Monday, May 02, 2005

George Bailey, Nobel Laureate.


There's a faculty member in my neck of the woods that's been shortlisted to win the Nobel Prize. Every year, when the Nobel committee decides on who'll win, he is seemingly panic stricken. Of course, he always comes up short and has a hissy fit. He calls meetings with his personnel, demanding better performance. Afterwards, he goes home and sulks. What's sad is that this person has staked his whole career on winning one stupid prize. In fact, there is a growing body of young scientists that do research to become famous. I had the opportunity to work with a Nobel Laureate for a while. This luminary also bathed in his fame, often using it to ingratitate himself with others. He spoke as if his life work had been validated simply because he was given a certificate and a gold medallion. Often, he spoke about how he would go down in history as a great scientist. "It is quite gratifying to win such an award," he'd say.

I believe this phenomena is not limited to the world of science. Many people have defined themselves by what they do. How many professional athletes play the game because they love it? How many play for the fame and fortune? Throngs of people seek to perform at a high level only to feed their ego. Lost in the process are their concern for others, their love of what they do. Remember, who you are has nothing to do with fame or fortune. Neither does your contribution to the world.

Do we really transcend through recognition? Is it absolutely necessary to be showered with accolades to feel like you have made a contribution to society? Why do we live our lives in hope of a mere 15 minutes?

It is my strong contention that we have no idea what our real contribution is to society. I'm a strong believer in what I call the George Bailey Effect. Most people live their lives in desperate search of how they can make a difference. However, they fail to recognize the vast difference they make in the lives of those around them and, subsequently, the world. If you would like a good visual introduction to this concept, watch "It's a Wonderful Life." If you ask me, it's courageous self sacrificing individuals like George Bailey that make the difference. As for these Nobel Prize seeking, fame mongering, fortune seeking individuals, they can all go straight to hell.

18 Comments:

Blogger thc said...

I almost didn't click on the four-letter-word at the end! I'm glad I did.

It's a Wonderful Life is in my all-time top five. I understand completely what you mean by a "George Bailey Effect".

9:33 PM  
Anonymous FNPhd said...

What's wrong with doing something well because you like doing something well? On the other hand, there is definitely something wrong when someone successful enough for the Nobel shortlist craves gratification so much that he feels himself a failure when it doesn't come around. I worked with a Nobel Laureate once; he told me, "I thought I was famous when I got the Nobel prize. I was wrong. I got more phone calls from more people that I haven't spoken to for years after I appeared on the Simpsons. That's where it's really at." He was the kind of guy who did everything for the right reasons. I also remember him marvelling at the chirality of the pretzels he received on an airplane. ...just a very inquisitive mind.

9:34 PM  
Blogger dreadcow said...

Excellent posting.

Self-actualization has always been a goal of mine. Despite my non-traditional beliefs in the way I focus on my spirituality, politics, personal life, etc... I've always striven to make myself a better person and to change the lives of those around me for the better.

I'm actually the anti-Bailey. I don't want awards and I don't like the spotlight. I hate being hauled up in front of people. I'm an excellent public speaker but I despise being the center of attention.

I've said many times that if I could be half the man that the WW II heroes were, I'd be content with myself. I think I'll know I've reached that point when the time comes. I don't need some medal saying I served my country.

I don't need accolades. My actions and the opinions of those who know me speak louder than a shiny object on my chest as far as I'm concerned.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

fnphd: To clarify, people that want to do something well are great. George Bailey did a great job with the Savings and Loan. This criticism is aimed at those that do what they do only for egoic reasons. I know of the Laureate you're speaking about. Clearly, he's in it for *all* the right reasons.

9:42 PM  
Blogger mindful said...

Great post vavoom! But the flip side of your point is just as important. Not only do we all produce a "George Bailey Effect", we are all products of one.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Raine said...

Hee hee. That "hell" link was freaky.

