Mark Norell

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Work Hard, Play Hard,Think Hard, Finish Stuff

People should learn as much about as many different things as

possible. . . .

Ihave always been very fortunate. I was raised in suburban

Los Angeles when dairy farms and orange groves were a

short bike ride away—and the beach was close enough that

the sand and waves were frequently visited. Such an environment

was conducive to a kid interested in science and at

home outdoors. There were fossils to be found, insects to be

captured, and birds and gophers to be massacred. I had tolerant

and supportive parents. So tolerant that I convinced

them to carry large plastic garbage bags in the car trunk on

family outings so I could harvest interesting road kill for my

anatomical collection.

School was of interest to me and because of this it always

seemed easy. I had some excellent if not memorable teachers.

My greatest education, however, came through the science

programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural

History. There, I was exposed to real scientists working on

projects around the globe. I was able to volunteer in different

departments and accompany field trips to the California

deserts and Mexico to collect mammals and reptiles, survey

whale populations and, most of all, collect fossils. This was

different from the science that I was taught in school. This

sort of science was creative and fun. Since this was the early

1970s, the scientists I got to know were not stereotypical

nerd-scientists, but an inspired, fun-loving tribe.

In college my mind was made up. I wanted to pursue science

as a career. I continued to accompany fossil collecting

Source: Printed with permission from Mark Norell.

expeditions to the American West. Following my undergraduate

education I pursued my masters at San Diego, where I

came in contact with an exceptional group of young scientists

and learned how to do research. From there I went to

Yale University to work on my PhD. Even though my interests

wavered (at one point I was studying the molecular genetics

of transposons in maize), when I finished my PhD I realized

that I was really good at science.

I left with the feeling that I could work on almost anything.

No matter what it was, it was just another data set that

needed to be looked at rationally and empirically. When I was

offered my job at the American Museum of Natural History, I

had never worked on dinosaurs. They simply put the question

to me “If we hire you will you work on dinosaurs?” Throughout

all this I stayed focused on what made me interested in

science as a child, always wondering why and how you can

use theory and evidence (data) to understand some basic

things about how the world works.

Even though I work on the past, it is very important to

think in the present and beyond. Curiosity and imagination

are crucial, and you should instinctively look for the next

best thing, the thing that is just beyond the horizon. But this

is not enough. A common saying in my field is that ideas are

cheap—even good ones. It is their implementation and development

that is difficult. There is no substitute for hard work,

and there is no excuse for not finishing projects and other

things in a timely fashion. If I look around, I have known

some amazing thinkers. Those who were finishers went on to

become luminaries. That does not make them necessarily any

smarter than many of the rest. It has, however, made them

more successful.

All of us will have setbacks during our careers and lives.

Personal tragedy, illness, and the like—these are not pleasant

things. Looking back, there are things that I would change

and much that I wished that I never experienced. Nevertheless,

the spectrum of experience is good and makes an archive

that is my most important tool in going forward with my work

and life.

The idea of a wide spectrum also forms the core about my

philosophy of education. People should learn as much about

as many different things as possible—and not just academic

subjects. You would be surprised how knowing how to fix a

car, install drywall, or cook a soufflé aids a scientist. And for

inspiration? Each person is inspired in a different way. My

own comes just from living and realizing that I have an obligation

to my family and others. Ideas come at weird times—

recently I’ve gotten a lot of thinking done just walking around

listening to Metallica and old punk rock—Sex Pistols, X, and

the like.

My advice: work hard, play hard, think hard, finish stuff,

surround yourself with the same kind of people, listen to them,

be an information magnet, experience all you can. Combined

with a little luck, this will take you a long way.