WSJ: The man who hurled pencils at 22-year-old Richard Robb went on to become a Nobel laureate.
It was 1982. Mr. Robb, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, was chalking out an idea on a blackboard. He was studying under the supervision of James Heckman, a pugnacious econometrician who won the Nobel Prize in economics 18 years later.
The two men had the room to themselves. As the chalk squeaked from Mr. Robb’s scratching, Mr. Heckman grew agitated. He thought Mr. Robb’s idea was wrong, that he was making grandiose claims. He threw a pencil—then a few more.
Ducking occasionally, Mr. Robb ignored the assault and continued writing on the blackboard. “I turned out to be right after all,” Mr. Robb, now 59, tells me, “even though my explanation was confusing. And we published it in a long paper titled ‘Alternative Methods for Evaluating the Impact of Interventions.’ ” He adds that pupil and maestro never discussed the incident again—until Mr. Robb emailed Mr. Heckman to ask if I could use the story in this article.
Mr. Robb is now CEO of a $5 billion hedge fund and a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at Columbia.
Oddly the article goes on to explain how throwing pencils wasn’t really rational or irrational but an example of something that we do, or perhaps just Heckman does, “for itself”—an act that resulted “from the exercise of will rather than the pursuit of preferences.” Doing something from will rather than from preference is the heart of the idea in Robb’s new book Willful: How We Choose What We Do. Not sure I get it either, but I haven’t read the book. Maybe I will.
Hat tip: Frank McCormick.