An unconventional conversation about success with a Nobel Laureate

Life is unpredictable, and careers often take patterns that cannot be foreseen. Success can depend on many factors, but there are a few foundational traits that have universal application:
  1. Identify professional arenas that you enjoy and can be passionate about
  2. Build confidence and decision-making by selecting and emulating high-performing mentors
  3. Find an important yet tractable problem to solve
  4. Focus with laser-like intensity over extended time
  5. Recognize and take advantage of serendipity
For the special 50th episode of my podcast, The World Class Leaders Show, I was extremely honored to host Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, Nobel Laureate for Chemistry in 2012, who shared his hard-earned wisdom with us. Dr. Lefkowitz is an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as well as a James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Duke University. Other awards include the National Medal of Science, the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, and the Canada Gairdner international award. Dr. Lefkowitz is also the author of a best-selling memoir, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm”. 

Self-Actualization & Serendipity

Dr. Lefkowitz’s early career focus was on clinical treatment as a practicing physician. However, through a combination of serendipity with political and societal influences, Robert discovered his passion for research as well as the excitement and sense of accomplishment of resultant discovery.  Along the way, Robert mentored many others, learning that self-actualization was key to his personal success and satisfaction. When passions are engaged, you spend more time in a ‘flow state’, a condition of full immersion during which perception of time passing seems to disappear. It’s important to realize that, for many people, following a passion doesn’t necessarily result in financial success; there’s an element of ‘luck’ involved. Robert says, “One thing I always say to people, is we need to at least create a condition for luck and serendipity to happen.”  Equally critical is the ability to recognize serendipity when it takes place. Occasionally in science (and in other fields), we may get unexpected results. Every once in a while, that turns out to be a huge gift leading to a new discovery. Robert confirms, “I go to work every day with a tremendous sense of expectation that something good is going to happen. So, I’m always ready to recognize serendipity when it occurs.”

Apprentice Yourself with Intent

Success requires a certain sense of self-confidence. Having a successful person in your field as your mentor can offer validation over time, which builds the level of self-confidence required to take on big problems. Many of the things that are most important for success cannot be learned from a book or course of study. Rather, it’s necessary to learn them experientially — from someone who already knows how to do it.

Finding the “Goldilocks” Problem

The moment you decide on the problem you are going to explore, you are setting the upper limit of what you can achieve. A trivial problem may be readily tractable, but it will only ever deliver trivial success. On the other hand, a profoundly important issue that is not solvable, or has insurmountable barriers, is not the answer either. So, what to do? Apprenticing as a mentee offers an extended period to watch and learn how to make decisions, in aggregate, that will result in success. Q: Can you share with us the number one thing you’ve learned in your career? A: If there’s a single key to success, or an impediment to success if you don’t have it, it’s the ability to focus like a laser on whatever it is you’re doing. Q: Looking back at your career, is there anything you might have done differently? A: You certainly pay a price in your personal life for that kind of obsessive focus on a problem in the way I was working on my research for decades. I have five wonderful children and grown grandchildren with whom I have wonderful relationships. But sure, I could have spent more time with them along the way. But then, when I say that, I say to myself, “Well, yeah, but if you had done that you wouldn’t be you.”  One other thing I do regret is that I was in such a hurry to become a physician during my early studies, that I failed to take full advantage of all the things I could have learned in other fields. But, there’s still time for that. Q: Is there a book that really made a huge impact on your entire life or profession? A: I have a pile of books that I’m currently reading, but the one that’s captivating me is a biography of Winston Churchill. I love biographies. I’m a big fan of Muhammad Ali’s biography and I think it’s an amazing story. I also like to read fiction, but I don’t read as much of that as I would like to. My favorite novel is Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes, because it’s a beautiful story, and I love the imagination in the face of reality. If you’d like to get in touch with Dr. Lefkowitz, the best way is through email, at: [email protected]. You can also learn more about his journey by reading his book, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm”, available at For more information about my work with leaders and organizations, to subscribe to my weekly newsletter, or to take a free assessment of your leadership level, please drop me an email at [email protected], or go to my website at I would also very much appreciate hearing from you about your thoughts on this episode, or suggestions for future topics for this podcast. Listen to the podcast related to this article:
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