Brian Smiga, TEDxAsburyPark Founder and co-founding partner of Alpha Partners, interviews Roger Manix, business school lecturer at Stanford Business School and Parsons, and founder of Ludolo, a creative consultancy that increases empathy and collaboration. More at tedxasburypark.com and at Ludolo.com.
Brian Smiga: This is Brian Smiga of TEDxAsburyPark. We are talking today with Roger Manix of Ludolo.com, and an actor turned… Well, Roger, I don’t know how to describe what you do, even though I love what you do. Can you describe what you do please?
Roger Manix: Yeah. Hi everybody. Hi Brian. Thanks for having me. I work with organizations and institutions to bring more joy and belonging, and community, and innovation, and empathy to their workers or their students. I do it by using play, collaborative play, people coming together to experience the unknown and ambiguity through play to help increase connection.
Brian Smiga: Okay, so you were trained in theater, and you had some epiphany when you realized that play was an advantage and an essential ingredient in successful small and large businesses. What was that moment?
Roger Manix: Well, my undergraduate work is in mathematics and theater, weirdly enough.
Roger Manix: Then in 2008, I earned my master’s in acting. I don’t know if you can recall what an incredible year 2008 was to have a master’s in anything, but the economy tanked. There were no jobs, and there I was, 36, a gazillion dollars in debt, and I was hauling rocks out of the neighbor’s basement for 20 bucks an hour because she wanted to redo her brownstone. Super humbling.
Brian Smiga: Wow.
Roger Manix: A friend of mine taught at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. I called him up, and I said, “Hey, I’d like to come out there and teach the development of emotional intelligence, connection, joy, empathy, a wonder to your MBA candidates. And I’d like to use play to do it,” to which he said, “Great. If it works, come back. If it doesn’t work, don’t come back, and don’t tell anybody that I ever let you try it here.”
Roger Manix: Well, it worked. For about six years, I was a recurring guest lecturer at the business school. I knew the play was an advantage to get to people because everyone has played. It’s a common language that we all speak, so I knew there was an advantage to do it, but somewhere along the line, someone told us to stop and grow up, and not do that anymore. But it’s such a great tool in teaching collaboration, and resilience, and creativity, and all these skills that organizations and schools want in their students. So I went out to do a lot of that work at the corporate level, working with organizations at first in the pharmaceutical world and the tech space. Then Parsons School of Design where I currently teach asked me if I can develop a course to teach empathy, which on some level is horrifying that we have to teach empathy, right? But on another level, it’s really remarkable that we have to teach empathy because they see a real need for it. I do that here at the undergrad, the grad, and the global executive level, and I use to play to do it.
Brian Smiga: I see. So it’s a shorter commute than Stanford, but both prestigious schools. Empathy’s kind of like a muscle that we have let atrophy. Everyone’s got it, but maybe you have found a technique so people can become empathy athletes. How does that work?
Roger Manix: Empathy is not going to be learned in a textbook, or through a checklist in a magazine, or a textbook. It’s really got to be learned with people, with others. One of the things that I had said to Parsons when they hired me was, “You know, teaching empathy, that’s tricky.” I said, “One thing I can do is I can definitely have the students start to confront certain beliefs about themselves and others, and have them start to really question how they navigate themselves through the world.”
Roger Manix: I do that using play because when we play, we come into an environment, and we have no idea what’s going to go on. Right? You don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s the nature of play. As a result, people’s habits start to come out. People’s fears start to come out. But what play does, Brian, play brings people together, and the basis for any joy is connection. Play connects us in an immediate and readily available way. We start to have these outbursts of merriment, excitement, and the work gets really deep as well.
Brian Smiga: This is great. Now, at TEDxAsburyPark, you’ve been generous to give us maybe a 10, 12-minute talk and demonstration, you in a room full of 350 theater-goers, right?
Roger Manix: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Smiga: How are you going to give people this experience from on the stage?
Roger Manix: I have no clue. I was just thinking about that. Therein lies the challenge. I promise you.
Brian Smiga: All right. Well, we’re in suspense. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Right?
Roger Manix: Yes.
Brian Smiga: Okay. I also understand you’ve been generous enough to consider doing a “ Latte and Learn” session in Studio A at the theater. So for a selection of our audience who elect, they can get empathy and play training in a world-class theater by a world-class acting teacher, you. That’s pretty cool. How many folks would you like to show up to that little 20-minute session?
Roger Manix: I mean, that’s sweet. When I do this work, usually 16 to 20 people is a sweet spot for this kind of work. You typically see what’s going on, and you get to monitor people’s behaviors and things like that.
Brian Smiga: So you’d like us to limit it to 16, right? Or 20, something like that?
Roger Manix: Yeah, 16, 20. That’d be great.
Brian Smiga: How many minutes? What’s the shortest amount of time you could do this in?
Roger Manix: I would say people can get a really good taste of this in a half-hour.
Brian Smiga: Wow, that’s really exciting. So we’re on for that, right, when you come to Red Bank?
Roger Manix: Yeah, without a doubt. That can happen for sure.
Brian Smiga: Okay.
Roger Manix: You know, you’re not going to have any profound… Well, you may, I don’t know. It takes dedication and repetition. It’s like going to the gym, right? You got to really dedicate yourself to that kind of change. It’s the same thing with empathy and play. If we want to develop the muscle of joy, we’ve got to practice it.
Brian Smiga: Exactly. Now, as a venture capital investor in growth technology companies, we see this all the time. First of all, the founders of tech companies, 90-plus percent of them want to create a joyful company that creates a positive impact in the world. It’s amazing. That’s what the rising class of entrepreneurs want to do. They don’t want to rape and pillage. They want to make a better world. So I think you’re in a real sweet spot. I think every one of these companies needs your practice. Do you agree that empathy is an event that’s in the atmosphere, is now becoming mainstream?
Roger Manix: Without a doubt. I mean, you have people like “chief belonging officers”, “chief joy officers”, diversity, equity, and inclusion, right? Chief officers there. People understand the importance of culture and how important that is. I’ve spoken with C-suites for many years across sectors, and they all say that you know, of course, they want a more joyful place, right? Of course, they want better collaboration. But collaboration isn’t a skill that is just expected with the people that we hire necessarily, or collaboration isn’t something that we just put people on Slack for them to collaborate with each other. Technology brings us together, but it doesn’t teach us how to be together, so going back to those human skills. And as we continue to commoditize these technological skills, I think what it means to be human will become the single most important trait of the 21st century.
Brian Smiga: You’ve created a team and a company called Ludolo.
Roger Manix: Ludolo.
Brian Smiga: Ludolo, yeah. What is the meeting of Ludolo? I watched your teaser, which I thought was… The closeups of these businesspeople are wonderful. Everybody listening, reading this should go see it. How can people learn more about Ludolo?
Roger Manix: Yeah. First of all, ludo means to play in Latin.
Brian Smiga: Got it.
Roger Manix: And ludology is the study of games, so we mashed them together to create Ludolo. There’s our playful name where creativity and empathy meet to play.
Brian Smiga: I love it. So you are a ludologist?
Roger Manix: Yeah, sure. I would love to be called that.
Brian Smiga: Yeah. I think we’re going to end it there. Please join us at TEDxAsburyPark. Join Roger Manix, both for his TED Talk from the stage, and if you’re lucky enough, be one of the 16 to 20 people to get a private session with him at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. Roger, thank you so much. I learned a lot in 12 minutes today. Be well, and let’s talk again soon.
Roger Manix: Yeah, I look forward to it. Thank you for having me. Have a playful day. Look for joy. It’s there in the world, even today. It’s our job to look for it. Thanks a lot.