In science, there’s an interesting pattern few people talk about. It turns out that inventions often occur at the same time or almost the same time in multiple research groups. These inventions aren’t struck-by-lightning insights by a single scientist; they tend to be ideas that evolved and emerged in a research community for an extended period before germinating in concrete description and conceptualization. This conceptualization then forms part of the fundament of the research community so that we can make progress and study the next questions.
The famous scientist who produced the scientific breakthroughs is often more of a salesperson who happens to be able to communicate the ideas in a way that resonates with the general public. The image of the lone wolf scientist slaving away in some lab by him or herself until some Eureka moment occurs is, as many ideas, simple, elegant and wrong. It’s just that we, as humans, like simple explanations and the media is always looking for hero stories that are clean-cut and straightforward. Even if it only has a tangential relationship with reality.
Of course, this pattern not only occurs in science but also in business as well as society at large. Well-known entrepreneurs and CEOs are projected in the media as having single-handedly created billion-dollar companies whereas the reality is that it often is the team around the famous individual that drove most of the scaling and value creation.
Turning this to ourselves as individuals, I notice in myself and others a similar pattern: I tend to attribute my successes to my own capabilities, talent and hard work and my failures to external circumstances. When asked what role luck has played in the way our lives unfolded, I believe that anyone who has accomplished a modicum of success deep down realizes that luck played a significant part.
Western society tends to focus on the successes of the individual. This is part of the reason why the Western world has been so successful and an important part of the judeo-christian ethos that forms the fabric of our society. However, the fact remains that each of us is the result of an endless chain of people helping us get to where we are right now: the elementary school teacher who helped you figure out a math problem, the senior leader in a company who decided to give you a chance, your parents who helped you be successful in life, and many others. As Warren Buffet so eloquently put it, much of our success is simply a result of winning the “ovarian lottery,” meaning that where in the world you were born and who your parents were play an enormous role in how our lives unfold.
Once we’ve achieved some level of success and seniority, it’s our job, in my view, to give back and to help others realize their dream and be the protagonist of their own story. We need to keep the flywheel going by paying it forward. Parents invest time, energy and funds into their children not expecting to receive anything in return, but to have their children do the same to their children. Similarly, we need to pay back the people who have helped us be successful by helping others.
When reflecting on how I try to do this, there are three ways. First, with my PhD students, I try to develop an understanding of what they’d like to accomplish after finishing their PhD. I’m immensely grateful that there exist individuals who commit to spending four to five years of their lives working with me on their research. Upon reaching the halfway point (in Sweden often marked with the licentiate degree), I start to work with the person in question to direct their research to the optimal position for them to take the next step once done with the PhD. For instance, if a student is particularly interested in industry and specific companies, we steer the research content toward that which would maximize the chances of getting hired into that industry, company and role.
The second way is through angel investing. Although there’s a bit of an illusion in society that angel investors are all getting rich on the back of young, innocent entrepreneurs, the fact is that most companies fail and most investments are simply written off. More than once, I’ve invested in companies that I gave a low chance of success, but I felt that I could help the founders grow and develop. Even if it wouldn’t work out, they’d learn a set of skills and gain insights that would make their next venture much more likely to succeed.
Finally, in my consulting with industry, where I can I try to identify young high-potentials who don’t get a lot of space in the organization, but who bring good ideas to the table. By lifting up these young individuals, I attempt to create a situation where both the company and the person in question benefit from the role that’s created or reinforced.
No person is an island and we’re the product of the context in which we were born, grew up and evolved to a much larger extent than we often realize. Our responsibility is to pay it forward to the generation that comes after us by helping them grow and develop faster and achieve a higher state of self-actualization than they would have accomplished without our help. Interestingly, it’s not only good for the individual you help forward, but also incredibly rewarding to see others grow and develop, in part thanks to your help. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so beautifully said: “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”