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In Search of Purpose: Esther Duflo and the Pre-Conditions for Finding Your Life’s Mission

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.


The Maverick

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…

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How to Become a Star Screenwriter: A Case Study in Modern Craftsmanship

Screenplay in Progress

The Shane Black Effect 

The story is a Hollywood classic. At the age of 23, two years after graduating from UCLA with a theater degree, and eager for a source of income while waiting for his acting break, Shane Black decided to try screenwriting. He penned a buddy cop flick, featuring a deranged lead seeking redemption. He gave it the type of clipped, masculine title popular in the mid-80s blockbuster era: Lethal Weapon. The script was scooped up mega-producer Joel Silver for a quarter million dollars, catapulting Black into screenwriting stardom. Within a decade, after earning a then record $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodbye, he became the highest paid writer in the industry,

Black’s story, and those like it, drive thousands of hopeful writers to Los Angeles each year, and motivate untold tens of thousands more to bookstores to seek instruction from a bewildering array of expert advice guides. These writer wannabes take this leap with full knowledge that screenwriting is one of the world’s most notoriously elite and inaccessible industries. The Writers Guild of America counts 12,000 professional screenwriters on its rolls — that is, writers good enough to have been paid for their work — and of these pros, it’s estimated that around half are out of work at any given time. To make matters worse for the amateur, a growing number of selective screenwriting M.F.A. programs ensures a constant flow of highly-trained newcomers to compete for the few open slots that remain. In 2009, the Nicholl Fellowship, the most prestigious amateur screenwriting award, received close to 7000 submissions.

If you want to make it in screenwriting you have to be exceptional, and this is what makes it a fascinating case study for our ongoing efforts to decode the secrets of becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

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