30 Minutes with Michael Levitt


Dr Michael Levitt was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work he did when he was 20. He is now 67. What caught my attention was his profile on a poster I chanced upon at the library. It said he was a “free spirit”, preferred to be called “Michael” with no titles, and that he had visited Burning Man. Fascinated, I emailed him and asked if I could interview him when he came to Singapore. He agreed. It was real fun spending time with him last week. I laughed often during our time together. He is not only brilliant but really down-to-earth and funny. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

When he got news of his Nobel Prize, Michael was quoted as saying “Now I just hope to get through the day and make sure that, in the end, my life doesn’t change very much. Because I really have a wonderful life.” Wow. How many people can say that, I wondered. I asked him about this “wonderful life”. He said he really liked what he did, and had married someone who had been very different from him and really good for him. (They have been married for 45 years.) He did fun things with his family. But it was not just these external things. He had an amazing strength in gratitude…

He said: I feel I have been very lucky. I don’t think “I didn’t win this…I didn’t get this.” I think of all the bad things that haven’t happened to me. ..I didn’t slip on the floor…I didn’t drown in the pool. .. I didn’t fall in the shower. It is the same for each one of us. So many things that could have happened – and these are not unusual things – and didn’t happen. So I am grateful everyday of life.

(I was reminded of what positive psychology researcher Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky has said about gratitude being kind of a “meta-strategy” for achieving happiness.)

As Michael was co-awarded the Nobel Prize with two others, I was very interested in the relationship they had shared that had birthed such a major discovery. He said:What is so nice is I can do one thing and the other is good at something else and neither of us is actually aware of the other‘s area. Oftentimes there’s something really interesting in between. And together we can make a lot of progress with very little investment. There’s a lot of work… some is hard work. But it’s always nice sometimes to do something that is easy, that is on the edge of the two disciplines…

I thought this was such a beautiful way to describe synergy and the beauty of using one’s strengths in synch with others. As a strengths practitioner, it is a joy for me to witness clients describe this very ease that Michael alludes to, when they use their strengths.

Michael said, of one of the co-awardeees: One person was a PhD student when I came there… I came along to be his assistant. And we developed a very strong relationship. Then I came back to work with him for years later. So it was a very close relationship.

This really reminded me of the importance of building close relationships in the workplace if we want powerful synergistic collaborations. To me, the word “teamwork” doesn’t describe it enough. It is some stronger and deeper.

Michael showed a strong appreciation of people and life. He found them interesting and had a strong sense of optimism. He said: People are pretty amazing. Often we set our own limits. Limits will be set for you whether you like it or not. Also this question of being an optimist or pessimist… I think you have no idea what’s going to happen. I keep on thinking of some person whose whole life where he has lived as a pessimist. Ad then nothing happens to him. And on his deathbed, he says “What a waste.. I was pessimistic and nothing happened to me.” It just seems to be that there’s nothing to be gained from it.

I was curious about Burning Man and Michael described his experience in detail. What really struck me was this: People bring stuff to give other people. It’s not barter. They just give it to you. And what’s nice is that …they’re really open. Faces are open….

I could sense the generosity, authentic connection and openness in how fondly he spoke about it. Burning Man is an annual festival and an experiment in community, art, radical self expression and self-reliance. Here are the ten inspiring principles of Burning Man. Sounds pretty amazing!

Every year for the last few years, I have done an experiment to live as if it is my last year to live. Living with awareness of mortality has been transformational for me. And I have to admit that if I didn’t reflect mortality I wouldn’t have asked Michael for this interview. When I know I have limited time, I dare more, I want to serve more impactfully and grow more deeply. :) If you had a year to live, what would you feel drawn to do?

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