‘Go outside and play’ Zuckerberg tells daughter

Small wonders: Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth soared to $72.2 billion in July.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has welcomed his second child into the world with a simple wish: that she takes time “to smell all the flowers”. Should we all spend more time playing?

In 2015, when Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s first daughter, Max, was born, they wrote her a letter in which they promised to create “a world better than ours today”. They announced the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and pledged $45 billion worth of Facebook shares to help it achieve this.

This week, their letter to their second daughter, August, was much shorter. “Childhood is magical,” they told her. “Don’t spend it worrying too much about the future.” They advised her: “Go outside and play… take time to smell all the flowers.”

Although both letters are full of love, they strike a very different tone. “August might feel a bit slighted by her distinctly lighter welcome,” wrote Jenny Anderson in Quartz. “But let’s face it: Her prescription for life sounds a whole lot more fun.”

For the author Steven Johnson, it might even be more important. In his most recent book, Wonderland, he argues that history is not just about wars, elections, and sweeping industrial change. It is also about play.

“Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting… it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations,” he says.

Take The Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanisms, written by the engineer al-Jazari in 1206. Its detailed designs foreshadow inventions like the internal combustion engine, which revolutionised the world 600 years later.

But al-Jazari’s book is filled with “objects of amusement and mimicry,” explains Johnson. They include robotic musicians, and a giant clock shaped like an elephant.

He argues that history is filled with such examples. The artificial intelligence robots we see today began as amusing “automatons” displayed in London during the 18th century. Elsewhere in the city, women’s desire for soft fabrics was inspiring global trade networks, and men’s taste for coffee was shaping everything from journalism to the insurance industry.

Even Facebook, Zuckerberg’s own world-changing invention, was born out of an online game.

Game on

Johnson is right, say more playful souls. The best ideas don’t come from serious study and lofty intellectualism. They come from being curious, letting your imagination wander, and mucking around without worrying about making mistakes. The advice given to August is not just useful to children — we should all take life a little less seriously.

We live in a serious world, respond others. Frivolity is a nice luxury, but we achieve most of our goals through a mix of hard work and determination. Zuckerberg and Chan’s letter to Max in 2015 acknowledged this: “We have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation,” they told her. Those children’s lives will not be improved by play alone.

You Decide

  1. Should teenagers and adults spend more time playing?
  2. What advice would you like to give to your newborn baby one day?

Activities

  1. In Wonderland, Johnson defines play like Brian Eno defines culture: as “all the things we don’t have to do.” Write your own definition of “play” in a single sentence.
  2. Spend five minutes playing the way you did as a child, either by yourself or with friends. Then discuss as a class: did it teach you anything, or give you an idea that you had not considered before?

Some People Say...

“You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.”

Steven Johnson

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced August’s birth on Facebook on Monday. Her sister Maxima (nicknamed Max) was born in November 2015. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested tens of millions of dollars in education companies, and invested $3 billion into scientific research. Its goal is to help cure or prevent all diseases by 2100.
What do we not know?
How effective the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will be. We also do not know how far Johnson’s definition of “play” has truly transformed the world. In Wonderland he does a convincing job of arguing that it did, but he admits there are many other forces at work — wars, natural disasters, elections, ordinary people, philosophy and world leaders have all had their ways of shaping history too.

Word Watch

Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative
The philanthropic company’s initial aims include “personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.”
Al-Jazari
Ismail al-Jazari, a Muslim inventor and mathematician, lived from 1136 to 1206 — the end of a period of history known as the “Islamic Golden Age”.
Soft fabrics
Calico is a cotton fabric that was light to wear, and softer than wool. It could also be printed to make patterned dresses. It was imported to Europe from India, and was so popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries that the trade was briefly banned to protect local weavers.
Coffee
The first coffeehouse appeared in London in the 1650s, and others quickly spread around the city. The drink was addictive, and cafés became a place for men to gather and share ideas or discuss politics. The first stocks and shares were exchanged in a coffeehouse, and Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin inside one.
Online game
Facemash, which Zuckerberg invented before Facebook in 2003, invited his fellow Harvard students to rate the attractiveness of their peers.

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