Hands up if working from home has felt a bit like living at work this year?
The events of 2020 didn’t just disrupt where we work, it disrupted our entire personal ecosystems. Depending on your individual situation (office space? Kids at home?) and even your personality (introverts have fared better than extroverts), you may have adjusted better or worse to the world we now seem to be living in at least semi-permanently.
But it’s not as simple as just switching to Teams meetings and Mural whiteboards and getting on with it. Ecosystems are delicate and complex and there are some things from the pre-Covid ecosystem that were important and beneficial, perhaps without us knowing or realising quite how much. So if not exactly a silver lining out of the shit-storm that was 2020, I’ve become more conscious of my own ecosystem, and that included some lost moments of play.
Lost moments of play
I used to play online poker on my commute. Just 15 mins at a time while I was on the train. It was never going to make me rich – I mostly play for pretend money anyway – and I’m not that good but it’s a thing I used to do that has been erased from my ecosystem thanks to Covid.
It turns out that my cheeky game of poker has a role that is bigger than just being an antidote to hard work. I’d go so far as to say I’ve got worse at my job without it!
What if playtime could literally make your brain bigger? What if playtime could make you smarter? What if playtime could improve your problem solving skills? What if playtime enhanced your ability to think through “what if” scenarios?
The science bit
In 1964, neuroscientist Marian Diamond showed that rats that were raised with toys in their cages had bigger cerebral cortexes than those that had no toys. They literally had bigger brains!
And in 1992, scientists Greenough and Black proved that not only did rats that had toys grow bigger brains but they were smarter too – able to find their way through mazes quicker.
Thanks to additional work done by Gordon et al in 2003 and Huber et al in 2007, we now know that play increases levels of “brain derived neurotrophic factor”, or BDNF, which is essential for the growth and maintenance of brain cells. And what strategist doesn’t want that?
In 2013 researchers Gopnik and Walker connected make believe play with counterfactual reasoning and the ability to think through “what if” scenarios. The ability to think through what if scenarios… that’s the job of a strategist in a nutshell right there.
And we are not just talking about children here. Neoteny is the evolutionary term which refers to the retention of juvenile tendencies into adulthood. Humans are one of the most neotenous species and this has benefited us in evolutionary terms, which is partly down to our ability to continue to play into adulthood and the brain development benefits that come with that. We inherited this from the bonobo apes which today still are one of the most playful and least aggressive of the great apes. They also benefit from matriarchal societies. But that’s another topic altogether…
Poker makes me better at my job
So all this got me thinking. Does my “playtime” keep my brain firing on all cylinders, make me smarter, improve my counterfactual reasoning? Does it make me a better strategist? And if it does, how do I build it back into my ecosystem?
I stopped playing online poker when I stopped commuting. While I don’t advocate that everyone takes up a gambling habit, poker has taught me a lot that I use in my day-to-day work. I suspect chess has similar benefits, but my preference happens to be poker – even after The Queen’s Gambit.
Pattern recognition is something we need to be good at as strategists – the ability to absorb vast amounts of data and information and to quickly find the handful of insights that can be turned into a strategic story. In poker you learn to see patterns in the winning hand combinations and in the behaviours of your opponents that mean you can play more instinctively. Successful poker players don’t always mentally calculate mathematical probabilities – I certainly can’t. Good poker players are, however, trained pattern recognisers. I’m just an average poker player but I’m sure the pattern recognition pathways poker that has created in my brain make me better at recognising patterns in my research as a strategist.
At the same time, poker has taught me to beware of my own brain's heuristic biases and importantly how to compensate for them. Commitment bias will likely one day be my downfall. And not just on the poker table. Commitment bias is the devil on your shoulder that makes it really hard to abandon something that you’ve already invested in. Poker taught me that I’m a sucker for this, but knowing that I can recognise it when it appears and compensate for it. I learned to force myself to fold hands more often and that means I don’t lose as much money.
But having learnt this at the poker table, I now also build mental circuit breaks in when I’m invested in big pieces of work – because even though you’ve invested a ton of energy, time and money in something, the cost of continuing to invest can sometimes outweigh the value of the prize if the odds of winning are not high enough. Knowing I have to check in with myself on this means I waste less resource and energy losing pitches or burning unpaid hours.
So yes, I think playing poker makes me a better strategist. It flexes and builds muscles that are not instinctive for me, in particular the thinking through of “what if” scenarios.
2021: the year of work less, play more
I’ve just built poker back into my new ecosystem even without a commute. I find five minutes here and there for a cheeky online game at home. My game has suffered considerably from lack of play in the last few months – I’m literally losing all the time. I wonder whether my work is affected by losing some of those skills too? I don’t have any scientific evidence for this, but perhaps by not working out those neural pathways using poker, work has become more tiring in lockdown.
So 2021 is going to be the year of work less, play more. And it’s going to make me better at my job. Not just poker, but football with friends, make believe with my son and tug of war with the dog. Maybe something new too. Anyone want to join me?
Shiona McDougall is global chief strategy officer at Rapp UK
Photo: Getty Images