Episode 42

Purveyor of Delight

From explaining how and why play works to build social skills and civic responsibility, to reframing the substitute teaching experience for students and teachers, to leading a social entrepreneurship course at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, Jill Vialet intentionally considers how to infuse delight into each endeavor for every participant. Listen in to learn more, consider different perspectives and be delighted.

Featured on the Show
“There're so many reasons to believe that being playful is a solid hallmark of emotional intelligence. And is an essential precursor to trust, building rapport and all these things that we know enable human collaboration to be much more effective. When you think about how you're going to bring play about and really infuse it meaningfully into everything from school systems to workplaces, there is a need to present things quite simply and directly.”


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to another episode of the ONEder podcast. This is your host, CCB. And today we're going to have a conversation, yes, with yet another amazing, amazing human being who interestingly, is in our general work environment, but with the tentacles into so many other areas. And so I'm going to welcome Jill Vialet to the ONEder podcast. Jill, we're so happy you joined us.

Jill Vialet: [00:00:38] It's great to be here.

CCB: [00:00:39] And I'm going to say like I always like to say, tell us how you got to where you are today. And there's so many levels of where you are today, that you can tell us however you want to share that story.

Jill Vialet: [00:00:51] Yeah, sure. So, I think how I got to be where I am today, I trace it back to being a kid growing up in Washington, DC. And I'm 58, and so I'm that generation of women who, I got to play every day. I often was playing with the boys, and I had this experience of basically feeling most myself and most comfortable and connected to others when I was outside playing. And so, I think pretty much you can trace all of my different entrepreneurial efforts, all the sort of different successes that I've had, like great, amazing adventures that I've pursued to sort of an early awareness that was the place that I felt most myself, most comfortable. And I brought to it a certain sense of empathy and belief that if that was true for me, that was probably resonant for others as well.

CCB: [00:01:58] So interesting question there, when you bring up the empathy and how you, the way that you just described that, that was a very kind of insular "you" playing. Yeah, but there's it's Jill and obviously there's "Jill family" and "Jill school" and "Jill social" and Jill and in that.

Jill Vialet: [00:02:17] I sound like a Barbie doll that I have like all these different like Barbie, you.

CCB: [00:02:21] No, I'm describing that, of course not. We could pull apart the parts and pieces and add the different layers if we want to. But more to the point of, you know, do you believe that this was inherent? That this was an innate quality that you had, or was there someone or something that helped you be more aware?

Jill Vialet: [00:02:41] Uh, I do think I mean, I think most things are a mix of sort of inherent and environmental. So, for sure growing up in the seventies in Washington, D.C., it was a time when you could play outside every day after school, and there was the local Park and Rec with this guy Clarence, who was the rec coordinator, who made sure I got in the game. And I did have classroom teachers who were like groovy environmentalists who were really excited about me learning about ecology and encouraged me to go backpacking. And so, and my parents, who were just always like, “you can do and be what you want to be”, you know, like it's pretty unconditionally supportive. Thoroughly disinterested by any interest I had in sports, they were not humans who went outside, particularly themselves. But they were like, “that's great for you, you go forth.” So I think all those factors contribute. I also think personally, I am something of an introvert. I think I like other people. I get energy from being alone, I think. And I and then I think also there's just a truth that as a human mammal, we are intended to be outside some of the time. And that it is actually good for our brains. And especially in this world where so much is coming at us all the time, that making sure that we have time to be outside. And playing, right, doing activities that have no apparent purpose. Those two things I think are how we're wired. I think that is the reason play has survived evolution is because we need it to sort of thrive and survive.

CCB: [00:04:24] Well, I also thought it was interesting on your blog post and for all of our listeners, we of course, will leave. we have information on the website of Jill's contact information in her website, etc., etc., so you can dive much more deeply into some of this, which is amazing information and insights that Jill has to share. But your your blog says has this little quote that I quote, but just a comment that I like that said people need meaning, the opportunity for mastery and community to thrive. And I think that's a continuing theme through everything that you do.

