It Takes All Sorts

By Bernard Wood
August 25, 2012

Just what sort of work habits, intellect and personality do you need to be a successful researcher? And in particular, is there anything special about the work habits, etc. of successful paleoanthropologists?

These questions came to mind when I was reading an excellent book by Ron Chernow about the history of the dynasty that resulted in the banking and financial services behemoth, J.P Morgan. My interest in the Morgans, and in John Pierpoint Morgan in particular, came from a chance visit many years ago to the Morgan Library and Museum, on Madison Avenue and 36th, in midtown Manhattan. I like it for several reasons; it is relatively small and personal, it is almost always uncrowded so it is a haven of peace and quiet in New York, the new Renze Piano addition is well designed and includes an excellent restaurant and café.

Pierpoint Morgan was to banking as Rockefeller was to oil. But Morgan, who was more interested in culture than Rockefeller, was an avid and voracious collector of books, manuscripts and artifacts; he was less interested in paintings. I do not know anywhere else where, in one room, you can see the Guttenberg Bible, an original manuscript of poems by Shelley, and original hand-written scores of operas by Handel and Strauss and sonatas by Mozart, Schubert and Schumann. Morgan’s cavernous office has recently been restored and it was there where he struck many a deal resulting in yet another monopoly that made fortunes for Morgan and his ilk. Morgan was a consummate financier and a master tactician, but what sort of man was Morgan like to work with?  What were his “work habits, intellect and personality”?

According to his colleagues Morgan was “by nature, a laconic man.” They concurred with the judgment that “he had no gift for sustained analysis”. Apparently Morgan’s genius was “the brief, sudden brainstorm”. As one lawyer said of him, “Morgan has one chief mental asset – a tremendous five minutes’ concentration of thought.” Presumably, once Morgan had made a decision during one of these bursts of intellectual focus, the rest was down to tactics.

Contrast this with what we know of Darwin. All that he has written, and that others have written about him, suggests that Darwin’s ideas accumulated over time. The gathering of evidence was slow and laborious; it needed application, discipline and the ability to take a “long view”. The denouement was not the dramatic agreement of the parties to merge railway companies, but the steady accretion of evidence until it was compelling enough for Darwin to have the confidence to share it with his scientific peers. There was no time for reflection and peer-review in Morgan’s world; there was in Darwin’s.

Each of us has to work out what our own strengths are and then play to them. Some people make important contributions by contributing data, others have the knack of looking at those data and seeing patterns their colleagues have missed. Some are better at details, others at “the big picture”. You can get a sense from the titles of their papers where individual researchers fit across the “detail -> big-picture” spectrum; only a few manage to be successful at both ends of the spectrum.

The advice I give to new graduate students (which I conspicuously failed to follow in my own career) is that they need to work out – realistically – what their own particular aptitudes are and then be sure to choose lines and methods of research that play to their strengths. They also need to develop a sense of what part of the intellectual landscape they want to inhabit, and then generate a strategic plan for how to get there. Graduate work is just the beginning of a long process of reducing our ignorance about a location in the intellectual landscape. Research is like chess; you need to be able to see several moves ahead. Don’t just think about what you are doing now, but daydream about where you would like to be in three, five and even ten years hence.

Having said that, my sense is that, to a greater extent than most people are prepared to recognize, a substantial amount of research is “opportunistic”. I do not mean this in any derogatory sense, it is just that opportunities arise and most of us would be a fool not to take advantage of them. But, at least in the early stages of your career, try not to deviate too far from your strategic plan.


References

Chernow, Ron (1990) The House of Morgan. pp. 55, Grove Press, New York.

http://www.themorgan.org/home.asp