Impostor Success, Part I: The Nobel Prize and pontificating windbags

After that digression (not the last, rest assured) about books in general, back to the book. I still haven’t introduced my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–but instead I’ve given two examples, Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling, of failure being an impostor. Let me now give you an example of Kipling’s other impostor, triumph–because the book is emphatically about both impostors, just as a book about night must also be about day.

The immediate and obvious category that jumps to mind is hubris, the theme that so fascinated the ancient Greeks. Hubris is that arrogance which brings down the successful and powerful, from Xerxes the Persian to Ken Lay of Enron or Eliot Spitzer or … take your pick. So, because it’s so obvious, let’s not take an example of hubris. Instead, let’s take a more subtle example: The Nobel Prize.

Paul Samuelson is an economist who won that prize, in 1970, and who, thirty-one years later, reflected on the institution. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and inventor, had established the prize in 1895 to recognize the best work done in a given field and thereby to “subsidize and support the young winner’s research efforts for the rest of his life.” By rewarding success, in other words, the prize was meant to create even more success.

Instead, says Samuelson (emphasis is mine):

the reverse of Nobel’s wish is what actually happens. After winners receive the award and adulation, they wither away into vainglorious sterility. More than that, they become pontificating windbags, preaching to the world on ethics and futorology, politics and philosophy. At circular tables, where they sit they believe to be the head of the table…

Breaking it down another level of nuance, Samuelson goes on:

An acquaintance of mine in biology regarded his Nobel year as the worst one in his life. Being a research wet-lab worker, he hated the press interviews and hoopla. Others I’ve known have gloried in it: so to speak they sported their bauble on the January subway. One wife of a physical scientist attributed her divorce to the Nobel Prize. (Her spouse has not recorded his opinion.) …

Not to get too deep about this, but can we agree with Samuelson that the Nobel Prize is a) a personal triumph for its recipients and b) probably, if not certainly, an impostor? For today, I just leave you with this delightful phrase: pontificating windbags. Ever met any?

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