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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…

The Dreamer

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 wasn’t.

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)

21 thoughts on “In Search of Purpose: Esther Duflo and the Pre-Conditions for Finding Your Life’s Mission”

  1. Interesting Cal,

    I would say to the undergrad: ‘Keep being interested, do some reading every once in a while, but don’t focus on it solely. Pick your major and keep reading about the subject.’ If she develops herself as a person more and more, she will find out whether she really wants to do that much research on the subject.

    This is hard, as focus always is. If you are hyper-interested in something, you want to devote your life to it. As do I, I just started my own business in student-training (in the area of working smarter), while I am in med school. Good idea? Not for my study results. But for me, developing as a person? Definitly.

  2. So do you mean we should always keep an eye on the current knowledge in the field while keeping another eye open for new possibilities?

  3. Why not suggest to her doing some undergrad research? The prospect of writing a book on a very developed field is really thin, but it doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t started doing something on her dreams!

  4. This reminds me of Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity ( Among creative geniuses, there is always a tension between conformity to the field and exploration of new ideas. This makes sense: conformity and non-conformity are both equally necessary for progress, and it appears that the most successful people are able to balance the two and direct them BOTH towards a common, worthy, and as you state, currently-underappreciated goal.

    When you think about, the academic system is essentially an institutional version of these concepts. But it is rare, and extremely valuable when it happens, and the system often goes very awry, to the disappointment of so many ambitious graduate students.

    It’s an interesting balance, huh? Learning to expand yourself into something new while learning to limit yourself to what you’re truly capable of. Now that’s a form of intelligence for which we have few tests!

  5. Again, an engaging post!

    I would personally make a small distinction between two types of purpose. The first is the purpose described above: a specifc, actionable project commonly called a life’s work. This type of purpose requires extensive knowledge in order to recognize opportunity and be prepared to engage them. The second is a more general purpose, specifically, Duflo’s interest in helping the world’s poor in the first place. And this latter purpose can be identified well before expertise. Perhaps her purpose is an opportunity that aligns the application of her talent with a specific area of impact.

  6. As always a great post. I talk to my students about purpose and passion DAILY. I feel like many students lack a sense of purpose in their college lives. I’ve never really experienced that problem as I’ve always been very passionate about what I’ve done.

    I’ll be directing students to your post from now on.

  7. I suppose what the student missed out was “become (really really) good” at whatever you do. You need to be good before you can be so good they can’t ignore you.

  8. What if you feel you have burned out and lost motivation at what you were trying to get good at? How can you develop competence in a field if you no longer have any drive to get that competence and want to do something else? Is that all just wasted time?

  9. Hi Cal,
    It seems to me that this argument hinges on the specific type of goals that the individual in question pursues. Was this student likely to be published by a traditional mainstream or academic publisher? Almost certainly not. But, could she have attracted eye-balls to her work and developed her research and writing talents through a blog or other informal publishing medium? Absolutely. A lack of world class expertise is only a hindrance if we present our work as definitive. Otherwise, publicly presenting our work and soliciting feedback is just another step in the process of achieving world class expertise.

    Would working on this project as an opportunity for growth and development really have been very different from committing significant effort to an undergraduate research paper that is unlikely to ever be read outside of the university?

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  13. These were good points for sure. i agree that it takes discipline and hard work first in order for most people to be able to innovate and find success in most fields. It makes sense that we should look closely at any success story we hear about and analyze all the backround information related to a success story and realize that every step taken was integral to the eventual success.

  14. I really love this, I usually get a mission in mind but I usually don’t have balance resulting in a lot of hard work that goes to waste. I will have to use the steps to see if it helps me.

  15. Duflo is a great example of a “do-er”. At least where I live, technology is advancing rapidly and people are becoming increasingly co-dependent. In a world with so much convenience, perhaps some of us are starting to get lazy and less motivated. I think the reason Duflo experienced so many quick successes is her ability to take action, take risks, and fly in the face of the “norm”. Very inspirational.

  16. “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.”

    There’s no basis for this statement. What evidence do you have of Duflo’s technical ability? Eric Lander, for example, also chose to focus on more “logistical” pursuits.


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