“Keep Your Feet on the Ground and Your Eyes on the Heavens”

Issue Date: 
May 11, 2009

(This is the print version of the April 26, 2009, University of Pittsburgh commencement address titled “Pathways to Success,” delivered by Pitt alumnus and National Medal of Science awardee Bert O’Malley, a pioneering researcher in the field of biological sciences who has been called the “father of molecular endocrinology,” on the occasion of his receiving the Doctor of Science Honoris Causa degree.)

Bert O’MalleyBert O’Malley

Well, thank you so much. And greetings, Class of 2009, and many congratulations. This is a wonderful, exciting, happy, sad, anxious day for you all. But you’re a Pitt graduate. And that world out there is not as tough as you might think.

My own career? I am a physician, and, as you’ve heard, a basic, or discovery scientist. I think a discovery scientist is sort of like a detective—where you collect clues and make deductions. I think this is best illustrated by a story one of my trainees once told me. And it’s an amazing story. Listen to this.

He woke up one morning—couldn’t sleep. Looked at the clock—it was 5 a.m. Decided to get up. Because it was early, he stopped for breakfast. The bill for breakfast was five dollars even. He went to work. He went to lunch. Sat in the corner by himself to do some work, and four people joined him. So this number five started to go through his head. That afternoon he was opening the mail. He saw in the mail that he was to get a 5 percent raise next year. He looked at the clock again—it was 5 p.m. Well, that was too much for him. He raced home, took a $50 bill out from under his sock drawer. He went to the racetrack, and he bought a program. And as he walked in reading the program, he became weak in his knees. There in the fifth race was a horse called Five-Star General that paid five to one. So he plunked his money down—watched that race. And sure enough, the horse did come in fifth.

So I think that points out that collecting clues is only half the job, and that deductions are the other half. My talk today is “Pathways to Success.”

I’ve been chosen to speak because of my own perceived success. But I’m not going to talk to you about science. And I’m not going to tell you to do it my way. But what I’m going to relate to you, which is probably appropriate at this time, are my observations over the past 45 years of seeing many young people—the over 250 young trainees that I’ve sent out into the world of science, mentoring 90 faculty, watching a thousand or more others—and what determined their success or nonsuccess. And to me … it boils down to five main criteria: sufficient intelligence, commitment to industry or hard work, judgment—good judgment, a personal code of ethics, and opportunism. And those are all things that are not so magical when you think about them. But let’s break them down a little bit.

First of all, native intelligence, IQ. Can you IQ your way to success? Clearly not. You can’t. In 1920, Lewis Terman, who constructed the Stanford-Binet IQ Test, followed 1,500 people during their lifetimes. Dropping below 100, negative correlation, a very positive correlation in the 115 or so range, and again a negative correlation at very high levels. So in short, if you graduate from college, IQ is off the table. You can’t use it as your excuse for failure, and you can’t make it your main thing for success.

Second, industry. Work effort. This is something you can do something about. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says any man willing to arise before dawn 360 days a year will make his family rich. This proverb comes out of the South China rice fields, where they work year-round on crops—opposed to the Western farmers who work half a year on their crops.

Fast forward to today. Why do the students in China score in the 95 to 99 percentile in math, and in the U.S. in the 40 percentile? Well, it must be because of the student-teacher ratio, not enough computers, more money for the schools. There are a lot of excuses. But in fact, that study has been done in the United States. Malcolm Gladwell is the author of Outliers, a very fine book that you might be interested in reading. And I’ll point out a few things from him today actually, because it fits my philosophy. … He estimates that to be successful in life you’ve got to put ten thousand hours in your career. Now this study in the United States at KIPP Academy is a good example of research on this subject. KIPP academies are in a few different places, including in Houston, but a great example is the KIPP Academy in The Bronx, NY. The Bronx is one of the more poor, disadvantaged areas in New York and the East Coast. People generally don’t go to college there. KIPP Academy sits right in the middle of The Bronx. You have to apply to get in. You get in and you have to follow the rules. The rules are that you go to school at 7:25 in the morning—not nine. You get out at 5 p.m.—not 2:45. You go to school on Saturdays from 9 to 1. You have lots of homework and one month off.

The kids in this school test out in math in the 85 to 88 percentile; 85 to 90 percent of the graduates get scholarships to college. Their parents have never gone to college, and very few of their compatriots have gone to college. So the experiment is done. Work effort and reward are related.

How about the instant genius myth? That’s debunked when you look at it, too. I guess to name one that many people use as an illustration is Mozart, who was writing concertos at age five. That’s true. But his dad was a music teacher and composer—probably helped perfect them. Certainly wrote them down. And he [Mozart] wrote many of them. But until he wrote [Piano] Concerto No. 9 [K.271], the critics did not claim that he wrote a masterpiece. And he was 21 years old then. And there are many other examples.

