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Doing What it Takes Versus Taking What You Already Know How to Do

The Unexpected Nobel

Eric Betzig is a research leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. Last month he received a surprising and life changing call: he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on high resolution microscopy (see the video above).

Everyone who wins the Nobel is impressive, but what makes Betzig particularly worthy of attention is his unlikely path to the prize. One thing that any non-partial observer will confirm is that if you had met Betzig in 1994, the idea that he would one day win the most prestigious award in science would seem strictly absurd.

The Retreat

As scientists go, Betzig had a strong start. As he recounts in a Washington Post profile, as a child Betzig was captivated by the space race. “I can still you the names of the astronauts on every flight from Mercury to Apollo,” he said.

This motivated him to study physics at Cal Tech. After he graduated in 1983, he went on to earn his PhD in applied physics at Cornell.

At this point, the excitement surrounding the space program had waned, so Betzig ended up studying high resolution microscopy for his dissertation — a field that was becoming hot as new technology enabled breakthroughs in the resolution of microscopes.

In 1988, Betzig moved to Bell Labs to continue his work on microscopes. At Bell Labs, Betzig helped improve a pioneering procedure for detecting the light absorption of single molecules to work at room temperature (the original experiments had required temperatures near absolute zero).

At some point, however, Betzig began to feel “restless.” Technology wasn’t ready to capitalize on the techniques he was helping to develop.

“Science goes through fads and there are big ups and crashes,” Betzig recalled in the Post profile. “[The] microscopy we were using was going through one of those fad phases, which disturbed me. It was being grossly oversold.”

In 1994 he quit Bell Labs to join his father’s Michigan-based tool and die company, where he would remain for the next seven years.

The Return

In the early 2000’s, Betzig was someone who had been involved in promising research a decade earlier, but not anything that was Nobel-worthy. He had subsequently spent the last seven years helping his dad’s company optimize procedures for large-scale production of machine parts.

Nothing about this his resume predicted what would happen next.

Betzig decided that he “missed the basic curiosity of the lab.” He wanted to return to academia, but he also knew that his seven years working in industry and not publishing made that almost impossible.

The keyword being “almost.”

Betzig concluded that his only way back into the world of academic science was to hit a home run. So he began searching for a good pitch to swing at.

This search, at one point, led him and Harald Hess, an old Bell Labs collaborator, to Mike Davidson’s lab at Florida State where he learned about a new technique for fluorescing proteins. Though the details of the explanation are complicated, this breakthrough, Betzig noticed, made it theoretically possible to advance the research he had started in the 1980’s.

Working in Harald Hess’s living room, the pair began making phone calls and begging for some fluorescing proteins. They then started cobbling together different prototypes of microscopes that would use these proteins to achieve unprecedented resolution.

Their final result was attention-grabbing in the field: a microscope able to visualize the biological processes of living cells, in real time, without damaging the organisms. A major breakthrough.

The year was 2006. Within a month, Howard Hughes Medical center offered Betzig a research position to continue the work. In 2014, this work won him the Nobel.

The Lesson

Soon after Betzig won the prize, several readers sent me versions of his story. When I read it, I was struck by the following observation: When Eric Betzig wanted to return to academia, he asked, “what would this take?”  The answer was daunting — a breakthrough too good to be ignored — but nonetheless he hustled to make it happen.

This strategy sounds obvious, but it differs from how most of us approach professional advancement. When faced with an ambitious goal, most people defer instead to the question”what do I know I how to do and how can I make it look better?”

We take what we can do, in other words, instead of facing the reality of what it would take to get where we want to go.

I don’t exempt myself from this vice, and for this reason it fascinates me. Why is it so rare to honestly confront what would guarantee success with a goal ? Why do we instead default to tweaks and polishes on what we already know how to do? Why, for example, don’t more academics obsessively pursue the type of home run swings that Betzig identified as being necessary when he decided to return to the world of science?

There are some obvious answers to these questions, chief among them being discomfort with the answers that such honesty reveals, and there are some mysteries as well.

But what’s clear is that these questions remain something that I think anyone seeking an elite level of accomplishment must, at some point, confront. I also suspect that one of the main filters between those who end up changing the world and those who don’t is how they answer this unavoidable prompt.

31 thoughts on “Doing What it Takes Versus Taking What You Already Know How to Do”

  1. Good read Cal. I think it’s by default easier to tweak what you know, because you know by doing this you know you are certain to improve in your field, whereas branching off into another direction you can’t be sure whether this new path will help or just end up a waste of time. It’s vital to have regular reality checks – being completely honest, can your time be better spent doing something else? Is your current investment likely to work, or are you playing into the sunk cost fallacy? Tunneling into one type of work can be dangerous progress-wise..

  2. A very nice point, thank you Cal for this reminder. It is amazing how this little change, the other form of question that Betzig asked himself made such a difference in his future life.

