Words not to listen to

You can’t throw a stick without hitting an article, website, or book that’s trying to tell you how to get what you want.  And that’s great: it’s not easy.

But I have often wondered if the harder part isn’t deciding what it is you want.  To create some work of art or literature? To discover something? To be recognized for your accomplishments? To have more time to go fishing?  Maybe just to tell a story?

Along the way, we all get advice from those more senior to us: teachers, mentors, colleagues.  Some of the most important advice we get focuses on what we aren’t suited for (“Volleyball, Howell?  Really?  You have five-foot-nine disease.”)

In scientific circles, in particular, we place tremendous emphasis on mentorship.  So, I was struck by a story today about John Gurdon, who (along with Shinya Yamanaka) just won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work in developmental biology.

What particularly struck me in this story by the AP was a photo.  The photo was of one of Gurdon’s science report cards and reads:

“It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory.  His prepared stuff has been badly learnt, and several of his test pieces have been torn over; one of such pieces of prepared work scored 2 marks out of a possible 50.  His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”

What’s hard about this is that this kind of advice is usually right.  Failing a math class is usually a good marker of people who are unlikely to succeed as rocket scientists. Failing biology probably predicts that you won’t be a Nobel-prize-winning biologist.  But not always. And I wonder how often this happens. I have a crystal-clear memory of being told (in eighth-grade English) that I would never get into college because I was such an incompetent writer.  Somewhat more recently, my career nearly went in a completely different direction because of advice from a very senior Harvard professor that healthcare delivery science was a doomed field. (He may still be right, of course.)

What was it that made Gurdon so sure that he should be a scientist?  How did he know the right thing to do?  Why didn’t he listen to his instructor?  And how much worse would the world have been if he had listened?

John Gurdon's science report card (via AP)

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