04/18/2013 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2013

Humility in Greatness

In cleaning up my apartment a few weeks ago, I came across a letter that was nearly 20 years old. It was a semi-formal letter, written on official stationary by an eminent scientist.

How did I end up with this letter? The scientist had published a reader-friendly book on neuroscience for a lay audience. After having taken neuroscience classes in graduate school, I was fascinated by the workings of the brain and so I devoured the book, word-for-word. Finding a few items that didn't line up with my very limited understanding, I had mailed a letter with some specific comments/questions. The scientist replied in a very courteous and professional manner, patiently addressing each of my comments/questions, thanking me for contacting him and encouraging me to continue pursing my interests. The scientist had already won a Nobel Prize and was one of the most famous scientists in the world.

A couple of years ago I had a similar, positive touch with greatness. One of the best-selling (and most talented) writers of the last few decades was giving a public talk. Before the talk, there was a cocktail event where a crowd had gathered around to meet him. After the crowd diminished slightly, I introduced myself to him and mentioned that I was writing a book that used data to compare America to other wealthy countries, identifying leading practices that America could adopt. He was very encouraging, saying that he loved the topic and would be interested in reading a sample chapter. He offered me his personal email address so I could follow-up. He has continued to be supportive to this day, even taking time out from his busy schedule to talk with me as I struggled through developing my second book.

These two interactions with hugely successful yet accessible people remind me of the importance of humility. It is highly unlikely that my research will earn me global accolades or that my books will sell millions of copies, but I aspire to have a meaningful impact while committing to the humility and generosity that I received from some great role models.

Note: The names of the scientist and writer have been purposely omitted

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