day no matter what my preferences were, we needed each other to play.

    Now I realize no matter what your preferences are.
    The world still needs a super hero. You are a Real life super Hero.

  7. John Says:

    Sergey Brin a janitor? Scarlet Johansen adopted?

  8. ajmccann605 Says:

    Thanks James…especially the #2 line…

    He was a horrible person, but I’ve always been powered by Kahlil Gibran’s quote: “Work is love made visible, and if you cannot work with love then it is better to sit at the gates of the city and take alms from those who do.”

    Feels similar to me…

  9. ppearlman Says:

    i love playing with my kids. i dont mean supervising them. I mean joining them and letting go of the reality chord until my balloon is drifting into clouds right alongside theirs. we had the pearlman bowl this past weekend and saturday night we chased each other around in circles thru the kitchen, foyer, dining room to my exhaustion… its the most fun i have i think.

  10. Osaghae Napoleon Irianan Says:

    “you choose the world you live in, it’s an item on the menu”….Amazing!
    what an adventurous year this has been and what an article to end the year James! I played a lot this year to the opposition of certain people who thought they knew or know what i want best for myself. I intend to play a lot more in the coming year (and years)

    Thanks for the words James
    Looking forward to reading more of your articles next year Mentor


  11. Stephanie Says:

    Beautifully written! Thank you!

  12. Steven Says:

    Your best?

  13. Sam Chisholm Says:

    You choose the world you live in. It’s an item on a menu…. Wow! That’s such a true statement, yet so many will never get there because they don’t/can’t believe it. I did it this year and it’s paid off handsomely. Not quite playing yet, but I see the way to the playground. Thanks James.

  14. Viv Says:

    Thanks, James. I’m going back to work after maternity leave, so I hope I can keep that “playful” spirit going. Happy new year to you, and keep writing!

  15. Evan Salveson Says:

    I remember having LEGOs and Lincoln Logs as a kid and just being lost for hours. I don’t remember having directions on what to build. LEGOs today come with directions and a big picture on a box. Great article James. We need more imagination in life.

  16. Threats Says:

    Great article Mr. Honest

  17. Stimpy Says:

    I think the playing and fun stopped for me when I came of age and realized where I fit in to the pecking order in terms of sexual attractiveness … or lack thereof. This is also where the abuses and losses of my childhood came home to roost. Good article. Brings back memories of happier, less addictive times. I wish I could turn back the clock … or are you saying that is still possible?

  18. Hooty Says:

    Hmm, once an adult and twice a child? So, it’s that somewhere in the middle that things get all screwed up??? 🙂 (Btw: you will always be a child to your parent(s)!:)

  19. Renan Piccolo Colombini Says:

    My new favorite entry of yours.

  20. Yogesh A. Mujumdar Says:

    Great post. We grow and and follow the path laid out by our parents, parents parents and so on. We forget, we detach the child within us who only liked to play without worrying of ‘what next?’. Your posts are very insightful and touchy. Hereafter, I will make my best to listen to the child within me. Thanks James 🙂

  21. ernohannink Says:

    Let’s play into 2014 🙂 Wishing you a great new year with lots of play James.

  22. Gary Says:

    James, can I suggest a small modification to your idea? Play shouldn’t be an alternative to seriousness. It should be a mode of operation — being curious, trying new ways, inventing thinking-doing combinations. Make “play” the way you approach “work” and work becomes interesting. Get rid of the duality and you get rid of the boredom. Don’t be driven by the outputs; be creative with the inputs.

  23. The Whacky Chronicle Says:

    I really needed to read this today. My life over the past few years has become a mental living hell, worrying about all those adult issues and not experiencing any fun or joy. I’ve been struggling in a job I hate because I don’t believe enough in myself that I can find a job I will enjoy doing that will also pay the bills. It seems that every waking minute when I’m not at work I’m consumed with my job and wishing I could change things.

    The concept that you only have one life to live, and everyone will die wasn’t
    registering with me. So, I can either continue down the path I’ve been going and die miserable, or make the commitment to do whatever it takes to be happy, enjoy life and die with no regrets. I choose the latter and have made this my 2014 Resolution.

    Thank you for wonderful insight.

  24. Joe Says:

    Hi James,
    I agree for the most part. Also a lot of serious professions offer less than great value to society. But how does a doctor “play” his way through med school, residency, etc? Society does need doctors, surgeons, etc.

  25. JoeFilipowicz Says:

    Love this James. I think the key to success on playing more for me is to really drill into what is making me think of things as work in the first place. What is keeping me from thinking of it as play? What’s the underlying fear (most likely) keeping me from having that perspective.

  26. john barry Says:

    Wonderful post, thank you so much! Time to play, again.

  27. Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D. Says:

    Excellent post as usual. I also value childrens curiosity and imagination. We tend to be less curious as we get older and it can slow our learning if we let it.

  28. Ross McCay Says:

    Good stuff James. I look forward to your next post!

  29. Bryan Parman Says:

    This is one of my favorite posts yet. Always inspiring. After reading your book I started writing my own blog and a lot of the messages I make mirror things you try and convey as well (

  30. Dan Shure Says:

    A book I think you and anyone else interested might like a lot is called ‘Free Play: Improvisation In Life And Art’

  31. JC Webb Says:

    You just captured the beauty of Tom Hanks’ movie BIG from the 80’s. Anyone remember that one?

  32. cynthia Says:

    Play like your life depends on it. It really does.

  33. Marc_Razia Says:

    “Sergey Brin started off poor as shit. He was a janitor in Stanford’s math department until he solved an ancient formula on the chalkboard.”

    Great stuff James. But since when is Sergei Brin the real Good Will Hunting? I’m mildly embarrassed (OK not really) to admit that I had to go and look it up to see if it was actually true. Maybe you should be more obvious when you insert fiction as truth or at the references that prove this to be true buried past page one of Google’s search results?

  34. Mateo Says:

    Some of the most fun I had this summer was when we got a bunch of our friends together after work, bought a few of those blue rubber bouncy balls, took an old broomstick, and went to an abandoned parking lot to play stickball. We’d end up using our cars as bases and playing till the sun went down. And we’d keep score, but at the end of the day it didn’t really matter who won from one day to the next.

    James is right, get out there and play. Who knows, you could have a lot of fun.

  35. KathAnnBur Says:

    What you’re saying is similar to
    the Logical Song (Supertramp)

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