Jill Vialet: [00:05:00] It is. And I should attribute, it's in some ways a paraphrase of of Carl Jung. I didn't totally just come up with it all by myself. So, yeah, no. And I think that has been something that I've both been like the beneficiary of myself, but also like in building organizations and managing humans. And it's, and teaching, you know. I've seen it over and over again that when you give people this opportunity for meaning, mastery and community, they are much more likely to thrive. And when you systematically remove it from their sort of work lives or other ways of connecting, some of the stuff we saw in the pandemic, right, then you really do set people up to fail and to languish. And and I think, so I would point directly one of the projects I've been working on the last few years I launched while I was a fellow at Stanford at the d.school, so brought human centered design to this question of substitute teaching. And really, if you look at substitute teaching, it's a perfect example of a dysfunctional legacy system where they have systematically sort of cut out opportunities for meeting. Mastery and community. And and then we wonder why people like don't thrive in that environment.

CCB: [00:06:22] Oh, my goodness. Literally, when I saw that and we talked about this a little bit earlier, I have a lot of educators in my family and the idea of developing a network and a system, to support tools to and the process to shift the perspective on. I remember when, we all went to Catholic schools, so we had either the nuns or when we had substitute teachers, it was like a treat. We saw it as like, oh yay, it's going to be something new and interesting. And and I'm sure one of the reasons for that was it was just it was introduced that way. Not this is the bane of existence.

Jill Vialet: [00:07:05] No, it totally is such an environment ripe for a narrative shift. Right. Like we've seen districts that call them guest instructors and it doesn't have to be this sort of narrative that we've created. I find it so fascinating, too, because the sort of popular story around how subs work and this sort of expectation that is set for kids that they will actually misbehave, that they will in fact be unkind to these humans, that that is weirdly celebrated in this way. It's such a disservice to everybody involved, not least of all the kids who are like somehow are getting this message that this is an okay way to treat someone who is a guest in your classroom. It's very, I'm struck by how disempowering it is of students as drivers of their own education.

CCB: [00:07:51] Yeah, you can march right into that agency and where does that begin? But I don't want to go there yet. What I do want to say. Don't go there. You can come back, we can go back to that. But no, more what I wanted you to talk about was to have you talk about was the idea of having your business card, and I don't think that it says this, but it might. Social entrepreneur. How does how does the movement through your education process and then the paths that you chose to take help you understand or realize that that's what you are.

Jill Vialet: [00:08:29] Yeah. So I'm teaching a course right now on social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley for undergrads through the Haas School of Business. So I've been thinking a lot about what does it mean? It's it's a pretty kind of catch all it's, it's funny and now it's, it's it's sort of expanded to more broadly include social enterprise in a lot of ways. And I'm old enough that I was a pretty early class of Ashoka social entrepreneurs. I think I was the second class in North America. And Bill Drayton, actually the founder of Ashoka, who coined the term social entrepreneur, was my first speaker for my class. And so, I remember sort of before times like before that was even a phrase. I think it's useful in some ways to to think of myself in that regard, because it gives me a context and a sense of like, Oh yeah, I'm doing this thing I like, I like starting businesses, I like starting businesses that have a measurable social return. I'm really particularly interested in in creating organizations where the ultimate beneficiaries are key partners in the change making that it's not doing it for, but with that, really ultimately the goals of the businesses I like to start the organizations really is around systems change. Ultimately, that is very driven by the communities that that should own these systems, but not often. I often also think that being a social entrepreneur creates a window into recognizing that a lot of the systems that we're trying to address, they're not broken in a lot of ways.

