Note: I’m leaving today for a week-long overseas trip. I won’t have Internet access (by design), so I give my usual apologies about not being able to moderate comments or respond to e-mail in the near future.
Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at MIT, discovered her life’s mission in graduate school. It started with a class taught by Abhijit Banerjee, a pioneer in the field of development economics. Duflo ended that semester with a clear vision: when helping the world’s poor, rigorous and controlled experiments can be used to determine which programs work and which fail.
Other thinkers had toyed with this idea, but Duflo boasts, as Ian Parker notes in his recent New Yorker profile, “[a] faith in redistribution…[and] the optimistic notion that tomorrow might turn our better than today.”
This confidence translated into an ability to conceive and then execute development experiments on an unprecedented scale. Her dissertation, titled “Three Essays in Empirical Development Economics,” became a standard in the field. As Parker reports, Duflo received offers from every top economics department in the country, with the exception of Stanford. In 2003, she co-founded a Poverty Action Lab at MIT, which has since conducted over 200 empirical development experiments. In 2004, she was made a full professor at MIT. In 2009, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant.
When reflecting on Duflo’s life, it’s clear that her mission is the foundation for her rapid success. Lots of young economists work very hard, and many have more technical ability than Duflo, whose accomplishments are more logistical than mathematical. But she focused her attention on a worthy mission, which accelerated her, to an almost ridiculous speed, along the path to becoming so good they couldn’t ignore her.
I’m fascinated by the concept of a life mission,which I define as devoting the bulk of your professional energies toward an under-served but unambiguously useful cause. As Duflo’s story emphasizes, missions can help spawn a remarkable life.
But the closer you look at the concept, the murkier it becomes…
Contrast Duflo’s story to one from my own experience. In April, I received an e-mail from a college junior. She admitted a fascination with polymaths — people who develop great skills in multiple unrelated subject areas. “It popped into my head,” she told me, ”that maybe I could do the research, identify patterns and commonalities, and then compile what I found about polymaths through history into a book.”
She was excited about the project, which had the makings of a mission, and asked for my advice. After hearing Duflo’s story, you might assume that I was quick with encouragement.
I pointed her instead toward my article on becoming a non-fiction writer. Even a casual read of this piece makes it clear that an academic study of polymaths is not a topic that a first time, college-aged writer can expect to publish.
Pre-Conditions for Purpose
Was what different about Duflo as compared to the undergraduate? Experience. When you dig deeper into Duflo’s story, you notice that she crystallized her vision toward the end of an economics PhD program. When she heard Banerjee talk about development economics, she had the foundation of experience needed to identify the real opportunity being presented. She also had the competence to envision immediate action that would generate concrete results. (As a senior graduate student searching for a thesis topic, Duflo had the resources necessary to begin conducting experiments and publishing the results where they would be read by important people.)
The undergrad, by contrast, didn’t have the foundation to realistically turn her interest into a book. The plan she proposed to me, which involved 10 hours of writing per week over the upcoming summer, would likely, unfortunately, be a waste of time.
This is what complicates the mission to find a mission. On the one hand, to discover them (and recognize them), you need a non-conformist’s confidence and a dedication to exploration. Duflo, for example, was a notorious searcher. Among other acts of defiance, she took time off in the middle of her studies to go work on practical economic problems in Moscow (where she met Jeffery Sachs). When she took Banerjee’s class she was actively seeking an outlet for her intellectual energies.
On the other hand, this sense of exploration has to be backed with competence in the relevant field. And developing this competence has a decidedly unexciting, conformist feel to it — a process replete with hard focus and resistance to distraction.
This is the challenge facing those in search of professional purpose: the need to balance a myopic focus on getting good with a regular infusion of exploration and a sense of possibility. There’s no magical balance, I suspect, but instead a need to constantly shift and adjust your approach; covering lots of diverse territory while still obsessively tending your forward momentum.
(Photo by alicepopkorn)