There were many reasons Donna Strickland’s recent Nobel Prize win caught the world’s attention. Most news coverage noted that she was the first woman in 55 years and only the third woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. There was something in addition to Strickland’s gender and her game-changing work with lasers that caught our attention at Ian Martin. Strickland’s unique take on her career is what had us talking at the water cooler. For a company committed to connecting people with meaningful work, this scholar offers some lessons that we love.
Lesson #1: Great things happen when work feels like play
Strickland’s Nobel Prize was actually awarded for research she had conducted over 30 years ago for her very first scientific paper. In an interview conducted minutes after the announcement of her big win, Strickland relied heavily on one word to characterize her work with short-pulse lasers: fun.
“… it was just a fun thing to do, and so I enjoyed putting many hours into it. It is the one time in my life that I worked very, very hard! And … but… you know, it was a fun time in the field of short-pulse lasers, and it was a fun group to be in and… I don’t know, I put in the long hours and it was fun most of the time. Most of the time!”
Work that feels like fun most of the time doesn’t just make the day pass more quickly. Research suggests the act of play is like a fast-forward button for learning. When we’re not playing, it takes over 400 repetitions to create a synapse in the brain, or true learning. By incorporating play into learning, it only takes about 12 repetitions to create a synapse. The act of play engages the creative right-side of the brain and opens our mind to think in new, innovative ways.
The Takeaway: All work with no sense of play can create lengthy detours on the journey toward meaningful work. While ping pong tables and free lunch on Fridays may contribute to a job’s sense of play, finding work that feels like fun when you’re in the trenches is when the real magic happens.
Lesson #2: Sometimes it’s more about what you’re doing than what you’re called
Strickland’s resume includes stints at Canada’s National Research Council, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Princeton University. The fact that she has had the same associate professor job title at the University of Waterloo since starting there in the 1990s ruffled a few feathers when news of her Nobel Prize win broke.
When asked by one reporter why she wasn’t a full professor given her impressive resume, Strickland’s response was, “I never applied.”
When asked why she hadn’t applied by another reporter, she said, “To me, it just wasn’t worth the bother.” Not seeking out a higher title allowed Strickland to channel time and energy that she would have had to dedicate to building a case for advancement toward other priorities that mattered more to her.
When asked if she would apply now that she’d won this prestigious prize, she replied, “I’m not sure,” with a laugh.
The Takeaway: Strickland’s candour about her job title serves as a great reminder that an ever-evolving series of job titles isn’t a prerequisite for a meaningful career. It’s a matter of personal priorities. If the descriptor on your business card doesn’t carry a lot of value in your books, you’re wise to spend the time and energy on other pursuits that do.
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