How to Make a Splash and Ruin Your Career at the Same Time

December 18th, 2007

Being at the top of any field is incredibly difficult- impossible, really, for all but a select few. The people who do work at the top generally spend years toiling away in the trenches building their credentials before they get recognized for their efforts.

That’s why it’s even more amazing when a complete outsider is able to step in and make a significant contribution to any field. Albert Einstein may be the best example anyone will ever come up with for this- he famously worked as a patent clerk while developing his special theory of relativity.

A backlash against upstart outsiders is also to be expected. When everyone else has to put in time and years deep in the field, how is it possible for an outsider to step in and contribute at the highest levels?

All of this, plus an interest in cosmology undeterred by (or because of) my poor math skills, explains why I find the story of Garrett Lisi so interesting. Lisi holds a doctorate in physics, but divides his time between surfing on Maui and snowboarding in Tahoe. Along the way, he claims to have developed a simple “theory of everything” to unite classical physics with quantum mechanics (it is based on the “E8” mathematical concept represented in the picture). It’s a bold claim- scientists have chipped away at the idea for decades with few testable theories to show for it. The person who eventually does crack the code will probably end up on a pedestal together with Isaac Newton and Einstein himself.

Lisi’s paper received both praise and criticism, as befits an audacious claim by an unknown scholar. I certainly can’t say if he is right or wrong. The business lesson I take from it, though, is that grand claims may be easy to make, but require extraordinary proof. If Lisi turns out to be wrong his career as a physicist will probably be over before it ever really started.

I prefer a simpler mantra I picked up from an old mentor: “underpromise and overdeliver“.