How to be fabulously successful: Eric Lander

January 11, 2012    advice bioinformatics case study computational biology eric lander hard focus most important thing productivity

Eric Lander, the visionary behind the Human Genome Project, a Professor of Biology at MIT and Systems Biology at Harvard, recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, and director of a world-renowned genome research institute, was recently interviewed for the New York Times newspaper. As a computational biologist and an avid fan of his, I devoured the article and hungrily watched the video interview. His story is remarkable: genius mathematician, frustrated with the solitude of mathematics, stumbles upon biology and changes the field forever by applying math to understand genes and disease.

At first, it seems like bunch of chance circumstances that are completely unique to Prof. Lander, such as teaching economics at Harvard, exposing him to a brilliant scientific community that supported his endeavors in biology. Or happening to attend the one talk at the one conference where the idea of mapping all the genes in the human genome was first suggested. But if I aim to someday impact bioinformatics research at the same level as Lander, I want to know exactly what he did, day by day, to accomplish all that he has. So I delved deeper.

1. Be stubborn through struggle

Watch the below interview with Eric Lander from the New York Times (link).

Lander emphasizes the social aspect of science, which as a computational biologist, a field which is defined as an intersection of disciplines, I wholeheartedly support collaboration as an integral part of modern science. However, I want to highlight what he said at the end (emphasis mine):

"A lot of times in my life, when I've been casting about, trying to figure out what's the next step, what's bothering me, where to go. In a way, it's not so different from working on a math problem, where if you try to take it head on, you usually can't make progress. But when you take on a challenge like 'what do I want to go do now?' or 'what's the field got to do right now?' or 'what's the big issue in cancer,' whatever. You keep struggling with it, and eventually, the structure of the problem becomes clear. And then the path through it becomes clear. But all those moments of insight come from long periods of casting about and seeing all the pieces. You just have to be patient enough to wait until all the pieces really come together. You gotta be stubborn."

This last note is exactly what I mean by "constancy and moderation." Here is a man who is, by all standards, is a genius. And yet he describes struggling with a problem. Really getting to know it, spending time with this problem and thinking about all its parts. This can be done alone or collaboratively, but the struggle must happen. In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he discussed case studies of seemingly chance successes only to uncover the pattern of consistent opportunities to practice. For example, the Beatles performed eight hours a night at a club in Hamburg, Germany. Eight hours! Before, they had prepared an hour's worth of material for gigs and initially, the group struggled to find enough to play for such a long period of time. These huge stretches forced the group to constantly change their sound and have long, dynamic set lists to keep their audience engaged. They struggled through eight hour set lists and eventually became the legendary band they are today.

Cal Newport, author of Study Hacks, has written about the value of hard focus such as this, which Lander exemplifies in his description of struggle. As a result of his struggles, Lander attained huge amounts of practice in mathematics as evidenced by his high school math team and leading up to his doctorate in mathematics, which qualified him to teach at an major research institution such as Harvard and be surrounded by experts in every possible discipline. The "chance circumstances" Lander experienced were as a result of his grit and persistence through mathematics.

And then, there are some moments of insight, which come from these struggles, come from putting in the time and energy onto a problem. The Beatles improvised, invented, and found their sound that led to them to become one of the most successful and prolific bands of all time. Lander worked with colleagues to invent new methods of analyzing biological information.

2. Have a reasonable workday

Let's dig deeper into how he actually accomplishes this. From the accompanying article, Lander's workday doesn't seem so remarkable:

"After his morning workout, he sometimes goes to a local bakery where he can work quietly. He arrives at the Broad between 8 and 10 a.m. In the fall, he teaches introductory biology to a class of 700 M.I.T. students on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. He often meets with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the afternoon to discuss their work.

Then he has his administrative duties and his meetings with philanthropists, trying to raise more money. He also spends 20 percent of his time in yet another role, as co-chairman of President Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, which deals with topics like influenza vaccines, health information technology, science education and energy policy.

In the evening, around 6:30 or 7, he has dinner with his family."

So how does he accomplish such remarkable things? Despite the apparent normality of this schedule, it has several gems. 

3. Hard focus first

First, I'm guessing he uses the morning bakery time to "work quietly" on his hardest task. The one where he must make a creative leap from old paradigms to new ideas, which requires a great deal of focus and energy. This is in line with Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits, advises to work on your most important thing first thing in the morning, before any interruptions might come up. Lander does exactly this. He could be writing a manuscript, thinking about a problem that a graduate student proposed, or preparing a brand-new lecture. He's refreshed after his morning workout and probably getting some calories and caffeine - a great recipe for focus. 

In any case, Lander's definitely not checking his facebook or email first thing in the morning. And if you want to be successful like Eric Lander, you shouldn't, either.

Second, he then does less "hard focus" tasks. He then teaches, which is probably building from his many previous lessons, so he's well prepared. Then he meets with graduate students/post-docs/collaborators, which is certainly intellectually stimulating but probably doesn't require quite as much energy as his morning task. If him and his colleagues hit a wall, he can always think about it in the next morning or meet up again later.

Finally, he gets some rest. He finishes his day at a reasonable time and has dinner with his family. Connecting with his family stimulates his social mind and rejuvenates his analytical brain. He doesn't expect to work late into the night, because he knows he already accomplished his most important thing in the morning. He touched base with his graduate students and connected with his colleagues. 


Day by day, and little by little, Lander builds his success through daily focus, struggle, and he does it for those moments of insight that transform a field forever. And that's what I'll be doing.

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