What’s the most important lesson in life?

Nobel Laureates Vernon Smith, Lars Hansen and Herbert Simon share some of the lessons they’ve found most valuable along the way.

24 Dec 2018

People learn through experiences, by the influences of others and personal developments. But of all the things we learn in life, is there something that is more valuable than others? All too often, we're so focused on "doing" that we forget to reflect on what we just experienced. Even when something transformative is taking place, we don’t always feel it or even know that it’s happening. Other lessons happen gradually, sometime spanning years.

The Nobel Prize selection process is one draped in secrecy and a nominee’s work can be assessed for years, even decades, before being awarded. So who better than Nobel Laureates to turn to on topics of life lessons, patience and perseverance?

“I believe that all learning is ultimately a form of self-education,” says Nobel Laureate Vernon L. Smith. “At some point in my own education, I realized that the most important thing I was learning was that I was learning to learn.”

Smith says learning became a life-long quest. Getting better at finding the information needed to help him answer the questions he had, allowed him to develop both as a researcher and on a personal and social level.

“Coming to terms with your own failures is the greatest learning experience you can have and yet, none of us naturally do that,” he says. “We never start out deliberately to show ourselves to be wrong. We think we’re going to find out that we’re right. The fact that your beliefs are false can be something that you’ll have a hard time facing up to.”

Coming to terms with your own failures of belief is the greatest learning experience you can have.

– Smith

Another accomplished professor and economist that has reflected on his time as a student as a pivotal one is Nobel Laureate Lars Peter Hansen. He believes that the freedom of being able to explore different subjects gave him a foundation and set him up for success later in life.

“I didn't really know what I wanted to do but the mere fact that I had acquired multiple skills of different types, gave me the flexibility to pursue different things,” says Hansen. “And this is true in the job market as well. The nature of jobs changes over time but the broader skill set you have, the more it puts you in a position to be able to respond to such an environment and to thrive in it.”

“The most important thing for young people is to do things they have passion for,” he explains. “In order to be good at something, you have to put some effort in. You have to work at it. So passion is important.”

The late Hebert A. Simon was a true pioneer in the scientific community. His work spanned over several fields including statistics, economics, computer science and psychology. When asked about the most important lesson in life, the Nobel Laureate didn’t focus solely on succeeding, he spoke about survival.

“Human beings get a tremendous advantage from being influenced of all the people around them,” he said. “That's the way we learn to grow, learn all the skills we need to survive. So we're influenceable, we take construction. Human beings that don't take instruction, that don't take advice, don't last very long in our society or any other society.”

Simon also saw communication skills as a crucial. Communicating with your peers, communicating with a wider audience and communicating clearly to encourage others to build on your ideas.

“You try to create ideas or create evidence, create knowledge, but you haven't created it until you've communicated it,” he said. “Communication is an essential part of the scientific activity. The test of whether you've done good science is whether all the people build on it or not.”

But the big picture is where he became more philosophical. He believed that people should focus on living well and by well, he meant living passionately and compassionately.

“In thinking about what one is trying to accomplish, one shouldn't lose sight of the living itself,” he said. “That may be the most important thing, the journey.”

More Nobel Laureate stories

What can experiments tell us about the real-world?

Vernon L. Smith

Nobel Laureate, 2002

How can we deal with uncertainty?

Lars Peter Hansen

Nobel Laureate, 2013

Are we understanding human behavior?

Herbert A. Simon

Nobel Laureate, 1978