Prized Thinking

Almost ten years ago I was vacationing on Cape Cod with my family when I was reading through the obituaries (the beauty of vacation is that you can get so bored that you read absolutely all parts of the newspaper at least five times) and found this story about the late Professor Martin Deutsch. He was someone who was long reputed as having missed the opportunity during his life to win the Nobel Prize, but having done amazing things nonetheless. His attitude towards this prevailing attitude was particularly endearing:

“My attitude to prizes is peculiar, not clearly pathological but peculiar,” Deutsch wrote. “I’m really glad that I did not get the Nobel Prize in 1956. It would have spoiled my life.”

He recalled a story from when he was a child on summer vacation with his family and how his mother had entered him in a potato-sack hopping race for children. He had the chance to win, but he lost intentionally:

“I was leading. I recall that I deliberately slowed down in order to come in second. The reasons for this action were quite complex but an oversimplified description could be that I did not want to give my mother the satisfaction of saying, ‘My son, the sack race winner.'”

To be ultimately known for the quality of your work, instead of the quality of the prize for your work, seems like an elegant way to aspire to live one’s life as someone who makes things. -JM