Episode 87: A Conversation with Nobel Laureate Dr. Robert Lefkowitz

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz shares anecdotes and wisdom from his extraordinary career. This episode delves into the power of storytelling and narratives, building a legacy based on mentorship, overcoming harsh criticism, and using personal values at work.

Lefkowitz won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012 for “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.” His memoir is titled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm”. Today, more than half of all prescription drug sales are of drugs that target either directly or indirectly the receptors discovered by Dr. Lefkowitz and his trainees.

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Episode Highlights


The importance of crafting and telling stories


How revising an old story we tell ourselves can pay off professionally


Coping with challenges and setbacks


Constructively decoding rejection


Why learning to say no to career opportunities matters


Bob's criteria for making career decisions


Advice for making life's most important decisions


Bob's first rule of mentoring: tailor it for each and every person


How Bob wants to be remembered

Bob’s view on the greatest unmet wellbeing need at work today

"You're coming to turf that's very near and dear to my heart...Both my parents had premature heart attacks. My father died of his fourth heart attack at 63. He had his first one when he was 50. So there were clearly strong genetic factors favoring heart disease in my family...I developed angina and had quadruple bypass surgery. That was 30 years ago, and I'm still here and still kicking.

So how did that come to be? Because I, as a cardiologist, paid meticulous meticulous attention to risk factors that I can alter. The one I can't alter, of course, is my genetics. But there are lots of others that you can. So in the workplace, if I could focus on two things, one would be the food that people are eating. [Addressing] the vending machines, and the crap that they serve in the cafeteria. So healthier eating.

The other is exercise. Okay, I'm a nut about both subjects. So, for most of my career, I would go out, and about noon time with a very close friend of mine who's a faculty member. And we would go for a run at lunchtime. And I wish there were more emphasis on that facilities that were conveniently available, and ways to structure the work day so that people are given breaks to go out and exercise.

I think wellness is very, very important. And then of course, you know that there's the whole stress business, which there are various ways to handle. But I think an emphasis on wellness is extremely important. It has been for me, the fact that I'm still here 30 years later, I work full time at 80 [years old]. I'm still full time, and I just renewed my grants for another five years. I'm still at it!"

What “working with humans” means to Bob

“One of my most closely held core values is human dignity. And to me, one of the most important things about working with people is to show everybody the same level of respect.

I don't care if a Nobel laureates coming into my office, or -- I have a great relationship with the guy who picks up the trash every day, he comes in. And I'll say, "Hey, I got some great stuff for you here!" You know, I'll hand in my trash can. I say, "be careful with it!" as I banter with him. I don't care if you're picking up the trash or you're a Nobel Laureate. I want to show you the respect that, to me, every human being deserves.

Now there's a balance. One of the things I learned when I was in Hebrew school as a kid that I remember to this day is there was a there's an ancient Jewish texts, called Pirkei Avot, which means Stories of the Fathers. These are sage pieces of advice passed down for centuries and centuries. One of them is attributed to him ancient rabbi whose name was Hillel.

Hillel had this saying, it goes something like this. "If I am not for me, who will be for me? If I am only for me, who am I? If not now, when?" And there's huge wisdom in that. But to me the balancing between self-interest because, in the end, you're responsible for yourself. Because, if I'm not for me, who will be for me? But on the other hand, if I'm only for me, then who am I?

You got to take care of others. And to me, that's what it's all about.”


Read: Bob's profile on Wikipedia and at Duke University's website
Read: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist
Watch: Bob's Nobel Lecture (slides and transcript also available)
Read: about Pirkei Avot

Michael Glazer is the creator and host of Humans At Work. His purpose in life is to make well-being at work a globally-accepted, basic human right. Learn more about Michael here.