When I was studying for my Ph.D., a fellow grad student and I asked our advisor if he could think of one single characteristic that was common to all of the best scientists he knew. Without too much hesitation, he answered: “Hard work.” That certainly wasn’t the answer we wanted to hear — you mean there isn’t some secret recipe to being brilliant? And of course hard work is not nearly enough to elevate you to the ranks of the world’s great scientists. But now that I have marinated for some time in the juices of experience myself, I see the truth of what he was getting at; there are a lot of smart people out there, so it makes sense that what elevates a few of them above their peers is an extraordinary focus on their work and a great amount of simple effort. So it should come as no surprise that Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of all time, was a relentless worker. In his days at Cambridge, when he focused on the workings of the natural world, he would spend as little time as possible on anything that drew him away from the researches in his rooms. Over the couple of years he was writing the Principia Mathematica, he took things to extremes, going for extended periods without food or sleep.
We often look at the truly greats like Einstein, Mozart etc. with reverential awe. However, two books “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin show that the primary trait for success is not genius but to ability to develop and sustain a deliberate and strenuous routine. In an older column called“What It Takes to Be Great,” Colvin showed that the top performers in any field are not determined by their inborn talents but because of practice and perseverance. In this book, he shows that it not just plain hard work, but how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness and talks about the scientific principles behind this approach.
As an aside, I was reading a book titled "Greatness: Who makes history and why" and the author mentions that not only does Pareto's law of 20:80 work for a wide range of phenomena, but the 10:50 rule also works. Basically, this means that the top 10% contribute to 50% of the output, while the bottom 50% contribute to 10% of the output. He says that law holds in almost all arts and sciences, including scientific research. This is certainly true for the publication output of IISc faculty wherein for the period of 2002-2006, the top 10% of our faculty published 46% of the IISc output in terms of publications and citations. What is one characteristic of these top 10% of the faculty? Hard work.