Mike summarized the ingredients of his "success" as follows:
- Start early!
- Get lucky!
- Hang out with smart people!
- Enjoy what you do!
The second point is that it does help to be in the "right place at the right time." A chat with the right person may open a lot of doors, and so can working with the right people and on a topic that is deemed to be hot at a given time. Mike gave some personal reminescences related to how he ended up working at MIT, and sharing an office, actually two offices, with Michael Fischer. Having said that, "Luck favours the prepared mind" (Pasteur), and so one should make one's own luck.
Having good collaborators is one of the most important factors in a research career. A look at our research landscape quickly reveals that more and more papers are multi-authored and are the result of a collaboration. I would recommend "hanging out with smart people" to any young researcher, no matter how smart he/she might be. There is so much to be learned in working with others!
Regarding the last point, Lance Fortnow wrote in this post that you must "Be sure to have fun doing your research because if you are not having fun you won't be successful and you can likely make more money doing something else that isn't fun." Judging from his presentations at ICALP, Mike Paterson is still having a lot of fun doing his research! Look at his recent work on the "overhang" problem with Uri Zwick to understand why. Uri Zwick is one of the "smart people" Mike likes to hang out with.
Mike's latest project is the Centre for Discrete Mathematics and its Applications. Check it out.
Thanks to Mike for setting such a good example for all of us to try and follow.