Jill Vialet: [00:10:09] In fact, they're operating exactly as they were designed to. And one of my other speakers was Alexandra Bernadette from Beyond 12, and she brought that up with my students. And it was wild to see the students mostly just accept that concept, and not see that as sort of provocative or strange. But then also wanting it not to be true. And so watching. So anyway, being at this nexus where I do identify as as such. I don't. I'm also a little reticent about it in some ways because I think there has been this sort of, just like we did with entrepreneurs more broadly back in the nineties and stuff. There is a sort of glorification of it, sort of the faux rock star kind of. It makes me a little itchy and I'm like, that's not right. And I think it's important to be to to look at anything with like a critical eye. Right? And I think there's been a lot of good writing around ways in which social entrepreneurship contributes to maintaining the systems that it theoretically endeavors to address. And that feels worthy of like paying attention and questioning, and and keeping a sort of skeptical eye about how much are we...if you have to sell your own hype, how much are you buying it?

CCB: [00:11:33] Well, I often think of the folks that we talked to on the ONEder podcast, that there's such substance to what they have done and the body of work, that it speaks for itself and whatever labels are that need to be attached, then the labels are attached and we know what labels are forward to in the positive and the helpful. And then we know what labels can do in the negative and a disservice. But but what your name comes synonymous with in a huge way around the Bay Area is Playworks. And so and you've spent you spend a really a lot of time and effort and contributed self to this astonishing work. And so I would love for you to spend some time talking about that.

Jill Vialet: [00:12:25] Yeah well, I mean I spent 25 years working on it, so and I'm still deeply connected. And it was I mean and I will say at the outset, no one benefited from it as much as I did. Like I think founding an organization like that and getting to grow up with it is an extraordinary gift. And I just feel so lucky. It was also just felt like such a privilege to get to spend a significant chunk of my adult working life addressing something that was just like really, basically positive in an unqualified kind of way. Like getting kids to play and like traveling all around the country and even doing some international work around it and getting to be the human who shows up, whose job was to get like more kids doing rock, paper, scissors and running around gleefully outside playing. You know, I just think being a purveyor of delight is a really nice job description. So I felt super lucky. And then that was kind of what got me into it, was like the power it has to like really get kids engaged and connected and excited about being at school. And the thing that kept me as long as I was, was it also meant that I had this chance to build these transformative work experiences for largely young adults, like right out of college, who are coaches going into these schools and trainers. And and that ability to make a difference in the lives of others is transformative. And, you know, doing it for 25 years. There are now people who started off as coaches with us who are the CEOs of different nonprofits locally and nationally. And got to work with all sorts of amazing, brilliant people who are now doing amazing, brilliant things, from being classroom teachers or principals to to doing other kinds of leadership roles in foundations and and other organizations. And being in business and serving on boards and and to know that how they see the world and their commitment to really contributing to the social contract being upheld and okay, that just feels super lucky.

CCB: [00:14:44] We had a brief conversation beforehand and I threw out the word trite as it relates to what I'm going to say as it relates to some of the very simple concepts and the nature of, and you even just referenced it, that the kids, people in the classroom are just like things go over their head and they just they look at it from a different perspective because some of what has what you and your colleagues have have enacted has become part of our vernacular. So I love it when you see that, well, wait a minute. No, before that, it never we didn't know that. But once we're after that, whatever that moment in time is, it's hard to pull people back and say, no, you know, it just started here. Before that, they didn't they didn't have an idea. So the idea of of something as simple as play and what it can do to make people, make young people think in a different way, interact in a different way and and learn some values in a very simple way is, is beautiful. And I'm going to do the little pitch for your TEDMED talk where you got a bunch of docs to engage in that exercise. So I'd love for you to just talk a little bit about how does. How do those things happen?

Jill Vialet: [00:16:16] Sure, sure, sure. So, I mean, so it's funny when you use the word trite. I've been I've spent 25 years of my adult life advocating for the power of play in a world where, like, it's much easier to be saying, oh, they need to be much more rigorous academics. And butts in seats and like there are all sorts of. So I've been swimming upstream like for a long time and I've been called way worse things than trite And like.

CCB: [00:16:40] I didn't call you trite.

