Why are you successful (or not)?

by morgan · 7 comments

 

If you’ve ever wondered why “success” is so hard to come by, this blog post is for you.  If you’re already as successful as you want to be, then you probably don’t need to keep reading (and congratulate yourself that you’re in the minority of about 1% of all people!).

What is success?  That totally depends on you.  But if you’re in an academic career, that often means getting a PhD, getting some publications, doing a post-doc, getting some more publications, getting some kind of faculty job, or so on.  If you’re not into the academic thing, you may define success as finding a great-paying job in industry.

Whatever you define as success, the question is: why don’t you have it yet?

You may think to yourself, “Morgan’s going off the deep end with this self-help stuff…” but I want to explain.

Getting a great faculty job, getting grants funded, and getting tenure at a tier-I research U were all difficult.  But you know what is more difficult?  Starting and running a profitable business.  I’ve been involved in six business ventures in my life, four of which no longer exist.

While I often say that getting an academic job running a lab is like running a business, there is one big difference: when you’re in an academic job, you often have a net to save you if you fall.  That’s not the case in the business world.

The reason I bring this up is that when I opened my bike shop, it was a bigger struggle than any of those in my faculty career.  In order to turn that business around, I had to “resort” to self-help.

And indeed, what I learned applies to you if you don’t have the success you want yet: we hold ourselves back from success.

Now that I understand this, I see it all the time – in myself, in my students, in my staff, in my coaching and training clients – in most people I meet.

Today I listened to an interesting bit by a guy Noah St. John about his book “The Secret Code of Success.”  One of the key points of that book is that we are holding ourselves back because we’re asking ourselves the wrong questions.

Yes, the human mind is powerful, and it likes to answer questions.  And in life we often get the answer we’re looking for.

So if you ask: “Why is it so hard to get my PhD?” then guess what: your mind will find all the reasons that it is a struggle to finish.

What he describes in the book is turning that around from a negative question into a positive one:

“Why is getting my PhD going to be straightforward?”  Again, your mind searches for the answers, and finds them.

Normally I might put up some kind of link to the book, but here’s the reason I don’t: my audience is full of techy/geeky(that includes me!)/science types who are often averse to self-help, and even more averse to self-help that contains religious references.  Well, as useful as I think Noah’s stuff is, he does make religious references somewhat often for my tastes.  So I can’t outright suggest that you go read his book unless you’re perfectly ok with that kind of thing.  If you can deal with it, he has some great ideas to share.

But, even if you don’t check out any of his stuff, definitely think about what questions you are asking yourself.  When I started doing that, the result was surprising and very useful.

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signature small Why are you successful (or not)?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie Aldridge

Nah! I know why I am not a “success”. It’s because I like asking myself the “wrong questions”. I like to ask myself science questions. And I like to answer them. My grandmother said to me, when she was sixty….”I wish I’d spent more time on making money”. And I, in my twenty year old foolishness and wisdom replied, “If you had wanted to make more money then you would have”. And now I, at 58, understand exactly what she meant and what she did.

You only have one life and it is yours to make of it what you can. Have no regrets.

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morgan

Hi Jackie – it sounds like you are a “success” if you’ve been doing what you love!

For me, after years of fighting university bureaucracies over stupid, trivial stuff, and at the same time working my tail off to bring in ever more scarce grant funding, I decided that it would be more fun to build a business that makes money (while helping others), then when that is going well, use the money to fund a new interdisciplinary research institute that works on solving some of the big problems in the world….. ok, so now everyone knows my “evil” scheme :)

So far, I’m enjoying that plan!

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Esya

“Why is getting my tenure track position going to be straightforward?”
– sounds funny… with 600-1000 applications per any opening even in second tier university.
However, I’m successful, I have a job, some money, live in the best place in the world, have fun and publish papers time to time… :)

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morgan

I agree, it does “sound funny” at first – but if you keep repeating the question, your mind will find the answer! I’m serious about that – I once heard an analogy that “the mind is Google for Goals,” and it is true. You just have to get your search query right….

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JoVE

This is really interesting. And some of the comments raise the related question “what do you mean by success?” because sometimes we tell a story about one thing (perhaps what other expect of us) when what we really want (our own definition of success) is something else.

This strategy of changing the question can work at all kinds of levels. I wrote about it a couple of months ago, inspired by an article about saying “no”. http://jovanevery.ca/opposite-day-as-a-decision-making-strategy/

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Hazel Wilkinson

This is really interesting. And some of the comments raise the related question “what do you mean by success?” because sometimes we tell a story about one thing (perhaps what other expect of us) when what we really want (our own definition of success) is something else. This strategy of changing the question can work at all kinds of levels. I wrote about it a couple of months ago, inspired by an article about saying “no”. http://jovanevery.ca/opposite-day-as-a-decision-making-strategy/

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Consultant-Scientist

there is one big difference: when you’re in an academic job, you often have a net to save you if you fall. That’s not the case in the business world.

True. (From first-hand experience.)

On a slight side-topic following from some of the remarks you make, that I’d be interested to read your thoughts on. (Or you can just take this as food for thought: either way is fine with me.)

If you’re outside academia and believe you are better placed within an academic setting, the academic selection process—in my admittedly limited experience—doesn’t weigh in non-academic demonstrations of ability terribly well.

The feedback from most academic positions I’ve applied for indicate that they do not use as criteria such as winning contracts (v. getting research grants) and maintaining a consultancy (v. running a research lab) to any substantive degree.

This is not (entirely) their fault—the success measures for departments are based on research papers published over recent *past* years and the funding for their department in part depends on this. Naturally this is their overriding interest. Thing is it’s difficult to see it changing, and it’s not your mindset to change.

I’m not wishing to be negative here or be contrary to the excellent points you make in your article, by the way.

(FWIW, I have a potential route around this, not that it is a fast or easy solution. I’m writing this mostly as food for thought and for discussion, rather than about my personal situation per se.)

Also, while I’m writing, regards your recent newsletter, you wrote:

“A good mentor (or boss) realizes one simple thing: that good people are hard to find, and when you do find them, you need to keep them happy.”

Rather than “keeping them happy”, I’d have written that the one thing, the job, of a mentor to enable the success of their charges and get their (the mentor’s) success through the success of their charges.

(Keeping your charges happy is part of helping them be successful, of course.)

If your example is not helping their charges, it suggests that the system is not encouraging mentors to be productive the right way. I believe a lot of these sorts of issues come back to how you structure an organisation, and encourage success within them. (Same problem behind the academia recruiting from outside academia issue.) Just my long-winded 2c before I haul my dinner out of the oven!

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