This weekend attended a celebration of Richard Zeckhauser’s 50 years of teaching at Harvard. The event started with two panels focusing on different aspects of Richard’s scholarship, followed by a dinner that included several speeches and a video tribute, with testimonials from friends, students, co-authors, and family. It was a wonderful event and it gave me the urge to write a little bit about Richard. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Richard for over 10 years now, as he was my primary advisor in graduate school and co-author. I also TA’d his notoriously challenging course at the Kennedy School, API-301.
As a graduate student, Richard gave me the freedom to pursue what I was interested in. It worked in part because he’s basically interested in everything. He had the patience for my bad ideas and the instinct to nurture the maybe-not-terrible ideas. What I recall most strongly was just how much he made time for his students. It wasn’t just quality time—it was quantity time. In graduate school, I saw him constantly. We’d get lunch weekly. He’d invite me to a Red Sox or Celtics games. Or we’d just grab a soda and talk in the afternoons.
Our time together was *always* interesting and frequently challenging. I learned at the dinner I was not the only one subject to his questions and quizzes. So many of our meetings would start with some version of “suppose you have a coin that comes up heads 45% of the time…” I always felt flattered he thought I was worth quizzing, even if I probably did not do much better than chance on the quizzes.
When it came time for the job market, I think he spent more time thinking about my career than I did. And his thinking on *anything* is gold. When I face a hard question in life—how to handle some tricky professional or personal decision—I think “What would Richard do?” He’d collect information. Probe his assumptions. Come up with subjective probabilities. Consider the subjective utility from various states of the world. It’s amazing to experience his thinking and his passion for a rational, reasoned approach to decision-making. I think probably his most deeply held belief is that we can all make better decisions by being more analytical about our decisions.
As one can imagine, the traits described above are part of why he’s such tremendous scholar. One of the reasons he’s been so prolific is how he operates as a co-author. If you send him a draft, you will, in short order, get 10 pages of typed, detailed, brilliant notes—very likely typed up in the middle of the night. If you can get him a word document—he’s not a LaTeX devotee—the tracked-changes edits to your writing could be the basis for a composition course on how to be a better writer.
Although we have written several things together, I don’t have the breadth or the quickness of mind to be “Richard” in my research. I’m not sure anyone really can anymore. It’s a cliche, but that mold is probably broken. I think the best I or anyone can hope for is to bring some Zeckhauserian sensibilities to my work.
What are those Zeckhauserian sensibilities? To be clear. To be interesting. To care deeply about writing. To find great examples. To keep working and polishing until your thinking and writing are straight. To take economic theory seriously, but also not ignore what we can see in front of us. To be humble about what we know and don’t know.
I hope to live up to the example he’s set as an academic. There are a lot of joys to academia. But I think one of the greatest is to be a part of a great chain of teacher and student. I cherish the fact that I now have the chance to influence my students and pass on something of him. He’s a model for living a life of the mind—and more generally, for living a life well.