  3. It’s interesting to read this post alongside one from this past July: Do Goals Prevent Success? Attempting to merge the apparently opposing ideas, I observe the following: Betzig didn’t just go for any important problem as a gateway back into academia. Instead, he worked with an old collaborator who brought the fluorescing technique to the table, and recognized from his own research that it could revolutionize microscopy. He chose a problem based on what he already knew how to do. I expect that most academics do the same thing: try to solve the biggest problem they can with the tools they have available. It’s just that usually that “biggest problem” isn’t very big.

  4. “Why, for example, don’t more academics obsessively pursue the type of home run swings that Betzig identified as being necessary when he decided to return to the world of science?”

    My guess as an almost-finished PhD:
    Because finding world-class problems to tackle requires the freedom, in time and energy, to obsessively find and follow promising leads. Unfortunately, many academics are on a treadmill of ‘publish or perish’ and can only look towards the ‘next publication’ that will keep their career going. Thus, no time or energy to look at hard problems.

    • I note that Betzig may not have received a Nobel prize if he had joined as faculty right out of graduate school. Maybe he would’ve been sucked into the ‘publish or perish’ treadmill.

      The years of work at his father’s company gave him the freedom to think about and pursue promising leads (something that is hard to do if you are managing 10+ graduate students, writing grants, giving classes).

      • I agree with you, Michael and Shrutasrshi.

        Being out of academia for so many years gave Betzig freedom and also, I am guessing, some perspective.

        Being away from his field for seven years “helping his dad’s company optimize procedures for large-scale production of machine parts” may have given him new ways of looking at problems and solutions, and I am curious about what happened in those seven years that may have contributed to the work that led to his Nobel Prize.

  5. I agree with Michael Santiago above. There’s a lot of context that affects what a researcher does and what can they achieve. Betzig may have had more leeway than a modern university faculty member, but he also had his back to the wall in the sense that he needed the one big break to get to his job. I think neither of these are true for your average junior faculty member. They don’t have the freedom to drop everything and work on one or two great ideas for a long period of time, and the path to tenure does not necessarily provide the correct incentives for that kind of ground-breaking researcher.

  6. I think his approach can be adapted even for those with more modest goals.
    So, for instance, you may be an average researcher at a no-name school publishing in mid tier journals. Now you want to get published in a top tier journal. Well, as in Betzig’s case, it will take a drastic approach because your usual approach cannot get you there.

  7. Carl, I observe my interest wanes whenever you use highly successful “winners” as examples. I just cannot relate to Bill Gates or Nobel prize scientists. I don’t seek to emulate them, they represent such a minuscule portion of the successful working population, and I just don’t believe that luck does not play a significant part in their success, especially in the case of noble prize winners. Otherwise I’d have to believe that the other scientists weren’t “so good” – which I assume is not the case. The chance of winding a noble prize (or founding a Microsoft) is what, 0.0000001%?

    There are lots of hardworking, perceptive people in the world who do really well for themselves, maybe make a $100,000 a year, and no one knows their name outside of a very moderately-sized circle. Their success is more attainable and closer to something I can relate to. Your story, for instance, I’m interested in. Bill Gates? Yawn.

    At the risk of telling you what to write about…But I’m really looking forward to when you return to blogging about everyday people who derive pleasure from being good at their sometimes mundane jobs.

    • Cal has done profiles of successful people/people satisfied with their careers, before. I think he just trying to show that the uber successful people had the same strategy, perhaps with better connections & the right time. Being a star in your field(s) can be achieved with a certain mindset and method, and this is reflected in the super successful people as well.

    • I agree with OG. Those Nobel prize laureates are the exception. Not the rule. The truth is: the majority won’t be that much famous, successful and properly recognized. I want discussions and ideas about “real” people.

  8. I too took pause at the apparent contradiction between Betzig’s top-down approach to acheivement and the methodology described in the “do goals prevent success” post. I would think, in Betzig’s case, the goal to hit a home run in his field brought about a realization of the degree of focus and dedication required to do so.

    On the other hand, working from the bottom up, as described in the aforementioned post, would require a similar degree of focus and dedication to work, even if it’s not directed toward a predetermined goal.

    Therefore, doesn’t it seem that achieving an elite level of accomplishment comes back to hard, dedicated, focused work done consistently over time? And doesn’t the term “focused” imply some sort of unifying principle if not a predetermined goa.?

  9. I think I feel like playing devil’s advocate here. Perhaps we don’t hear a lot about people who shot for “home runs” because those people tried, and then failed at this all-or-nothing strategy? I have a PhD in biology from one of the best universities in the country, and I saw a lot of professors throw their graduate students on “home run” projects. A professor with 5 graduate students can afford to send them all on “home run” projects and if one of them succeeds, then the lab maintains its prestige, gets tenure, etc. It doesn’t really hurt the professor’s standing if 4 of them fail, as long as that one home run pays off. And at the end of the day those 4 students will have next to nothing to show for their work. Now put all 5 students on solid “teaching projects,” that help them develop sound technical skills that will definitely produce results, and the professor looks a bit “timid” and can get under fire for working on safe, boring projects. One of the most successful professors I know said that his success came from developing a single skill and then applying it as many places as he could (you discussed this in “So Good”). Look I’m all about trying to get to the bleeding edge, but you’ve got to know when to do it and when to say “this is a suicide mission.”

