Defining success

“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” -Lao Tzu

As we progress through school and the early stages of our career, the messages we receive from the outside world guide us more than they probably should. At some point, we forget to pause and carefully consider what we actually need and want. We forget to think about what’s in our best self-interest and that of our family, and not just about what’s expected of us. We forget to dream about the impact we want to have in the world and the problems we want to solve. Essentially, we forget to question and reflect.

But, most of us get to a time and place, where we turn off autopilot and realize that our definition of success may be different than what we were told. We start to understand that each person’s idea of success is highly individualized. No one can truly tell us what constitutes a successful existence; we define that for ourselves, and it is an iterative process, changing as we grow. Taking time to reflect on where you are, and asking simple questions about where you’re heading, and where you want to be, can be transformative. 

My current definitions of success are pretty basic, but drastically different from those I used to believe. I used to think that chasing the ranks of my career ladder would strengthen me as a professional. I now believe there is no single ladder that defines a career trajectory. I can create new rungs on this historical career ladder, take steps different than those of my mentors, and still grow exponentially in my work. I used to think titles mattered, and that they magically gave professionals more value. I now know that titles say nothing about the true impact an individual has had or their overall mission. Keeping close guard of my purpose, and continuously redefining what I view as my personal vision are far more useful for helping me achieve real impact than chasing a title. Internalizing external messages, I used to believe my career was about me. Today, I recognize that my career is about the people or issue I serve, and those whom I hope to positively impact or inspire. Success in my career would mean I created something good or made something better. It would mean I made someone’s path easier. Naively, I used to think that I had to make everyone happy. Today, I know that’s impossible. Today, success means that I remain true to my values unapologetically. It means I surround myself with joy, including people who keep me grounded, inspired and in a positive mindset. The real sign of success for me is when days flow with a sense of peace and fulfillment, and I am eager at dawn to get started all over again.

Take time to slow down, and reflect on what your deepest definitions of success truly are. Never stop asking questions, and be aware enough to design your career and life according to your unique definitions of success.

Engaging in flow to promote wellness

Blank pages in a fresh notebook, no preconceived thoughts… limitless possibilities. These were sources of excitement, and among the most prized gifts we received as children. Pencil raised above paper, out-of-this world ideas emerged, complete with powerful heroines, magical places, and wild adventures. The rush of adrenaline and irrepressible energy that bubbled over onto the pages were thrilling. It was as if we had to rush to get everything down on paper, or we would burst!

Growing older, writing continued to be an outlet of creative expression and a dynamic tool to re-energize my soul. We all have activities that allow us to enter flow- that feeling that time ceases to exist, and you are completely immersed in whatever you are doing. It’s a balance of challenge, skill, and interest, and an absolutely amazing source of strength, vigor, and purpose. For some, those feelings may come from drawing or sculpting, teaching or reading, skiing or biking. These activities provide you with a sense of peace and a positive frame of mind. But the benefits are not necessarily limited to what you gain from the activity. There may be contributions that the activity allows you to make to others. For example, writing allows me to interact with and inform a broader community, and serves as a vehicle through which I can teach others about complex scientific topics.

So, how do you identify activities that fill your spirit and allow you to move forward almost effortlessly?

Think about activities in which you become fully focused and connected with the task and goal. When you are completely immersed in an activity, you lose sense of time and forget about other demands or responsibilities. Eliminating distractions, such as noise, phones, and e-mail, will help foster deep focus and engagement. Because you are so connected with what you are doing, your ability to perform and deliver are also elevated. Having sufficient skills that allow you to participate in the activity without frustration, a healthy level of challenge so you remain fully attentive, and enduring interest that generates positive feelings are key ingredients. Having a clear goal, such as winning a tennis match, mastering a piano concerto, running a mile, or writing a 1-page draft, is also an important element that will propel you forward and maintain your momentum.

Activities that allow you to move with the current provide immediate feedback in real time, allowing you to make continuous progress without disruption. One great aspect of activities that put you in the zone are that they are not truly dependent on achieving the goal, but rather in following through with the process. For example, even if you don’t master the concerto, being so fully immersed in the process will still feel rewarding. In other words, you feel fulfilled not just because you have moved closer to your goal, but because you derive so much pleasure from the task itself; it is intrinsically rewarding.

Activities that foster a feeling of flow are calming and freeing. You gain a sense of peace, not stress, when you engage in these activities. In fact, these activities can be a major mode of stress management. Understanding which activities allow you to enter this space will provide you with a major life hack. You can automatically switch to one of these activities when you are overwhelmed. For example, after an exhausting meeting, you may go for a three-mile bike ride to re-fuel and regain a sense of well-being. Although you may be physically tired at the end of the activity, you leave with a sense of accomplishment and feel emotionally and spiritually re-energized. Ultimately, activities that allow you to enter into a free-flowing state give back more than you invest, filling you with a sense of deep purpose, connection, and accomplishment, supporting your overall wellness.

