You live your life prospectively and tell your story retrospectively…

A great profile in the NY Times of the mathematician turned biologist Eric Lander. Lander now runs the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Lander was a superlative mathematician who later became an expert in molecular biology, medicine and genomics, swapping the solitary life of a mathematician for a much more collaborative, inter-disciplinary adventure.

Two quotes in particular.

The first from Lander’s high school friend, Dr. Paul Zeitz, a maths professor at the University of San Francisco: “He was super smart, but so what? Pure intellectual heft is like someone who can bench-press a thousand pounds. But so what, if you don’t know what to do with it?”

The other from Lander himself, describing the improbable leaps in his own career: “You live your life prospectively and tell your story retrospectively, so it looks like everything is converging.” But of course, at the time, there is no convergence. You make choices and take risks, hoping that everything works out. Only when it does do others look back and approve.

Lander saw the kind of life he wanted, pursued it and succeeded, but I’m sure there were those at every turn wondering what on earth he was doing.

One thought on “You live your life prospectively and tell your story retrospectively…

  1. Lander appears to have broken the traditional pattern of academia and it has paid off. As I speak with other scholars, it seems that among new assistant professors there is a fear of taking risks. The advice always seems to be that a new researcher should play it safe until tenure is achieved, and then one can begin to follow ones real passions. This seems to stifle creativity and hinder the kinds of work that Lander appears to have done because it forces the researcher into predefined categories and even limits cross-disciplinary movement. I wonder what could be done to encourage more of this kind of collaboration among scholars?

    Thanks for your great work, Philip.


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