How to become a Nobel Prize winner…

Updated: Mar 26

“Sir, why…. are you….. doing this?”

I was asked this question earlier this week whilst running alongside a student who was struggling for breath. He was participating in a mini triathlon event that the school had organized for the first time and I was taking part as well. Having finished my race I had decided to run alongside to give him support having realized he was struggling.

My initial reply was:

Because… I believe… it’s important for students…. to experience…. different things… that take them… out of… their comfort zone.”

Not only was I myself gasping for air and out of my comfort zone, I was also clearly conscious that this was physically demanding and difficult and initially felt I needed to justify why I was forcing him and others to do something ‘different’, something out of their modern day, narrow and information rich comfort zone.

But the answer wasn’t what he was looking for. “No sir…. why are…. YOU…. doing this!” And then I realized the profound nature of the question. He wasn’t asking why the school had organized this event but why I was taking part? It was actually a very insightful question because I am no longer a spring chicken and my body was certainly aching at the time. Also there had been no call for the Headmaster to even consider taking part, yet my instinct had been to do so, but why?

My answer was (in between deep gasps for air) “Well, I have been brought up to believe that any leader who asks someone to do something should always be prepared to do it themselves, so here I am demonstrating that.” I then went on a bit about how I had learnt that lesson in the Army and how I had subsequently learnt that it was true everywhere in life and that I hoped he would follow that mantra over time. I hope it registered with him, who knows.

Now this thought process was obvious to me, but clearly not to that student. And that got me thinking this week because I realized how easy it is to assume others think the same way when actually they don’t. And it was that thought process that was going through my mind in a recent meeting to discuss next years’ events, activities, drama productions, house singing competitions, music recitals, sports events, poetry competitions, art competitions, music lessons, adventure camp excursions, camping trips, cooking classes and so on.

Why, I was thinking, do we teachers and school leaders instinctively continue to go that extra mile and organize so many ‘extra-curricular’ activities and hence go through the trials and tribulations of coordinating them all, when it would be a lot easier to keep the children in the classroom all day. As teachers we know why, but it is intangible at times, there is no ‘examination’ at the end to prove any tangible benefit, we rely on parents believing and trusting in us that it has worth. Then I had one of those wonderful ‘flashes of insight’, or a ‘coup d’oeil’ that William Duggan explains so well in his book ‘Strategic Intuition’. I suddenly realized there was tangible evidence.

I’m currently reading Adam Grants’ book ‘Originals’ which is a wonderful book and highlights how many different factors are critical for creativity. Here’s an excerpt from his book that I suddenly remembered offered that tangible evidence I was looking for:

In a recent study comparing every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005 with typical scientists of the same era, both groups attained deep expertise in their respective fields of study. But the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists. Here’s what a team of fifteen researchers at Michigan State University found about engagement in the arts among Nobel Prize winners relative to ordinary scientists:

Artistic hobby - Odds for Nobel Prize winners relative to typical scientists


Music: playing an instrument, composing, conducting - 2 times greater

Arts: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting - 7 times greater

Crafts: woodworking, mechanics, electronics, glassblowing - 7.5 times greater

Writing: poetry, plays, novels, short stories, essays, popular books - 12 times greater

Performing: amateur actor, dancer, magician - 22 times greater


If you were a scientist and involved in the arts as an amateur actor, dancer or magician, you were 22 times more likely to achieve a Nobel Prize than a fellow scientist last Century. More generally put, scientists who enjoyed pursuing extracurricular activities were more likely to earn a Nobel Prize for their scientific work than those who didn’t.

Ask any teacher firmly immersed in the philosophy behind the British Independent School Ethos to react to the findings of this research and you’ll probably get a shrug of the shoulders, because they won’t be surprised, in fact they’ll say “It’s obvious!” But like the student who didn’t understand why I was doing the mini triathlon when I didn’t have to, for many parents who understandably wonder about the value and benefits behind the British Independent School Ethos way of doing things, I hope this table goes some way to offering an insight into why we do what we do.

So maybe I should have replied to the student’s question as follows:

“I’m doing the mini triathlon because it gives me more chance of achieving a Nobel Prize in Science!”

But of course I couldn’t have could I? Why not? Because for those eagle eyed of you, this research didn’t look at the sporting attributes of the scientists, just their artistic attributes, but if the research had also looked at sport, I have a sneaky feeling they would have found a similar correlation. So there you are, the secret to achieving a Nobel Prize, do more extracurricular activities.