I'm here today to start a revolution. Now before you get up in arms, or you break into song, or you pick a favorite color, I want to define what I mean by revolution. By revolution, I mean a drastic and far-reaching change in the way we think and behave — the way we think and the way we behave. Now why, Steve, why do we need a revolution? We need a revolution because things aren't working; they're just not working. And that makes me really sad because I'm sick and tired of things not working. You know, I'm sick and tired of us not living up to our potential. I'm sick and tired of us being last.
And we are last place in so many things — for example, social factors. We're last place in Europe in innovation. There we are right at the end, right at the bottom, last place as a culture that doesn't value innovation. We're last place in health care, and that's important for a sense of well-being. And there we are, not just last in the E.U., we're last in Europe, at the very bottom. And worst of all, it just came out three weeks ago, many of you have seen it, The Economist. We're the saddest place on Earth, relative to GDP per capita — the saddest place on Earth. That's social. Let's look at education. Where do we rank three weeks ago in another report by the OECD? Last in reading, math and science. Last. Business: The lowest perception in the E.U. that entrepreneurs provide benefits to society. Why as a result, what happens? The lowest percentage of entrepreneurs starting businesses. And this is despite the fact that everybody knows that small business is the engine of economies. We hire the most people; we create the most taxes. So if our engine's broken, guess what? Last in Europe GDP per capita. Last. So it's no surprise, guys, that 62 percent of Bulgarians are not optimistic about the future. We're unhappy, we have bad education, and we have the worst businesses.
And these are facts, guys. This isn't story tale; it's not make-believe. It's not. It's not a conspiracy I have got against Bulgaria. These are facts. So I think it should be really, really clear that our system is broken. The way we think, the way we behave, our operating system of behaving is broken. We need a drastic change in the way we think and behave to transform Bulgaria for the better, for ourselves, for our friends, for our family and for our future. How did this happen? Let's be positive now. We're going to get positive. How did this happen? I think we're last because — and this is going to be drastic to some of you — because we are handicapping ourselves. We're holding ourselves back because we don't value play. I said "play," all right.
In case some of you forgot what play is, this is what play looks like. Babies play, kids play, adults play. We don't value play. In fact, we devalue play. And we devalue it in three areas. Let's go back to the same three areas. Social: 45 years of what? Of communism — of valuing the society and the state over the individual and squashing, inadvertently, creativity, individual self-expression and innovation. And instead, what do we value? Because it's shown the way we apply, generate and use knowledge is affected by our social and institutional context, which told us what in communism? To be serious. To be really, really serious. It did. (Applause) Be serious. I can't tell you how many times I've been scolded in the park for letting my kids play on the ground. Heaven forbid they play in the dirt, the kal, or even worse, lokvi, water — that will kill them. I have been told by babas and dyados that we shouldn't let our kids play so much because life is serious and we need to train them for the seriousness of life.
We have a serious meme running through. It's a social gene running through us. It's a serious gene. It's 45 years of it that's created what I call the "baba factor." (Laughter) (Applause) And here's how it works. Step one: woman says, "I want to have a baby. Iskam baby." Step two: we get the baby. Woohoo! But then what happens in step three? I want to go back to work because I need to further my career or I just want to go have coffees. I'm going to give bebko to baba. But we need to remember that baba's been infected by the serious meme for 45 years. So what happens? She passes that virus on to baby, and it takes a really, really, really long time — as the redwood trees — for that serious meme to get out of our operating system.
What happens then? It goes into education where we have an antiquated education system that has little changed for 100 years, that values rote learning, memorization and standardization, and devalues self-expression, self-exploration, questioning, creativity and play. It's a crap system. True story: I went looking for a school for my kid. We went to this prestigious little school and they say they're going to study math 10 times a week and science eight times a week and reading five times a day and all this stuff. And we said, "Well what about play and recess?" And they said, "Ha. There won't be a single moment in the schedule." (Laughter) And we said, "He's five." What a crime. What a crime. And it's a crime that our education system is so serious because education is serious that we're creating mindless, robotic workers to put bolts in pre-drilled holes. But I'm sorry, the problems of today are not the problems of the Industrial Revolution. We need adaptability, the ability to learn how to be creative and innovative. We don't need mechanized workers. But no, now our meme goes into work where we don't value play. We create robotic workers that we treat like assets, to lever and just throw away.