  10. No, it’s all excuses. Doing what it takes is scary because of uncertainity, possibility of failure after investing countless hours and making sacrifices, Its obvious our brain will go into overdive making excuses that are tempting to accept and act upon. But we have to make the leap trusting our world is far more forgiving to failure than before. Our prehistoric brain will not ever understand and will keep throwing excuses but we have to do what it takes.

  11. Paul Graham has excellently argued that it is scary to even approach hard problems ( The other aspect is that the likelihood of failure is quite large, as in almost certain. Furthermore, close to a home run topic, unless it is your very specialty, you are no smarter than anyone else. Why? Because no one knows what to do about that particular problem (if the problem has even been formulated yet), otherwise they would be doing it. It is quite demoralizing for someone smart to notice that essentially a random walk is the optimal strategy, especially if your future career depends on “succeeding” in said random walk. The solution is probably to hedge in some clever way: Work on predictable stuff most of the time, work on home runs for a smaller portion (see also Taleb’s barbell strategy)

  12. It seems like the title and premise of this article is arguing against the exact thing he did. Yes, he looked for impactful research opportunities, but this was only using what he already knew as a foundation. So yes, he did take what he already knew how to do and expanded on it with “bleeding edge” research.

    • Yep, ^^^ this. He built up a solid skill set, and worked from there. Obviously he couldn’t have done bleeding edge research in computer science or another field – he just picked off from where he had done research before he started his tool business with his dad.

      I’m sure during that time he also kept up to date with all advancements in microscopy, so when he needed to get back in, he had an idea of what he wanted to do.

  13. Cal, despite all the “yeah but I can’t do this” responses –a real yawn for me, your point is solid in that rare success happens by becoming too good to be ignored.

  14. I am not sure the home run analogy is a good one, after watching Kansas City Royals players get smoked by Madison Bumgarner in the seventh game of the World Series. They were swinging aggressively and with the full force of all their might as if they thought they were going to hit homers. They thought they were swinging at good pitches. And these were incredible hitters, who, without Bumgarner pitching, overwhelmed and squarely kicked the Giants right in the nuts in the sixth game. As a hitter, however, you can’t choose the pitcher, and Bumgarner certainly wasn’t the guy they wanted pitching.

    Betzig seemed to have more choice and control than the KC Royals. Working outside of academia and its supports and constraints probably forced Betzig to get more creative and be more ambitious. He was going to choose the balls he was going to be hitting.

    Betzig’s story reminds me of the “Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active” section of Robert Greene’s book, _Mastery_.

    Greene explains this Creative-Active phase, which he calls the “second transformation” (with the first transformation being an apprenticeship phase): “Instead of feeling complacent about what you know, you must expand your knowledge to related fields, giving your mind fuel to make new associations between different ideas. In the end, you will turn against the very rules you have internalized, shaping and reforming them to suit your spirit. Such originality will bring you to the heights of power.”

  15. I wonder what would have been uppermost in the mind of Betzig during his research career. “Publish” or ” do high class research” and not bother about the former. My guess would be for the latter

  16. Just looking at the pattern of this trajectory, it’s remarkably similar to Einstein and other ‘maverick’ outsiders who introduced disruptive research.

    In technical fields, it reiterates the importance of playing the long game (focusing on disruption) instead of accumulating small, short-term successes (focusing on volume). Perhaps the reason it takes outsiders, or re-entries, is because most of us exist in institutions that prize short-termism and annual tallies. That doesn’t seem like it’s changing any time soon, so we find ourselves with prized amateurs.

  17. One thing that you didn’t mention is that people who pursue non-traditional paths to success do so because of self-confidence and knowing what they want. When I say ‘self-confidence’, what I mean is an assuredness that they’ll be set-backs but that they have the skills and abilities to work through them.

  18. Articles like this are interesting, but I doubt their general applicability as the high-risk, high-reward strategy will most times not pay off. The trick is in picking “a good pitch to swing at”. Most people will opt for incremental improvement and “do what you already know and improve it”, rather than “do whatever it takes” as it is the approach with best odds of some success. Writing about someone who happened to pick the right idea to pursue (and got a Nobel prize for it) seems to be a case of selection bias – after all, you wouldn’t write about a PhDs working in industry who chose a novel, high-risk research project as an avenue back into academia, and bombed out…

    So the key question is how far you should go outside of your ‘comfort zone’ to maximize growth/gain and still have a good chance of success. It’s a bit like the ‘efficient frontier’ concept in finance… you want to maximize the odds of success (high impact research result) while minimizing risk (that the research didn’t pan out at all).

    Even Betzig’s story illustrates this balancing act – he was building on an area he already knew (high resolution microscopy) from his dissertation. It’s not as if he looked around, saw that developing cold fusion technology (that worked!) would be “a breakthrough too good to be ignored” and therefore “went for it”.


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