Levitt had an interview for the Society of Fellows, the venerable intellectual clubhouse at Harvard that pays young scholars to do their own work, for three years with no commitments. Levitt felt that he didn’t stand a chance. For starters, he didn’t consider himself an intellectual. He would be interviewed over dinner by the senior fellows, a collection of world-renowned philosophers, scientists, and historians. He worried he wouldn’t have enough conversation to last even the first course.

Disquietingly, one of the senior fellows said to Levitt, “I’m having a hard time seeing the unifying theme of your work. Cold you explain it?”

Levitt was stymied. He had no idea what his unifying theme was, or if he even had one.

Amartya Sen, the future Nobel-winning economist, jumped in and neatly summarized what he saw as Levitt’s them.

Yes, Levitt said eagerly, that’s my theme.

Another fellow then offered another theme.

You’re right, said Levitt, that’s my theme.

And so it went, like dogs tugging at bone, until the philosopher Robert Nozick interrupted.

“How old are you, Steve?” he asked.

“Twenty-six.”

Nozick turned to the other fellows: “He’s twenty-six years old. Why does he need to have a unifying theme? Maybe he’s going to be one of those people who’s so talented he doesn’t need one. He’ll take a question and he’ll just answer it, and it’ll be fine.”

– The New York Times Magazine, August 3, 2003.

Maybe I don’t need to plan everything out all the time. I’m only 23.

Advertisements