Jill Vialet: [00:16:41] I know, but no, I just I mean, I think so. You mentioned the dog study. Kay Jamison wrote a really she’s a PhD professor at Hopkins, I believe, wrote this incredible book called Exuberance. And basically she talked about how as a culture. And I think it is sort of maybe a sort of an outgrowth of our sort of Horatio Alger myth, whatever. But culturally in the United States, we have kind of an ambivalent feeling about people who are exuberant, who are playful, who bring kind of whimsy to bear in professional settings. It's it's kind of a love hate thing. Like we've had leaders who are like those people, but we've also just always been like. Like I'm not sure like being serious is sort of heralded is the hallmark of someone who is worthy of your investment. And it's a funny reaction because there's so many reasons to believe that actually being playful is a really solid hallmark of emotional intelligence. And is an essential precursor to trust and building rapport and all these things that we know enable human collaboration to be much more effective. So all of that said, I think when you think about how you're going to to bring play about and to really infuse it meaningfully into everything from school systems to workplaces, there is a need to present things quite simply and directly. There also has to be a recognition that actually play is a fairly complex activity, right? And it actually when we when we are open to like recognizing the profundity of it and its impact, everything from people have done this through like animal studies.

Jill Vialet: [00:18:41] The one you referenced, I think Kay Jamison mentions it in that book exuberance where they isolated wolf pups and didn't let them play together. And gambol, I think is the phrase, they didn't. And then as adults, they were incapable of functioning as part of the pack. Right. That the lessons of play that when you are young really do spill over. I think you also look at activities that kids do when they are playing, particularly in less supervised groups, not necessarily unstructured. I think there's always some structure even but unsupervised groups of like the self handicapping like right Jill and CCB switched sides to be on different teams. That that kind of activity, I mean it's just so visibly lacking in our current civic discourse. You know, like recognizing that you need the opposition like actually conflict is not something that we always need to shy away from, it actually makes us stronger and better. But you have to engage in it with a level of just underlying respect and a recognition that everyone has to be having a modicum of fun to keep it going, because otherwise people are just going to leave and not participate anymore. And I think we see that in our in our sort of in our in our commons right now. I think that is sort of if you were going to do a broader sort of analysis about who is willing to participate and who's not in our democracy, there's a lot of sort of bad play behavior kind of coming to bear.

CCB: [00:20:11] Oh gosh, yeah. Let's not go down that path right now.

Jill Vialet: [00:20:14] I'm thinking, can I push, though? I do, actually. I would want to pitch. We don't have to go all the way down there. But I actually do fundamentally believe in like this is a way out there statement. But I actually think that making sure that kids get to play and have. In a very equitable way, access to to free play, to to structured play, to all the sort of different forms of rough and tumble play, imaginative play, all of the different things, that that is actually an essential foundational precursor to us having a functioning democracy. That is how you learn the skills that enable you to be a citizen.

CCB: [00:20:51] So I would, yeah, I thought we were going to try and go in in a more political I mean, I think the perspective yes, I take the perspective, yes, to heart that the more I mean, arguably the more education in any way to all aspects the exposure to the ability to and learning how to do things, how to be. And I mean, when I say do things, it's how to be the the good partner, how to be the friend, how to be the how to be the leader, how to what when you have all those opportunities.

Jill Vialet: [00:21:28] That had to be the follower, right?

CCB: [00:21:30] Yeah, exactly. I mean, I love all those the metaphors for the, the flocks of birds or the swimming or the swimming, the fish swimming and how they're leaders and followers, and it shifts on a regular basis. And the more we understand that, yeah, the better served we are. And not even understand that more to your kind of area of expertise, the more that we practice it, we develop the muscles. And I mean, you know, when you have that muscle memory, then that clicks in. Yes. When you have the next opportunity.

