A Legend…or That Other Guy: What Determines Success?


Chay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” Chapters 4-6 discusses how the motivation of one particular person or group develops into a collaborative effort on the part of many. However, if personal motivation ALWAYS led to collaborative effort, we wouldn’t need to read a book to analyze it, would we? So what’s missing between these two points of personal motivation and collaborative effort? My guess is that it’s magic….but I can’t write an entire post on magic because it would just be full of me finding ways to explain Criss Angel’s stunts or images of creepy guys performing magic tricks.

Magic 2

To find the secret ingredients to a successful plan, I think it’s important to analyze people who have achieved great success. Before we go any further, though, I’d like to point out that success and fame are not synonymous. Fame carries additional features of dumb luck and (sometimes) physical attractiveness that are distractions from true success, and are qualities that I cannot explain. I started my search for successful people by looking at a few people that everyone knows. Bill Gates. Alec Jeffreys. Kary Mullis. Ok, maybe not everyone knows the last two, but I’m sure most people know of their work. Here’s what I found out about these people:

1. “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” –Albert Einstein

Bill Gates has become a household name, not only for technology, but also for philanthropy. People who don’t know have a Facebook account or know how to tweet still know who he is and are inspired by him. So what makes a college dropout who was once arrested for a traffic violation so special? His passion. Listen to any speech or interview by Bill Gates (such as one of his TED talks), and this characteristic is readily apparent. And, just like the cheerleaders at a high school football game, that excitement invokes the same in others. Like it or not, we are very dependent on how something is presented to us. (So much, in fact, that my friends are now inviting me to “Painting Parties” and “Moving Parties”, which, as it turns out, are not parties at all.)

Passion is not only an important factor in success–it’s a motivating factor to stimulate more success. First, think about your least favorite teacher in school. Chances are that he/she did not inspire you to learn more or push you to try your hardest. There was no passion. And if the instructor lacks passion, why should you have any?Bueller

On the other hand, your favorite teacher probably ran around the classroom, asked a lot of questions, and MADE YOU THINK. I was lucky enough to have a few of these teachers. My first was my fifth grade science teacher who walked into class one day with a vial of green liquid. He told us that it was liquid nitrogen and that he had to handle it very gently….while he’s waving it around for us to see. He ended the discussion by saying, “So I can’t do something like this”, and threw the vial into the trashcan while all of the terrified fifth graders jumped under their desks.

2. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” –Albert Einstein

In the early 80s, scientists were busy with trying to develop a method that would allow them to find and analyze specific DNA sequences. The proposed method at the time was to clone the DNA in E. coli, but this method didn’t offer any real solutions in terms of health care because the bacteria took time to grow. Kary Mullis wanted to figure out a way to combine cloning with oligonucleotides, but wasn’t exactly sure how. Oligonucleotides are short, single-stranded DNA sequences that are capable of binding to a particular region of DNA. Whereas these oligonucleotides used to take days to synthesize, a new machine allowed them to be produced in hours.

By thinking about the bacteria and the oligonucleotides together, Mullis stumbled upon the solution while driving to his weekend house one night. He could use a different strain of bacteria to support the cloning of oligonucleotides in a sample. This would allow for an exponential increase in oligonucleotides so that the DNA sequences are easier to identify and take less time to do so. This technique would be called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and it revolutionized DNA testing capabilities. Moreover, it allowed for patient results to be available within 45 minutes instead of 48 hours.


In order for the procedure to work, the bacteria would have to be able to withstand the wide range of temperatures needed for proper denaturation and reannealing of the DNA. The bacteria that is able to survive these extreme temperatures is found throughout the geothermal region the Yellowstone National Park, so it’s an easy resource to acquire. This development has continued to be monumental in health care advances.

3.  If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. –Albert Einstein

DNA fingerprinting has been used for almost 30 years. It is used as a basic technique for forensic investigation, and has inspired an entire second career for Maury Povich. But there is still so much the general public does not know about this technology or the man who created it–Sir Alec Jeffreys.

In 1984, Jeffreys had been trying to trace genes through generations of families, specifically for inherited diseases. An earlier finding prompted him to evaluate extracted DNA from individuals’ cells on photographic film. The films did not develop as expected, and, instead, showed a series of bars that demonstrated the DNA sequences for the individual. Jeffreys immediately held a meeting with his research team to determine what could be done with this new finding, and suggestions for forensics and paternity soon began to surface.

DNA Fingerprinting

However, the first case that actually employed DNA fingerprinting was a case in maternity. Christiana Sarbah moved from Ghana moved to England in 1985. When her son moved to England to live with Christiana two years later, the immigration office refused to believe he was her son. Before DNA fingerprinting, the methods were only able to determine that the teen boy was closely related at best. Without Jeffreys new method, the boy would have been sent back to Ghana to live. However, this story has a happy ending. DNA fingerprinting was able to identify the teenage son based on the DNA supplied by his mom and sisters.

DNA Forensics Cartoon

Alec Jeffreys Develops DNA Fingerprinting

Interviews with Alec Jeffreys

Polymerase Chain Reaction Introduction




3 thoughts on “A Legend…or That Other Guy: What Determines Success?

  1. This is a wonderful post. You took complicated ideas and communicated them in a way that the average person (I hope) can understand them. I think I am biased in that much of what you blogged about was science, which I am passionate about. I did not know the DNA fingerprinting story. Thanks for sharing it. The Mullis story I am very familiar with. In fact, the story that I read said that he did a U-turn and went back to the lab to get started on the new idea.

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