What is the secret of success in life?

We spoke to three successful Nobel Laureates and asked them if they believe there is such a thing as 'the secret to success'

05 Oct 2018
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If you put Nobel Laureates Joseph E. Stiglitz, Robert C. Merton and Robert J. Shiller in a room together, you wouldn’t find many similarities amongst them beyond the fact that they all received the highest honor in their academic field. So how did they do it?

For Stiglitz, he says that it was a number of different factors that led him to where he is today.

“I came from a very poor town in Gary, Indiana, where a degree was what was viewed as absolutely necessary to going forward,” he says. “And yet I’d always had a maybe excessively idealistic view that was mattered was ideas. I had the view, well, my success ought to be judged not by whether I have a degree or not but by what I do.”

In a world where credentials took precedence, Stiglitz took a leap of faith that he attributes to bravery. Others may call it something closer to crazy; he decided to get a PhD without an undergraduate degree.

“It was a mixture of idealism, that what really mattered was what you did and your ideas,” Stiglitz says. “And maybe a mild dose of overconfidence.”

Entrepreneurs are often wrong too, but the lucky ones will make it.
– Shiller

Robert Shiller on the other hand approached his career, and ultimate success, with more of an entrepreneurial edge.

“There just isn’t any scientific authority that can investigate business ideas, you can’t centralize it,” he says. “It takes entrepreneurial judgement. And the entrepreneurs are often wrong too, but the lucky ones will make it.”

Change involves some amounts of risk. And we have to deal with it.
– Merton

A great idea is a nice thing to have, but you also need to make it work, says Nobel Laureate Robert Merton. When we asked him for his secret to success, he shared a story about America’s greatest inventor.

“Edison supposedly said when asked what’s the secret for successful invention,” begins Merton. “Ten percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Meaning a great idea is good, but the really big thing is implementing the idea, making it work. And I think that’s what’s driven me.”

For Merton, his success has been all about knowing when to take risks and how to take them properly. He likes using a particular analogy to illustrate how crucial finding that balance can be.

“If you built a train that could go 300 kilometers an hour, but if the track will not take more than 100 kilometers an hour, you’d be insane to drive it at 300,” says Merton. “But if always say we’re going to keep the speed limit at 100, you’ll never have any innovation.”

“Changes involves some amounts of risk,” he says. “And we have to deal with it.”

Everything these Laureates have accomplished show how much you can achieve when you trust in yourself and your ideas. It proves that setting ambitious goals and focusing on something you're passionate about will take you far. However, what is certain is that success is personal and, dependent on whom you ask, the answer will always differ.

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