Jill Vialet: [00:21:58] And so much of play like has evolved in that direction. Like so I wrote a book during the pandemic and when we ended up shrinking Playworks briefly, when things went badly. And then we we've grown back, but we were trying just to sort of it was an existential event for us in many ways. And in my period of being laid off, I wrote, I tried to make sense of my own thoughts with this book Why Play Works. And one of the things like when I was digging into it and I hadn't really fully grokked before I was writing the book. So much of how play has evolved reflects creating opportunities, developmental opportunities, for kids more broadly to sort of address and get comfortable with everything from mitigating risks. Like like hide and seek is a game that is like evolved because people, kids are worried about being abandoned and like, like we just like it wasn't an intentional set, somebody set out set about to create this game, to do this. But we play out some of our fears and concerns, you know, climbing on jungle gyms, climbing trees, that's all an instinct to like, learn to mitigate fears about heights. And and there's such a great and I think it relates a lot to space and and how we design our environments. You know there's such a pressure to create environments where we like eliminate risk but in fact, what you really need to have in order to learn to mitigate risks is exposure to them. Like it's it's this great sort of contradiction and the great sort of it's almost ironic, right, that if you're going to get good at this, you have to you have to engage with it.

CCB: [00:23:36] Well, if you just think about the, I just think about the pendulum swinging back and forth and how we have watched. I mean, you're in your fifties. I'm in my sixties, and we are looking at how many times have we seen this? Oh, coddle, oh no, expose. Oh, you know, can we can we understand and bring that to a place of balance and a place of and a place of continuity, I'm going to say, because all those shifts confuse people.

Jill Vialet: [00:24:02] Yeah.

CCB: [00:24:04] Yeah. Anyway, let go. No, you go.

Jill Vialet: [00:24:08] No, no, no, you go. I was just thinking. I think it's, I'm not convinced that there is a right and a wrong. I think part of why we shift back and forth is like it's always a balance, right?

CCB: [00:24:22] And polarities.

Jill Vialet: [00:24:24] And I have a blended family with five kids. Every one of my five kids has needed something different on the spectrum of like, go, go, go outside and break your arm versus, Oh, come here, baby. Like, let's let's, you know, like my kids intrinsic risk tolerance varies wildly, you know? And then there are other sort of two of them are girls and three of them are boys. And like so they they they navigated different worlds because of that, right? And so I just I think it's interesting, Like, I just...the other thing, too, I guess, ultimately is like when you get into this world, there's like people are like it's this sort of unlikely thing about play, because it's there's a simpleness to it. And on some level we dismiss it, like and don't take it that seriously. And then on the other hand, there are people who are like wildly nostalgic about it and feel passionately, like the intensity of emotion and they get like they've been we've I've been called horrible names for like having rules. Oh yeah, I was a "recess fascist" by one person. Like, I'm like, really like I've also been a vanguard of the "Obama nanny state". I was like, “ow did that happen?” So I was like, Huh? And like, I used to think, well, I'm pissing off the left and the right.

Jill Vialet: [00:25:37] I must be doing something right. But I think the truth is that, like, it's there's not one right answer. And so it is it is based on context and at every turn. And it's also just happening in this world with so much else going on and people being afraid and feeling disconnected, and then they have their own experience, which we then because we're human, we tend to generalize to everybody else. And so I think ultimately it comes to. I started off the conversation talking about empathy, but we've really tried, especially with we have young staff and we send them into schools, and it's not uncommon at all for them to come back and say, Oh, the teachers are doing this or the parents are doing this. And I'm like, you know, it's hard being a teacher and it's hard being a parent. And like and how do you infuse, however it is that you are going about making the world a better place, just so much more empathy and a willingness to suspend disbelief that these people are...

CCB: [00:26:45] So we're seeing that in in the funniest parallel in the workplace now, because the people coming back. How do you get the people to come back and and and the rituals and the habits need to be changed and and you talk about change? Yeah. How do you develop the trust again with your folks and, and folks, you know, within organizations with and across silos. And because silos have become so much more pronounced in their size, they're gigundo. Yeah. So so the the truth in what you have been working on is is a universal truth. And it's kind of a human truth, which is pretty impressive when you stop and think about it and really go, Oh, move this one forward. So taking it into, from the classroom than into the undergraduate classroom and and having these conversations about ... how did you frame the course to expose people to as much as you want to do, expose them to in a semester.

