Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics and celebrated economist, kicked off the second day of the World Business Forum inside New York's Radio City Music Hall. He engaged us with his Malcom-Gladwell style of storytelling (“I want to start by telling you story about a man named John Salvaggio…”) and self-effacing humor (“I’m an irrelevant economist.”). He told entertaining stories that ranged from the IRS to prostitution to convey his key messages – innovative ideas are simple and obvious, admit you don’t know when you don’t know, people in business need to think more, social incentives are usually more effective than financial incentives. But it was his personal story about how he got to where he is today – and the key learning we can all pull from it – that most grabbed us.
Steve had dreamed of becoming an important economist – an economist like Alan Greenspan who could move markets with mere words. But there was one problem – he wasn’t good at math. His high school teacher told him that his AP math score was the lowest of any of her students… ever. (He still doesn’t know how he got into MIT’s graduate economics program, having only taken Math 1A at Harvard as an undergrad). Soon after entering MIT, he knew he was in over his head. He seriously considered a different path.
His father gave him an inspirational talk, Steve said, “for the first and only time” of his life. His father said that when he began his own career as a medical researcher, his boss, a well-renowned doctor in medical research, told him he didn’t have what it takes to be a medical researcher. Then, the renowned doctor advised Steve’s father to focus on an area of research that nobody else was focusing on – intestinal gas (true story). Steve’s father did just that – and became the world’s foremost expert on intestinal gas (when Steve was in high school, GQ featured his father in a two-page spread entitled, much to Steve’s chagrin, “The King of Farts.”).
With that, Steve received the moral of the story from his father: “I have no talent. You have no talent,” to which the audience erupted in laughter. Steve, channeling his father, continued, “If you want to succeed, you’ve got to find topics that are so embarrassing, so undignified,” the crowd roared again, “that other more talented people in your field wouldn’t do it.”
As entertaining as Steve’s story was, it contains a powerful message – to be successful, you’ve got to find your niche. In fact, the message was similar to one of the many insights Jim Collins highlighted the day before. Jim had described the hedgehog concept, the idea that a fulfilling career is one in which you:
* Do what you love (What do you love?)
* Can be the best in the world at it (When you do it, do you feel you are made to do it?)
* Drive our economic engine (Are you useful in a way society values (not necessarily profit)?)
Steve Levitt, while not Alan Greenspan, has become famous for making economics mainstream with accessible language and engaging stories. He’s also a lot smarter than he gives himself credit for. He found his niche, and he’s an incredible success because of it.