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ross-smith's picture

Alexander Fleming – Playing at Work and Saving Human Lives

Sir Alexander Fleming won a Nobel Prize for his work in discovering Penicillin, perhaps one of the most important discoveries in history. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1943, knighted by King George VI in 1944 and shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1945. And he loved to play games!

In 1900, when the Boer War broke out between the United Kingdom and its colonies in southern Africa, Alexander and two brothers joined a Scottish regiment. This turned out to be as much a sporting club as anything—they honed their shooting, swimming, and even water polo skills. Ultimately chose to become a surgeon to follow his brother Tom. Fleming took top scores in the qualifying examinations, and had his choice of medical schools. He lived equally close to three different schools, and knowing little about them, chose St. Mary's because he had played water polo against them.

Since he had very good grades, he had the option to become a surgeon. But, as luck would have it, since he was a member of the rifle club, the captain of the club wanted to retain Fleming in the club and hence, he suggested that Fleming join the research department at St. Mary's. There he took up the job of an assistant bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, who himself was a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology.[i]

Everyone who knew Fleming knew he loved to play[ii] – he played games of all sorts from golf to checkers to quiz games and billiards. Fleming also played at work. Sir Almorth Wright told him, “You treat research like a game. You find it all great fun”. Fleming agreed, “I play with microbes. There are, of course, many rules to this play…but when you have acquired knowledge and experience it is very pleasant to break the rules and to be able to find something nobody had thought of.

In 1936, at the Second International Congress of Microbiology, Fleming gave 2 demonstrations. One was of Penicillium, and the second was his invention of microbe painting. You can see his work here. So we have Sir Alexander Fleming, known to all as very fond of playing, having fun, and treating work as a game – and he is also one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.

These are very different times—but we have a lot to learn from Alexander Fleming and the fun and engagement he derived from his approach to work. A recent article in the Telegraph - Think Tank: Fix the workplace, not the workers talks about the value of feedback that Millenials have learned from gaming, “Consider a typical 28 year-old. From the moment she was born, her world has been rich in feedback. When she presses a button, something happens. When she plays a videogame, she gets a score. When she sends a text message, she hears a sound that confirms it went out. She's lived her whole life on a landscape lush with feedback. Yet when steps through the office door, she finds herself in a veritable feedback desert.”

The actual games may have changed—but the lessons are still powerful. Perhaps when we ask what needs to be done to create organizations that are fit for the future– and how to take the work out of work, it's as helpful to look at the past as it is to conjure the future.

*And for a deeper dive into a research-based view of the connection between play and great work, look no further than our own Hack forum on the MIX. Check out Ellen Weber's Hack —Donna Mah's Neuro Experience of Lived Research on Fun at Work—about the neurological impact of fun and play. How “serotonin chemical fuels and sustains fun for added brainpower when people laugh easily, give often, support deeply, and care about other’s progress at work.”
 

[i] http://lifestyle.iloveindia.com/lounge/alexander-fleming-2585.html

[ii] Sparks of Genius, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein

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robyn-mcmaster's picture
Ross, I am so with you on the notion that work needs to be more like play since you can accomplish much more.  Another research giant we all respect is Albert Einstein.  Einstein played with the "curve of the arc," as he developed his theory of relativity. 

Research can be energizing when it is more like play.  I found this to be true as I approached my PhD research.  When daily routines pour drudgery into brains like cement into a wooden form, brainpower shuts down.   It's all we can do to get out of bed to "slug through" the day.

Interestingly, novelty truly sparks the human brain, since our brains are easily bored.    Problem solving and an ability to design are needed skills with which workers need to be equipped in the 21st century.  

In MITA brain based certification that I do collaboratively with Ellen Weber, participants conclude by designing a contribution for the final Celebration of Innovation.  Celebration includes a both playful approach and the highest level invention. Each participant invites several guests from the wider community.  Those presenting displays based on learning, avoid lecturing to people who visit their displays.   By asking visitors 2-footed questions, and by answering questions from visitors, they benefit in many ways.  The Celebration of Innovation helps the designer to reflect on ideas received and refine his or her designs as s/she goes forward from there.

I often incorporate play as I work - the hours fly by very quickly as I soon find myself tunneled down in flow. 

Thanks for all your insights, Ross.

ellen-weber's picture

What an amazing challenge - to start with what we know now to be innovative growth - and move forward together, Ross!

Thanks for the initiative you take here to help us along! Thanks Ross – because even a small step in that direction is enough to rewire brainpower for more! Yes, what a wonderful story about Alexander Fleming. What testimony to the power of innovation in play when people come at issues with passion, and when integrity guides the innovations!

I also agree with you that, “These are very different times…  Interesting that doors opened because he worked hard and excelled… “Since he had very good grades, he had the option to become a surgeon.” Would you say that is still true for innovators and hard working, intelligent people today?  

Love Sir Almorth Wright’s advice, “You treat research like a game. You find it all great fun”. Fleming agreed, “I play with microbes. There are, of course, many rules to this play…but when you have acquired knowledge and experience it is very pleasant to break the rules and to be able to find something nobody had thought of.

Many thanks for your kind reference to my Hack —Donna Mah's Neuro Experience of Lived Research on Fun at Work—about the neurological impact of fun and play. How “serotonin chemical fuels and sustains fun for added brainpower when people laugh easily, give often, support deeply, and care about other’s progress at work.”

Interestingly, that neuro-research also shows that brains don’t rewire for what you and the experts call for in terms of play, until we act on what we know. You’ve just started us in that direction! Let the party begin, at MIX, and may it end with innovation that can help to shape a finer future!

mireille-jansma's picture
Hi Alexander,

Wonderful post, you raise some interesting points. Like that innovation is related to joy and to the way brains work and such.

However I would like to add some more to our MIX.

Like how slowly we change. If change would be wonderful and just a matter of thinking we would make a habit out of it, but we don't, do we?

Even here at The MIX, which is a great initiative, I think that most people are more interested in selling their own work and in digging in deeper into their own trenches, than in actual sharing and learning from one another. Edgar Schein wrote an enlightening though sobering article about (organisational) learning some eight years ago: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/2888.html

Best, Mireille