What are qualities of a Bulgarian work? Autocratic — do what I say because I'm the chef. I'm the boss and I know better than you. Untrusting — you're obviously a criminal, so I'm going to install cameras. (Laughter) Controlling — you're obviously an idiot, so I'm going to make a zillion little processes for you to follow so you don't step out of the box. So they're restrictive — don't use your mobile phone, don't use your laptop, don't search the Internet, don't be on I.M. That's somehow unprofessional and bad. And at the end of the day, it's unfulfilling because you're controlled, you're restricted, you're not valued and you're not having any fun. In social, in education and in our business, don't value play. And that's why we're last, because we don't value play.
And you can say, "That's ridiculous, Steve. What a dumb idea. It can't be because of play. Just play, that's a stupid thing." We have the serious meme in us. Well I'm going to say no. And I will prove it to you in the next part of the speech — that play is the catalyst, it is the revolution, that we can use to transform Bulgaria for the better. Play: our brains are hardwired for play. Evolution has selected, over millions and billions of years, for play in animals and in humans. And you know what? Evolution does a really, really good job of deselecting traits that aren't advantageous to us and selecting traits for competitive advantage. Nature isn't stupid, and it selected for play. Throughout the animal kingdom, for example: ants. Ants play. Maybe you didn't know that. But when they're playing, they're learning the social order and dynamics of things. Rats play, but what you might not have known is that rats that play more have bigger brains and they learn tasks better, skills. Kittens play. We all know kittens play. But what you may not know is that kittens deprived of play are unable to interact socially. They can still hunt, but they can't be social. Bears play. But what you may not know is that bears that play more survive longer. It's not the bears that learn how to fish better. It's the ones that play more.
And a final really interesting study — it's been shown, a correlation between play and brain size. The more you play, the bigger the brains there are. Dolphins, pretty big brains, play a lot. But who do you think with the biggest brains are the biggest players? Yours truly: humans. Kids play, we play — of every nationality, of every race, of every color, of every religion. It's a universal thing — we play. And it's not just kids, it's adults too.
Really cool term: neoteny — the retention of play and juvenile traits in adults. And who are the biggest neotenists? Humans. We play sports. We do it for fun, or as Olympians, or as professionals. We play musical instruments. We dance, we kiss, we sing, we just goof around. We're designed by nature to play from birth to old age. We're designed to do that continuously — to play and play a lot and not stop playing. It is a huge benefit. Just like there's benefits to animals, there's benefits to humans. For example, it's been shown to stimulate neural growth in the amygdala, in the area where it controls emotions. It's been shown to promote pre-frontal cortex development where a lot of cognition is happening. As a result, what happens? We develop more emotional maturity if we play more. We develop better decision-making ability if we play more.
These guys are facts. It's not fiction, it's not story tales, it's not make-believe; it's cold, hard science. These are the benefits to play. It is a genetic birthright that we have, like walking or speaking or seeing. And if we handicap ourselves with play, we handicap ourselves as if we would with any other birthright that we have. We hold ourselves back. Little exercise just for a second: close your eyes and try to imagine a world without play. Imagine a world without theater, without the arts, without song, without dancing, without soccer, without football, without laughter. What does this world look like? It's pretty bleak. It's pretty glum.
Now imagine your workplace. Is it fun? Is it playful? Or maybe the workplace of your friends — here we're forward thinking. Is it fun? Is it playful? Or is it crap? Is it autocratic, controlling, restrictive and untrusting and unfulfilling? We have this concept that the opposite of play is work. We even feel guilty if we're seen playing at work. "Oh, my colleagues see me laughing. I must not have enough work," or, "Oh, I've got to hide because my boss might see me. He's going to think I'm not working hard." But I have news for you: our thinking is backwards.
The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression. It's depression. In fact, play improves our work. Just like there's benefits for humans and animals, there's benefits for play at work. For example, it stimulates creativity. It increases our openness to change. It improves our ability to learn. It provides a sense of purpose and mastery — two key motivational things that increase productivity, through play. So before you start thinking of play as just not serious, play doesn't mean frivolous. You know, the professional athlete that loves skiing, he's serious about it, but he loves it. He's having fun, he's in the groove, he's in the flow. A doctor might be serious, but laughter's still a great medicine. Our thinking is backwards. We shouldn't be feeling guilty. We should be celebrating play.
