5 Lessons About Success from Nobel Laureates

How do Nobel laureates achieve success? (Guest post by David Pratt)

Posted Nov 19, 2016

Roy Mattappallil/FreeImages
Source: Roy Mattappallil/FreeImages

Today's intriguing and inspiring post was contributed by David Pratt, a writer living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. His latest book is Nobel Laureates: The Secret of their Success.   

Five Lessons from the Lives of Nobel Laureates

1. Find Your Passion: Nobel laureates are frequently asked what is the secret to winning a Nobel Prize. Their answers are not always illuminating. Robert Laughlin (Physics,1998) said, “If I knew what leads one to the Nobel Prize, I wouldn’t tell you, but go get another one.” It is more instructive to examine the lives of laureates, and one common feature emerges: passionate engagement with their work. 

Alan MacDiarmid (Chemistry, 2000) put it this way: “One has to live it, eat, dream it, sleep it. It has to be complete immersion.” But one must first find where one’s passion lies. “You have to know what makes you happy,” said Leon Lederman (Physics, 1988), “what makes you say, ‘Thank God it’s Monday’ instead of ‘Thank God it’s Friday.’” Richard Feynman (Physics, 1965) said, “Work hard to find something that fascinates you. When you find it you will know your lifework.”

2. Develop Intellectual Independence: Bertrand Russell (Literature, 1950) urged, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” Many laureates have echoed this advice. Linus Pauling (Chemistry, 1954; Peace, 1962), said, “When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect—but do not believe him. Never put your trust in anything but your own intellect.”

In his Nobel lecture in Stockholm, Paul Lauterbur (Medicine, 2003) told the audience, “There’s a saying among scientists, that you don’t know you’ve got a really good idea until at least three Nobel laureates have told you it’s wrong.” 

Sometimes intellectual independence entails defying society or the state. Joseph Brodsky (Literature, 1987), a young Russian poet supporting himself by a series of temporary jobs, was arrested in Leningrad in 1963 on a charge of social parasitism. The judge demanded to know whence came his right to be called a poet.  Brodsky replied, “I thought, well, I thought it came from God.” He was sentenced to five years hard labor. 

3. Take Risks: In a wartime speech Winston Churchill (Literature, 1953) expressed the paradox that “There is no safer thing to do than to run risks in youth.” Werner Forssman (Medicine, 1956), a young medical intern in Germany in the 1930s, was working alone one evening. He anesthetized his elbow, ran a catheter into the vein, and when he felt it enter the heart walked down to the imaging room and took an x-ray. When he told the hospital director the next morning, his response was outrage: “Get out! Leave my department immediately!” It was not until after the war that Forssman’s procedure was rediscovered and he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Another self-experiment was performed by Barry Marshall, the Australian gastroenterologist. Convinced that stomach ulcers were caused by the bacterium helicobacter pylori, and not by stress, diet, or lifestyle, Marshall mixed up a solution of a billion bacteria and drank it down. “My lab technician was waiting for me to drop dead.” It took several more years before the medical community was convinced of Marshall’s findings.

4. Find Kindred Spirits: Andre Lwoff, who mentored Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod on their way to the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1964, which he shared, said, “The art of research is first of all to find a good patron.” Jacob said of Lwoff, “He showed me an unfailing affectionate benevolence. He never ceased to encourage me, to show and to praise my work, to speed up promotion.”

Albert Camus (Literature, 1957) was saved from a life of manual labor by his devoted elementary school teacher, M. Germain.  After winning the Nobel Prize, Camus wrote to his old teacher “But for you…” and M. Germain wrote back, “My dear child…”

Colleagues are also vital to success. Sidney Brenner (Medicine, 2002) commented that “The whole idea that science is conducted by people working alone in rooms and struggling with the forces of nature is absolutely ridiculous. It is a social activity of the highest sort.” Daniel Kahneman (Economics, 2002), the only psychologist to win a Nobel Prize, worked long and fruitfully with the Israeli cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky. “We were not just having fun. I quickly discovered that Amos had a remedy for everything I found difficult… We were a team, and we remained in that mode for well over a decade.”

5. Work with Passion: “Without passion there is no genius.” So wrote Theodor Mommsen, who became the first Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1901.  Riccardo Giacconi (Physics, 2002) stated, “Nothing is going to happen unless you work with your life’s blood.” The reason Nobel laureates work so hard is that they love their work.

Barbara McClintock (Medicine, 1983), the pioneering geneticist, said, “I never thought of stopping, and I just hated sleeping. I can’t imagine having a better life.” Winston Churchill put his finger on the issue: “Those whose work and pleasure are one are Fortune’s favored children.”

Probably Marie Curie (Physics, 1903; Chemistry, 1911) would have agreed. She and her husband and fellow laureate, Pierre, worked for years in an old shed at the Sorbonne, isolating radium. “It was in this miserable old shed that the best and happiest years of our life were spent, entirely consecrated to work. I sometimes passed the whole day stirring a mass in ebullition, with an iron rod nearly as big as myself. In the evening I was broken with fatigue.”

Book cover used with permission of the author.
Source: Book cover used with permission of the author.

Peace laureates work with the same dedication; one cannot listen to Aung San Suu Kyi (Peace, 1991) or Malala Yousafzai (Peace, 2014) without being struck by the calm dignity that accompanies their passionate conviction.

No one could claim that Nobel laureates are typical:  one in six hundred million people wins a Nobel Prize.  But it is likely that the principles that guide Nobel prize winners apply also to those whose achievements are uncelebrated, who write books that are unread, who work for peace unrecognized, and who further the frontiers of science in obscurity.

  • Guest post by David Pratt, author of Nobel Laureates: The Secret of their Success. You may not reproduce this post without permission.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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