Bill Gates. Did he sit down and write Microsoft programs? No. He spent thousands of hours many times all night in the university mainframe computer room, devising the program.

Did Tiger Woods step out there and become a 15-year-old phenomenon? No. He started playing at 4 years old. So the point is, in life, to succeed, you’ve got to put the effort in. And it takes some time. And it takes some hours. And you’re just starting that track. You haven’t finished it.

Judgment. With my students, they often are not even sure what I mean by “judgment.” Judgment is practical intelligence—to know what to say and when, what to do and when, when to persevere and when to give up. Judgment is something you need to learn, and it is a big separator for successful people in science.

So how do you improve your judgment? Well, first of all, you have to know what it is—you have to want to do it. And you do it through history, listening to your parents. You remember your parents? Those are the dumb people who took care of you that didn’t know as much as your friends. Well, you are about to find out how wrong that was. And, of course, mentors in life and teachers. These role models teach you how not only not to make the same mistakes twice, but to not make them at all. You don’t have to jump off a cliff to know that’s wrong, do you? Well, there are many subtle lessons in life you can learn that way, too. You don’t have to make all of the mistakes yourself.

Personal code of ethics. I’ll make that short. You can get ahead without a personal code of ethics, but you won’t be happy. A human conscience weighs very heavily. I suggest you pay strong attention to that

And finally, search for opportunities. They are all around you. You could be like Art Fry, sitting at 3M company. Next to him, a person was making a formula for a superglue that didn’t work. He was about to throw the formula away. Fry pulled it back from the wastecan. Put it on the back of pieces of paper, and you have Post-its—which you all use, which has made millions for that company. So opportunities are always there. And the experts don’t know it all.

A good story about experts is the one about the new chief of a South Dakota Indian tribe. As he took over, braves that first winter came to him and said “Is it going to be cold this winter? Should we gather wood?” Well, he hadn’t learned to read the sky and the animals and the trees. But being a practical man, he said “Yes, gather wood.” But also a modern chief, he thought, “I think I’ll call the weatherman.” So, without identifying himself, he did. A couple of weeks later, the weatherman said, “Yes, it’s going to be quite cold this winter.” So he came back and he was thinking about it, “Quite cold, huh?” He told the braves to go collect some more wood, and so they went out. A couple of weeks later he called one final time and said, “How does the winter look?” They said it’s going to be extremely cold at the weather bureau. So he came back and told the Indians, “Go into the woods and gather every piece of wood you can.” As he sat there looking at that huge pile of wood, he thought, “I’m going to look pretty silly if I am not right on this.” So he called the weatherman once more and said, “You are sure it’s going to be very cold this winter?” The weatherman said, “It’s going to be one of the coldest winters on record.” The chief said, “How do you know that?” The weatherman said, “Because the Indians are out gathering wood like crazy!”

We’re in an economic downturn, you’re probably worried about that. Okay, I know, it’s a pain out there. But, in a way the glass is half full because we are on the verge of the next economic boom, which, if history repeats itself, will be above 45 percent of what the last one was.

Do you know that the downturns of the economy are the periods of greatest invention and innovation in the history of our country? Not with money flowing like water at the peaks: When everything is running smoothly and money is everywhere, you can get by with “me, also” stuff— the same movies, the same books, the same kind of work or service. When things tighten up, the human has one resource it can rely on—the brain. So put your ingenuity to work. Okay?

To finish, I have two final personal comments. I promise this won’t be too long.

One, in the future, don’t think about your job, but think about your vocation. Your vocation is your life’s body of work. It involves more than your paid employment: It involves unpaid volunteer work, volunteering for the homeless, charitable giving, Little League coaching. You know, there are a lot of things that you can do as a body of work that will complete your life.

Your vocation is really who you are and who you were. At the end of your life, do you want to have your life summed up in dollar signs? Would you like a number on your gravestone to summarize your life? I think not. And don’t make that your gold standard in your life—money.

Final thought: Don’t limit yourselves. I guarantee you, like me, like anybody else here, we can tell you now, you don’t know what you can do in life yet. You are just starting out. Do not settle. Set your goals high. Set your goal way up here and you will at least reach your capacity—which is what you want to do. If you set your goal here [motions lower], you are going to fall below your capacity, and that’s an unhappy thing later in your life. So shoot for the stars. Okay? Graduates, there are a hundred billion stars in the sky, we can see only a few thousand. But you keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the heavens. And I hope every one of your stars shines as bright as the evening Venus.