Jill Vialet: [00:27:58] Well, so it's fun. So teaching social entrepreneurship has been one thing. I also taught a course. I co-taught with other folks at Stanford, the course on play and design. And that was so fun to get to like be at the dschool and teach, you know, co teaching and the team there, they're still teaching it and they were teaching it before me. But to be a part of that, it really informed though, how I thought about teaching the social entrepreneurship class. And I think, so part of it, it just comes back to the that people will remember what, that people won't remember what you say and they won't remember what you do, but they'll remember how you made them feel. And so I think there is a certain way that I've tried to approach teaching this course with like, okay, let's create a series of activities. There're readings, I'm bringing guest speakers. I create opportunities for people to function on a team. I ask them to assess one another. So I think I've been trying to sort of one, recognize that we all learn in a myriad of different ways, and so presenting information in a lot of different formats to get learners at every every sort of sort of mode that might hit them this way. And then to be really active, and to to try and get things to be as both experiential and applied, and then to ask them about how how things make them feel. I just think and to actually raise the possibility that this class you're taking as an undergraduate, it would be okay if it made you feel a certain way. And it doesn't have to always be positive like.

Jill Vialet: [00:29:37] So I just think bringing to bear some of the basic things about how we know people learn by, through play and making it as delightful as possible. I did, it was very funny, though. They've got an assignment due next week and when I was like they were saying, Well, what's the. They're worried about their grades. And so I me, I try to be kind and like give them information about like what the rubric is, how it'll be graded, and then remind them that they're grading each other. And but one of the sort of conditions, this one's a multimedia presentation on some aspect of the course or a social entrepreneur that they want to go deeper onto. And one of the criteria is that they use that media, whatever it is, if they can do a podcast, they can do a they can do a blog series, but that they use some aspect of the of the media that like really amplifies the subject. That it really speaks to the nature of that media as well as the subject matter, and that it brings delight in the listener, to the listener. And they looked at me like they were like, Delight? I'm like, Yeah, people, we've been listening. I know I have to go through all these. You should be entertaining me. I try to be entertaining in class. You can, it's reciprocal. So and I just I don't know. I just I think that's like we learn more, intrinsically we are motivated to do things one that we choose and two, that are delightful. And I think I think delight is something that we should pursue.

CCB: [00:31:08] Well, I think you got the Horatio Alger reference earlier is that we're fighting that everywhere. Because people just yeah, you know, are you supposed to be all buttoned up? And somebody told me that I was, and I read all this stuff. And so, you know, and the framework of education has been shifting, but it's not shifting quickly enough to be able to get people to that place. So we're coming at the end of our time. I'm just so amazed because it's such a fun conversation and it's absolutely delightful. But I want to first off say great appreciation for your time and and generosity. And then is there any one thing that you thought that you'd like to leave with us that we haven't talked about that, though I think you've pretty much covered...

Jill Vialet: [00:31:52] I think, you know, I well, I want to make sure I don't know when you're airing this, but if my current passion is I've really the sort of connection between play and democracy. And so this adjacency to social entrepreneurs around democracy entrepreneurs. The sort of playful entrepreneurial energy that's been brought to entrepreneurial endeavors, social entrepreneurship, I think this is a moment when our democracy needs it desperately. And I think it's not how we often think about it, but I think democracy is a space that we work in as well, like democracy is part of the air we breathe. And I think we have a responsibility, to really make sure that we tend to our democracy, that it is a it is a contact, participatory sport. And so I just I guess to all the listeners, if you've been thinking about what is the place where I want to make sure that I put my effort in, I would say care and the care and feeding of our democracy right now, I don't think there's a more worthy beneficiary of your love.

CCB: [00:32:59] Excellent. Thank you very much, Jill Vialet, we appreciate it. The ONEder podcast is heard on all podcasting sources, so you're going to hear it and listen to it and learn more about Jill Vialet and all of her endeavors. Thank you so much.

Jill Vialet: [00:33:15] Thanks for having me.