Don’t Trade Fun for Fun: The Merlin Works Winter 2024 Newsletter

I think a lot about what would be fun. When I’m onstage as an improviser I’m focused on what would be a fun choice in the scene I am in. When I’m teaching or training, I say Rule #1 is Have Fun. That is our main goal and my biggest deliverable. My curriculums are full of fun activities to ramp up the laughter in the room. As a mom of two boys who are quickly becoming tweens who like to roll their eyes at most of my ideas, I’m often scanning social media hunting for fun or looking into getting tickets to this event or that destination, hunting for fun things we can do as a family. I listen to parenting audiobooks to reduce family stress and increase fun and connection.

All this to say, I’ve got some ideas of what would be fun. A lot of the time it works. A good chunk of the time, however, the thing I thought would be fun isn’t much fun at all. People just aren’t in the right mood. They are tired. Or hungry. Or want to be alone. Or maybe it’s kinda fun, but not, like, the most fun.

For example, this holiday season I hosted a Hanukkah Party at my house. We had lots of fun, just as I planned. The kids played dreidel with M&Ms. My partner Travis and I made latkes that were gobbled up fresh out of the fryer. The room hushed as we lit the candles and said prayers. The kids played in the alley and then played video games while the grown ups visited. The fun times seemed to be winding down, so I had an idea that would be even more fun–we could watch The Bad Christmas, a scrappy holiday film our kids made during the pandemic about Darth Vader taking Santa’s place and three wacky elves joining together to defeat him and save Christmas. The plan to watch the movie popped into my head when we were sitting down with our neighbor and friend Billie Jo and she started making a hilarious joke. She’s laughing, Travis is laughing, and all I’m doing is thinking of when that can end so I can bring up my idea of watching The Bad Christmas. I catch myself and feel like an idiot. I’m trying to stop something that is clearly fun so we can do something else that I think might be even more fun.

This reminded me of a lesson I learned recently: don’t trade fun for fun. The lesson comes from the creator and coach Casey von Neumann who in her video gives the example of seeing a mom at her music school out in the waiting room while her kids are playing with the toys there. The mom had plans to take her kids to the park, but she decided to stay put instead. “Don’t trade fun for fun,” she says. What that means is if the kids are enjoying these lame waiting room toys, there’s no need to rush them off to the next thing that you think will be fun but you have no idea how it will turn out. Von Neumann gives more examples: if the baby is happy playing with the wrapping paper and box the toy came in, leave her be. If you’re really into a particular hobby for a while, you don’t have to feel bad about the hobbies you are neglecting, just keep following your interest. If you always want to order the same thing at the restaurant and you enjoy it, keep ordering it. If you brought a bunch of board games to the party and people are having a blast with the first one, just let them. Often we don’t need to control things so tightly. We don’t need as much variety as we think we do. “If we catch a wave, we can ride it all the way to shore, and then we can go looking for another one.”

This is such good advice for me, someone who is often looking to optimize and maximize the fun. My slide decks are always overpacked with activities and my calendar is overpacked with meetings. I’ve already got ideas buzzing in my head for three different family vacations this year. I rarely feel like there’s enough time and space to ride a wave into shore.

As a mom, the funnest times are often hard to predict. LIke a few months ago, when my youngest son, Maxwell, who is 9 years old, was insisting that he didn’t like basketball. The plan was to talk with him while I cooked dinner and figure out what sport he would try next. When Maxwell started talking about how bad he was at basketball, my partner Travis stopped the conversation and took him out to the alley behind our house to inflate our busted basketball and coach Maxwell on a few basic tips for dribbling, passing and shooting. They stayed out there a while and dinner was ready. I sent my older son Sebastian out to tell them dinner was ready, but he didn’t come right back. So I turned down the burners on the stove and went outside. In a completely unexpected turn of events, my family was playing basketball! I wasn’t in the right shoes (or bra) but I knew this was a special moment. I gave up my plan for a family dinner happening on time and we played some two on two.

I don’t want to snow you. This spontaneous basketball game has not happened before or since. But that’s part of why it’s so important for me to remember to take the fun moments that arise and ride them out until they’re done.

As the holidays wrap up and you reflect back on your time over the break, when did you have fun? Was it the time you expected? Did the fun sneak up on you? What fun can you stop trading for fun?

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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