Subjectivity is often frowned upon by serious scholars. After all, the story goes, what really matters is the objective merits of the insight or experimental result, not the individual path taken in reaching it.
But history tells another story. Throughout time and place, human societies have varied widely in their forms of government, religious orientation, economic structure, scientific acumen, cultural practices, and even moral code. But one commonality links us all: storytelling. From Homer to Hollywood, every human society that we know of has placed a high value on the intrinsically compelling nature of a good tale.
It is not enough to know what has been discovered, we crave to know how, exactly, and by whom. The theory of relativity is all well and good, but who is that guy with the white frizzy hair and no socks, and what, on earth, could have led him to come up with it?
It is fashionable these days to look down upon this all-too- human instinct as an unfortunate holdover of our early development, on par with creation myths or monsters under the bed. I disagree. Aside from the obvious fact that there is nothing at all wrong with appreciating the inspirational life trajectories of some of today’s most accomplished thinkers, these biographical accounts often serve a strong practical purpose as well, tangibly demonstrating that the road to excellence is almost never as clearly marked and pre-ordained as one might naively think. That’s not so surprising to us older folks, of course, but to a struggling 20-year-old, such revelations can come as a particularly welcome relief.
After having held over 100 extended Ideas Roadshow conversations with a wide variety of highly accomplished experts, I can say with some confidence that virtually none of them had a direct and straightforward trajectory towards where they are today.
Josiah Ober’s path to academic stardom began with his girlfriend’s dental work; Jay Rubenstein moved from Oklahoma to England via The Kinks and wound up as a renowned medievalist; Patricia Churchland studied philosophy so as to understand the nature of knowledge and ended up collaborating with famed geneticist Francis Crick; Ellen Bialystok started out investigating cognitive development in children and wound up demonstrating that bilingualism can stave off the effects of dementia; Scott Tremaine turned towards physics because he was too lazy to bother remembering the capitals of the Soviet Republics, Martin Jay was led to ponder the uses of lying after reviewing a polemical book by Christopher Hitchens; Teo Ruiz went to New York’s City College only after the leader of his counter-revolutionary gang got arrested in the Bahamas; Karl Gerth embarked upon a career in Chinese Studies thanks to a cultural exchange program that his college had just happened to have recently set up; Maria Mavroudi owes her fascination with Byzantium to a scooter her father bought her when she was a girl; John Elliott fell in love with a painting in the Prado and became one of the world’s foremost Spanish historians; Ben Nelson eventually returned to his pedagogical roots after 10 years as a successful Silicon Valley businessman.
Justin Khoury’s cosmological motivations were piqued by an inspiring documentary about Einstein; Andy Hoffman went from chemical engineering to the EPA to building houses to a professor of business and the environment; Margaret Jacob began her historical career as a chemistry major but always kept an eye on Newton; Nile Green’s scholarly determination started with a summer train trip to Istanbul; Edie Widder became a seagoing marine biologist because she couldn’t help fiddling around with some new lab equipment; Diana Deutsch stumbled upon auditory illusions while using recently developed music software; Miguel Nicolelis launched his professional neuroscience career by naively answering an ad meant for someone else; Jennifer Groh was driven away from behavioral ecology by battling ticks on North Carolina’s barrier islands; Carol Dweck started pondering the power of mindsets after an exposure to an overbearing 6th grade teacher.
Life, in short, is complicated and hardly straightforward, no less so for the very successful than for the rest of us. But there’s much more going on than simply blind luck. When you’ve heard as many personal stories as I have, some order begins to emerge: what to some are discouraging obstacles, others seize as opportunity. As the old saw goes: it’s not so much the cards you’re dealt, it’s how you play them.
You don’t get that from glancing at a gleaming CV. You get it from listening to a story.
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