The Secret of Gary Becker


Steven Levitt writes an ode to Gary Becker calling him the "not only the Michael Jordan of economics, he is the Gordie Howe of economics as well."

What is Becker's secret? It doesn't hurt to be incredibly smart. That isn't really what sets him apart, though, I don't think. He has four other traits that are just as important: he works harder than anyone else, he loves what he does, he is not afraid of criticism, and he has never stopped learning new things.

I think we should also add that Becker had excellent advisors like Milton Friedman. Friedman writes in his biography,

"People often excuse bad writing by saying that they know what they mean, and simply have difficulty expressing it. That is nonsense. If you cannot state a preposition clearly and unambiguously, you do not understand it.� I took that lesson to heart. I learned that trying to write something clearly and unambiguously was the best way to find errors and omissions in my reasoning and clarify my own thought�

It was in a letter to Gary Becker in May 1955, when I was in Britain, referring to a draft of his thesis that he had sent to me: �Nine times out of ten,� I wrote after criticizing his exposition, �sloppy writing reflects (and advertises) sloppy thinking.�

(Two Lucky People, p. 75-76, emphasis mine)

Now that Becker has a blog it would be interesting to hear his reactions then to Friedman�s criticism of his thesis.


I do hope the word 'preposition' was an artifact of your added emphasis. Were it in the original, the irony would be overwhelming. 'Cannot state a preposition clearly...' indeed.

Shirley Knott

Amen to the working hard part. I remember one of my advisors telling me, "if you work your butt off and you're really smart, you'll publish a lot in top journals. If you work your butt off and you're not that smart, you'll still publish a lot, just in second tier journals. Either way, if you work hard, you'll publish a lot".

Of course, loving what you do makes it easier to work hard for long stretches.

I've only been doing this academic gig for about ten years, and I still think it's just about the most fun I've ever had with my clothes on (sorry for that unfortunate image - time for some "mental floss")


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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on May 30, 2005 10:19 AM.

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