Quick example from the corporate world. FedEx, easy motto: people, service, profit. If you treat your people like people, if you treat them great, they're happier, they're fulfilled, they have a sense of mastery and purpose. What happens? They give better service — not worse, but better. And when customers call for service and they're dealing with happy people that can make decisions and are fulfilled, how do the customers feel? They feel great. And what do great customers do, great-feeling customers? They buy more of your service and they tell more of their friends, which leads to more profit. People, service, profit. Play increases productivity, not decreases.
And you're going to say, "Gee, that can work for FedEx out there in the United States, but it can't work in Bulgaria. No way. We're different." It does work in Bulgaria, you guys. Two reasons. One, play is universal. There's nothing weird about Bulgarians that we can't play, besides the serious meme that we have to kick out. Two, I've tried it. I've tried at Sciant. When I got there, we had zero happy customers. Not one customer would refer us. I asked them all. We had marginal profit — I did. We had marginal profits, and we had unhappy stakeholders. Through some basic change, change like improving transparency, change like promoting self-direction and collaboration, encouraging collaboration, not autocracy, the things like having a results-focus. I don't care when you get in in the morning. I don't care when you leave. I care that your customer and your team is happy and you're organized with that. Why do I care if you get in at nine o'clock? Basically promoting fun. Through promoting fun and a great environment, we were able to transform Sciant and, in just three short years — sounds like a long time, but change is slow — every customer, from zero to every customer referring us, above average profits for the industry and happy stakeholders. And you can say, "Well how do you know they're happy?" Well we did win, every year that we entered, one of the rankings for best employer for small business. Independent analysis from anonymous employees on their surveys. It does, and it can, work in Bulgaria. There's nothing holding us back, except our own mentality about play.
So some steps that we can take — to finish up — how to make this revolution through play. First of all, you have to believe me. If you don't believe me, well just go home and think about it some more or something. Second of all, if you don't have the feeling of play in you, you need to rediscover play. Whatever it was that as a kid you used to enjoy, that you enjoyed only six months ago, but now that you've got that promotion you can't enjoy, because you feel like you have to be serious, rediscover it. I don't care if it's mountain biking or reading a book or playing a game. Rediscover that because you're the leaders, the innovation leaders, the thought leaders. You're the ones that have to go back to the office or talk to your friends and ignite the fire of change in the play revolution. You guys have to, and if you're not feeling it, your colleagues, your employees, aren't going to feel it. You've got to go back and say, "Hey, I'm going to trust you." Weird concept: I hired you; I should trust you. I'm going to let you make decisions. I'm going to empower you, and I'm going to delegate to the lowest level, rather than the top. I'm going to encourage constructive criticism. I'm going to let you challenge authority. Because it's by challenging the way things are always done is that we are able to break out of the rut that we're in and create innovative solutions to problems of today.
We're not always right as leaders. We're going to eradicate fear. Fear is the enemy of play. And we're going to do things like eliminate restrictions. You know what, let them use their mobile phone for personal calls — heaven forbid. Let them be on the Internet. Let them be on instant messengers. Let them take long lunches. Lunch is like the recess for work. It's when you go out in the world and you recharge your brain, you meet your friends, you have a beer, you have some food, you talk, you get some synergy of ideas that maybe you wouldn't have had before. Let them do it. Give them some freedom, and in general, let them play. Let them have fun at the workplace. We spend so much of our lives at the workplace, and it's supposed to be, what, a miserable grind, so that 20 years from now, we wake up and say, "Is this it? Is that all there was?" Unacceptable. Nepriemliv. (Laughter)
So in summary, we need a drastic change in the way we think and behave, but we don't need a workers' revolution. We don't need a workers' revolution. What we need is a players' uprising. What we need is a players' uprising. What we need is a players' uprising. Seriously, we need to band together. Today is the start of the uprising. But what you need to do is fan the flames of the revolution. You need to go and share your ideas and your success stories of what worked about reinvigorating our lives, our schools, and our work with play; about how play promotes a sense of promise and self-fulfillment; of how play promotes innovation and productivity, and, ultimately, how play creates meaning. Because we can't do it alone. We have to do it together, and together, if we do this and share these ideas on play, we can transform Bulgaria for the better.
Steve Keil fights the "serious meme" that has infected his home of Bulgaria — and calls for a return to play to revitalize the economy, education and society. A sparkling talk with a universal message for people everywhere who are reinventing their workplaces, schools, lives.
Based in Bulgaria, Steve Keil creates companies around big social and environmental goals.
Based in Bulgaria, Steve Keil creates companies around big social and environmental goals.