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What this Nobel Prize-winning economist can teach us about asking “why”...

Last Updated:

May 29, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #54 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? You should keep asking the same questions!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Economist Esther Duflo asked herself a certain question at the age of 6. That question helped her win a Nobel Prize

It’s 1978. Esther Duflo, daughter of a pediatrician and math professor, is 6 years old and living in Paris, France.

Growing up hearing about her mother’s volunteer work with children from war-torn countries, Duflo wondered: “How come I, Esther, get to be born in this middle-class, intellectual family, with loving parents, decent schools, and all the food and books I need, while some other kids are born in Congo, in the middle of a war, and are forced to carry a Kalashnikov to fight?”

Duflo’s question of “Why?” returned in grade school when she observed how even her smartest friends didn’t necessarily get good grades. 

Duflo hypothesized: Perhaps “everyone must be excellent at least ONE thing, but do not necessarily get to find their special talent.”

Inspired by the question, Duflo set out to do two things: (1) use her own talent of being “a jack of all forms of schoolwork” to pursue academia and (2) use academia to “play some role in helping others get the opportunity to find and nurture their talents.”

First, Duflo earned her BA in economics from École normale supérieure and got her Master’s degree in history from the Paris School of Economics. But, it wasn’t until she arrived at MIT in 1995 to pursue a PhD that she found what she’d been looking for: development economics.

Immediately, Duflo was intrigued by the concept of poverty traps—the idea that “being poor changes people’s opportunity set and sometimes this means that they stay poor.” Flashbacking to her 6-year-old self, she wondered: What if I could use development economics to “find the right lever to unleash people’s opportunities?”

Up to that point, poverty reduction efforts lacked the data to “show true causal impacts of programmes and policies.” Duflo and her colleagues, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer, set out to change that.


By using something called “randomized controlled trials,” or RCTs. The idea was to take inspiration from clinical trials in medicine and randomly assign people “to either an experimental group (that received the treatment) or a control group (that didn’t)” and then compare their outcomes.

Though many economists considered RCTs “a cute way to waste time”, the RCTs gave Duflo and her colleagues the evidence to know exactly what interventions worked and why. In turn, the data could help policymakers identify what worked and what didn’t.

Fast forward eight years and Duflo co-founded MIT’s Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Today, J-PAL’s initiatives have impacted poverty intervention policies in 28 countries for over 400 million people. Fifteen years later, in 2019, Duflo became the youngest person ever, at age 46, to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics.

So, the next time you find yourself asking, “Why?” remember Duflo—who asked this very question as a 6-year-old—and kept asking it until it changed the lives of millions.

At age 46, Esther Duflo was the youngest individual to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. (image via the MacArthur Foundation).

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? The more questions you ask, the more life—and world—changing solutions you might find.

When you think of Nobel Prize winners, what comes to mind? At first, I had only one word: “Smart”! Then, I realized: Sure, Nobel Prize winners are smart, but they are, moreover, normal people who are good at asking smart questions—namely the three questions of…

  1. How do things work?
  2. Why are things the way they are?
  3. How can I make things better?

It turns out that you don’t need a Nobel Prize to think like a Nobel Prize winner.

The next time you find yourself wondering, “Why???” at work, hold your frustration and try asking yourself these same three questions.

At the very least, you’ll learn something new. And who knows—you might just unlock a new way to grow in your career, make an impact, and show others your leadership potential.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I had a rough start to my career, as those of you who’ve attended one of my talks or read my book will know. I felt stupid—until I learned that many new grads felt the same way I did.

It wasn’t until I asked the question “Why are things the way they are?” that I realized that it wasn’t me—it was the system. School doesn’t teach what the real world expects us to know! Without asking “Why?” I would have never written The Unspoken Rules!

Ask “why”!


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