I came across this interesting paper from William Breit and Barry Hirsch which looks at above question:
This paper uses as source material twenty-three autobiographical essays by Nobel economists presented since 1984 at Trinity University (San Antonio, Texas) and published in Lives of the Laureates (MIT Press). A goal of the lecture series is to enhance understanding of the link between biography and the development of modern economic thought. We explore this link and identify common themes in the essays, relying heavily on the words of the laureates. Common themes include the importance of real-world events coupled with a desire for rigor and relevance, the critical influence of teachers, the necessity of scholarly interaction, and the role of luck or happenstance. Most of the laureates view their research program not as one planned in advance but one that evolved via the marketplace for ideas.
In short it tells you why these winners of Nobel economics prize (Economic Prize in the memory of Alfred Nobel is more politically correct) took up economics, what drove them, the key inquiries of economic thought they were looking for etc etc. And all this is basically analysing their autobiographical essays.
Here are a few points:
- Few wanted to become an economist to begin with- James Tobin, Vernon Smith, William Sharpe, James Heckman
- Some took up economics as alternative plans were closed or not worth it – Arthur Lewis, John Harsanyi
- Some dont like calling themselves an economist – Clive Granger, (even Coase says so in his nobel lecture)
- Role of Great Depression in taking up economics- James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow)
- Some looked for current issues – Gary Becker, Edmund Phelps
- Role of Mentors/Teachers (Mentors mentioned in brackets; most cite Milton Friedman as well) -Myron Scholes (Prof McIver), James Buchanan (Frank Knight), Ed Prescott (Robrt Lucas),
- Some got learning mostly from outside classrooms- Tobin
- Importance of Work environment – Stigler, Klein and Sharpe (Klein adds his group was the best ever in economics producing 4 Prize winners)
- Role of luck – Friedman, Becker
- Research evolved in search for ideas – Coase, Buchanan and Samuelson
The authors then point autobios help understand many aspects of these winners which is difficult to understand otherwise. The stories of Heckman, Lucas, Schelling are quite inspiring.
Finally why Milton Friedman took up economics?
Initially, Friedman had planned to choose mathematics because he liked the subject. The Great Depression was under way, though, and Friedman was intrigued by what he called “the paradox of great need on the one hand and unused resources on the other.” Moreover, making the decision process more difficult, he had offers of financial aid from two universities—one for the study of mathematics at Brown, and the other to study economics at Chicago. The final decision came down almost to the toss of a coin. Economics and the puzzle of the Great Depression won out.
In his autobiographical lecture he attempts to explain his choice. To do so he quotes Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Less Traveled.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
I took the one less traveled by.
And that has made all the difference.
And yet, reference to the Frost poem does not seem appropriate in his case. During the Great Depression, when Friedman entered college, economics was not the road “less traveled by.” To the contrary, it was among the most popular of majors. He said he chose economics because of its relevance to the issues of the day, as with so many others of his generation. But this leaves us with a mystery. What is the relevance of Frost’s poem? Why did he quote it?
Perhaps the choice of the poem reveals something about Friedman that was hidden from him when he quoted its words. Even if entering economics during the Great Depression was not really taking the road less traveled, nevertheless Friedman’s subsequent career persistently took him along untrampled pathways within economics. Was this a conscious decision?
For in his attempt to answer questions posed by the depression, Friedman stood apart and almost alone. He rejected the Keynesian solutions that the overwhelming majority of the profession had come to accept. Friedman lived long enough to see many of his ideas become the consensus view of a younger generation of economists. Because he was different, he attracted attention; his persuasive powers, style, and charisma did the rest. For Friedman, the road less traveled indeed “made all the difference.”
Only Friedman knows the real answer but all this sounds quite good. This is an interesting Friedman – Frost connection. The impact of Milton Friedman on field of economics and economists was simply amazing.