There's a quote I love; so full of wisdom:

"No success in public life can compensate for failure in the home." Benjamin Disraeli

I would expand on it to say "failure in character."

11:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Disraeli was well ahead of his time. He pretty much summed up the Clinton years, right there.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you think about it most scientist do not have a shot of getting the prize. There are probably 200 schools in the US were prize worthy work can be done. Say 20 profs each, and maybe 20 year effective windows so you have a 1 in 200 chance. Seems higher than I would have though.

I think that the guy you are talking abouts problem is that he is short listed again and again. it is like taunting you. It is better to probably not come so close so many times. Anyway I think he just wants the better parking spot you get with the little NL label.

12:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon: I diagree. It seems from your argument that everyone has a chance. Or at least everyone in your cadre of 4000. That's the beauty of the prize -- it's not for pedigree or for reputation (in theory), but for contributions.

That most don't win doesn't mean that most didn't have a chance to win. Let's be honest, most of those 4000 don't do work deserving of a prize.

2:00 AM  
Blogger An80sNut said...

Striving for fame is one thing but living for it is another. Then again, for someone that doesn't believe in an afterlife, all you have is now to make that undeletable mark on society even though you may not better it.

Btw... Let's just hope they don't remake It's A Wonderful Life.

3:39 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Great post, Vavoom.

"He spoke as if his life work had been validated simply because he was given a certificate and a gold medallion." I think that's pretty sad, because it seems to me like he did need it to be validated just feel good about his achievements. I would hope to feel that way just by knowing that what I've done has made some kind of difference, if any at all. I'm sure it is gratifying to win an award as such, but to "live" by and for it is just another thing all together. And as for athelets playing the game because it's their passion, I don't believe that a huge percentage of them play for that reason after so long. I'm sure they all dream of being MVP, which is understandable, but I think that in the process they forget why they played to begin with. Same for musician's these day's. Hence, all the crappy music we have to endure.

3:52 AM  
Blogger Rattie said...

Great post! I can't speak for all social science departments but in my department it's all about publications, grants, monetary awards, etc., the hell with being a good teacher. Therefore, graduate students spend most of their time back-stabbing and ass-kissing to get as many publications and grants as possible. Bringing in money to the department and getting yourself in print is all that matters. It's disgusting and discouraging.

8:30 AM  
Blogger SheaNC said...

A great post, indeed. These are things I should keep in mind whenever I compare myself to peers who seem to have accomplished so much more in life than I have. We all have those days when we feel like a bit of a loser... this is good therapy. 8^)

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While most of the 4000 people do not deserve a prize, how many of the people who get it really deserve it.
How many advisors get it for the work of a student?(such a student usually does well later)
How many get it based on the work in entire field of many researchers.
How many get it based on ideas stolen from others?

1:59 PM  
Anonymous little john said...

I know a guy who is natioanlly recognized in his profession (my profession as well). (Not smart enough to be a scientist!) He has won numerous awards but he has the Marxian attitude of, "I wouldn't want to be in a club that would have me as a member."

8:28 PM  
Anonymous divine designer said...

It's A Wonderful Life is my favorite movie of all time(so far) and I believe the point of the movie is this: everyone affects how life goes for everyone else by our lives intersecting with one another, for good or not. George merely led his life trying to be a good person and had a very positive effect on his world.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Anandi said...

I too am digging this post! Very insightful. I am probably the only person in America who hasn't seen "It's a Wonderful Life" though.

I think we Americans live in a society that is very much focused on defining people by what they do and measures success by how much $$ they have, or fame, or power, awards, etc. One only has to compare the salaries of teachers and NBA players to see that :)

That said, I'm still a Nobel Prize junkie who stalks the Nobel website each day the prizes are announced to see if it's someone I knew from my brief time in science...

12:44 AM  
Blogger Fei said...

If "greatness is thrust upon us," as Winston Churchill once said, then it stands to reason that those who are destined for greatness are rarely aware of it

11:42 AM  

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