Confessions of a lucky HLF videojournalist

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“It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”

So said 2015 Turing Award recipient Whitfield Diffie in a vlog of the recently finished Heidelberg Laureate Forum. It was HLF’s eighth, Diffie’s fourth…and my sixth.

Unlike the event’s young researchers and laureates, it was luck and not smarts that got me into the HLF in 2016. As the organization that grants the Turing Award, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) hired me to capture the HLF’s spirit, resulting in this video. HLF itself hired me as a videojournalist every year since then, so I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of the researchers and most of the laureates – some of them several times.

I occasionally ask some variation of the obvious question: “What about you enabled such great accomplishments?” Really, I want a hidden question answered: “What can I do to enable such accomplishments in my life?”

While they can’t answer that one, Diffie’s statement illuminates the role of luck in achievement. Not that luck alone led the laureates to their Fields Medals, Abel Prizes, and other accolades – certainly not! But in my interviews, laureates often acknowledge that their talents nicely matched what the world needed in their time. (Older Computer Science laureates especially recognize how opportunities came from being gardeners at the field’s germination.)

They weren’t simply in the right place at the right moment: They had to be able to recognize the opportunity and be equipped to exploit it. As American President (1953-1961) Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”

In the vlog Diffie says, “I did one good hour of work in 1975, and I’ve been making a living off of it ever since.” That sure sounds like he got lucky! But just before that he tells of two years he spent as an itinerant cryptographer, moving (like Paul Erdős thirty years before him) from couch to couch, seeking out truth. (“My accommodation ranged from beds to couches to floors to back yards, but rarely included hotels. I often slept in the back seat of my car.”)

Those years – along with those spent at MIT, MITRE Corporation, and the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratoryprepared him for that one good hour. They put him in touch with remarkable people of the age, among them his eventual cryptographic collaborator, Martin Hellman.

Thinking of this, I feel better about the luck that led me to the HLF. That first video assignment from the ACM was an opportunity that could have been given to anybody. But I was prepared for it, having written for the ACM, learned videography, and arranged my life to make the trip to Heidelberg easy. Further, I recognized it as a unique and exciting opening. Preparation and opportunity. It was the best kind of luck.

Not just for me, either. Every year I see 200 researchers whose preparation led them to the steps of Heidelberg’s Neue Universität. They studied, researched, innovated. Just as importantly, they applied. Then when that application form asked what they’ve done in the fields of math and computer science, they could answer honestly and with confidence.

The HLF is a luck factory, providing opportunities to the well-prepared by putting them in touch with the remarkable people of this age. Being around the HLF for so long, I’ve gotten to see the results. They collaborate, they help each other find new positions – and new opportunities. Close to my home in The Netherlands, I regularly see news of Tim Baarslag’s work in automated negotiation at the national math and computer science research institute. Some of them even return as journalists, as Demian Nahuel Goos and Constanza Rojas-Molina did.

The world is full of people who are “lucky to be smart”. The researchers who come to HLF are smart, surely. But they also recognize the opportunity it presents, and are ready to jump on it. They create their own luck. And one day when some videojournalist asks them, “What about you enabled such great accomplishments?”, they’ll point to their luck in being part of the HLF.

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Tom Geller is best known for instructional video courses on LinkedIn Learning, including the popular "Writing with Impact". Major works include video interviews for The Heidelberg Laureate Forum; feature videos and investigative articles for ACM; and books.

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