It is December twenty third Nineteen Seventy Two at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Oakland Raiders had just scored a touchdown with a minute and seventeen seconds to go and the Pittsburg Steelers were trailing seven to six. Nearly a minute goes by and the Steelers find themselves on their own forty yard line facing a fourth and ten with no time outs. Fans knew the game was over and were starting to move towards the exits for the warmth of their cars.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw the ball to the Raider’s thirty five yard line towards John Fuqua. Simultaneously the ball arrived with Jack Tatum of the Raiders and the ball was sent tumbling end over end. Somehow fullback Franco Harris of the Steelers was in position managing to pluck the falling ball a couple of inches before it would have hit the ground. He managed to run all the way to the goal and scored a touchdown and the Steelers won the game.
This, of course, was nearly impossible and not something that could or would be planned. A very complex game offered a bit of serendipity to Harris and he seized on it making up the new game as he went along.
Many games have similar examples - Wayne Gretzky whacking a high flying puck out of the air and making a goal, a thirteen year old Bobby Fischer giving up his queen but managing to leave the board in such a way that the grandmaster across the board was soon checkmated, Misty May digging an impossibly placed water logged volleyball and positioning it perfectly for Karrie Walsh to crush their stunned opponents, Dick Fosbury marrying a bit of physics and physiology and reinventing the high jump in the process .... These are the great moments in games and sport that players and fans live for - the point where the something novel happens. Something that is not in the book. An act that writes a new page or even chapter in the book.
A good game requires a certain amount of richness for the players and its fans to appreciate. Simple games like checkers are so limited that all possible moves are cataloged, logical and predictable. They may be fine for a ten year old just learning the game, but even most ten year olds will lose interest once they figure out the underlying structure.
Rich games offer some complexity that goes beyond our ability to fully understand them . Chess has vastly more possible games than there are particles in the Universe and Go is even more complex. There is this wonderful point where the great players are exploring the unknown. The same can be said for the great sports. While anyone can enjoy rooting for hometown favorites, cheering for the underdog and getting excited by a winning streak; that is separate from this deeper level. Players and experienced fans revel in that much rarer moment where magic seems to happen.
A good game is a combination of rules with the potential for some wild creativity to break the rules a bit. Mostly it proceeds by the rules, but every now and again creativity changes the nature of the game - sometimes fundamentally.
This happens in other fields. It is one of the driving forces that hooks scientists. You spend a large amount of your life training and then much more doing very careful work that is anything but the "aha!" moments people imagine scientists frequenting. All of this is part of the rules - it is the best way we have come up with of asking questions of nature. The interesting moments are usually not preceded with "aha!" , but rather with "that's strange..." Something is different and that may be something new. For a little while you are the only person who has ever known this bit of nature. You get to write a new page. And, like a good game, the possibilities are not exhausted. The answer nature gives may lead to new richer questions which can lead to new chapters that are beyond the imagination of fiction.
I’ve been lucky and have touched that place a few times.
This richness exists in business too - perhaps what you do. These new improbable chapters lead to new ways of thinking.
Young children - say four year olds - are wildly creative creatures. Their minds conjure up impossibilities that make us laugh and even draw us into their worlds. But once they are seven or so this changes and they start to think about rules. The creativity fades a bit, but is still there.
It is this balance between creativity and rules that moves us along and that is worth seeking. My athlete friend saw her sport as play, but the amount of work required to get to a high enough level was incredible. Some of you practice this to varying degrees in your work and even your lives and watching this can be a pure delight (although not as fun as doing it).
I’ve always seen science in terms of a game and the act of doing it as play even though it may be incredibly hard work. Although I do other things besides science now, I find there are complexities that offer some wonderful insights and those moments that make the effort worthwhile far beyond the monetary reward.
Serendipity is often described as making discoveries by accident, but I don’t buy that. Horace Walpole wrote a letter to Horace Mann in which he talked about a Persian fairy tale from the land of Serendip (the old name for Sri Lanka) . He said the heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of..."
There are two important points in this notion. First you need to be in quest of something and that takes a lot of hard work. Second is sagacity - you need the foresight and perception to make good judgements and take advantage of the improbability your game has provided.
Play is centrally important!
My advisor in grad school offered a bit of profound advice: act your shoe size. You need to bring out the child in yourself to be creative and break out of the conventional rules that seem to exist. Just make sure you are playing in a rich enough game.
And speaking of the delight of the unexpected take a look at the beauty of a brainbow. A bit too technical to puzzle out here, but basically you distinguish individual neurons (or small clusters of neurons) from their neighbors by using fluorescent proteins. A nice advance in the mapping of neurons plus it happens to be visually beautiful.