Connecting to your purpose with big-picture thinking

I recently attended a fantastic high school talk, where I was reminded about the importance of remaining connected with the big picture and ultimate purpose of our work. The talk was focused on public health and economic disparity, a timely and emotionally charged topic. After presenting an idea or two, the speaker would look at the students and ask a relatively simple but incredibly powerful question- “How does this make you feel?” The levels of engagement, energy, and participation by the high school students in the audience were phenomenal.

Emotions motivate and empower you to take action. Conversely, in the absence of emotion, your purpose and drive can run flat; you stagnate and forget your intentions. This is especially true for laboratory-based scientists, who constantly surround themselves with “models” of the real world, data, and facts. Days are spent focused on narrowly defined problems in attempts to test highly specific hypotheses. In fact, during your career development, you may be encouraged to specialize and become an expert in a well-defined area and discouraged from deviating from that niche until you progress in your career.

Having focus is critical for progress. But what happens when you forget to look up periodically and ask the bigger questions. Questions like “Why does this matter to patients, their families, and the public?” or “How will answering this question make the world, society, or current situation better?” Data, observations, and numbers are the necessary evidence you need to form conclusions and develop additional hypotheses. But focusing exclusively on data points can cause you to lose sight of the bigger picture driving your quest for answers. This is true when you are working in the field and when you are communicating your research. Forgetting the reasons your research matters, and failing to communicate those reasons effectively, can hinder others from understanding the impact of your work. It can also cause you to lose the energy and excitement you need to maintain momentum.

Isolating yourself at work, for example in the lab environment, may temporarily help you focus and complete your tasks. However, working in a bubble hinders your ability to place your work in context with the broader community and to connect with the people you are trying to help. Ultimately, this will cause you to lose sight of the problems you are trying to solve. As an example, basic cancer researchers may generate data representing molecules and cellular behaviors. Behind those data are patients with diseases that urgently need to be better understood, prevented, or treated. For design scientists, there may be technical obstacles that need innovative strategies, and for educational researchers, there are major gaps in knowledge that desperately need to be filled. For anyone whose mission is to learn and educate, remembering who will ultimately benefit from your research discoveries will keep you connected, grounded, and emotionally driven to perform and deliver the most impactful results.

Here are some strategies to help you remember why your work is important for the general public.

  1. Surround yourself with a diverse group of professionals and stakeholders, i.e., people who have a shared interest in the outcomes of your work. Throughout my training as a cancer researcher, I had mentors who were full-time scientists and mentors who were practicing oncologists. Each played a very different role in my professional development and in the perspectives I gained about my research. My research mentors helped guide me to apply the scientific method. They taught me to develop and test hypotheses and ensured that I used robust, rigorous experimental and data analysis methods. The oncologists, on the other hand, provided critical information about current needs of patients, and whether my research topic was likely to have any meaningful impact on the understanding of disease or clinical practice. Engaging in regular conversations about your work with colleagues, classmates, and collaborators who work outside your immediate area of expertise can also help you remember the importance of your work. These professionals can ask critical questions that will re-focus your attention on the big picture. Look for opportunities to present on campus or at national and international meetings to gain insights from other researchers. For educational researchers, remaining invested in the learning process and listening to the concerns of students is essential for remaining grounded in your research mission. This not only keeps your research on target with the needs of your students, it also reinforces strong working relationships with students, who become empowered and invested in your work when you ask for their feedback and perspectives. Just as students are the recipients of advances in educational research, the most important group of stakeholders who benefit from disease-based research are the patients and their families. Some investigators join advisory boards for foundations that support disease-driven research; these foundations are often run by patients and family members, who can help educate researchers about patient needs. Working with patient advocate groups is another approach for recognizing and integrating the concerns of stakeholders into your research. Some cancer foundations request that grant applicants include an advocate as a consultant on research projects. Scientific review groups, such as those led by the Department of Defense, often include multiple patient advocates on disease-based research panels. The perspectives offered by advocates on individual grant applications often focus on the concerns they faced as patients and those encountered by others in their advocacy group. These insights are often different than the comments offered by scientist reviewers and remind us of the unmet needs, impact, and big picture of our proposed research. Surrounding yourself with multiple groups of people who offer diverse insights and have diverse interests in the outcomes of your work will help ensure that you stay connected with the true purpose of your work.
  2. Stay current. To stay connected and to generate creative solutions, you have to understand the current context of your field. Most fields evolve rapidly, requiring proactive, intentional awareness of advances and occasional redesign and pivoting in approaches or project aims. Reading frequently, including outside your immediate field of interest, helps retain perspective on your big goals. Reading also helps you connect your work to other fields, increasing potential impact. Attending conferences and meeting with visiting professionals whenever possible helps you learn new information, ideas, or strategies and to have critical conversations that may help you to view your work from different perspectives. In addition, engaging in review, feedback, or mentorship activities can broaden and deepen your perspective and knowledge about your field. Staying current ensures that you are working towards a purpose that has the potential for real-world impact.
  3. Quiet down. When you are constantly busy, you do not give yourself time to think deeply about your work. The current pace of most companies and academic centers leaves little time to sit and think. There are so many distractions, including e-mails, meetings, and paperwork. Taking time alone and away from work-related tasks is critical for maintaining creativity and productivity. When you take quiet breaks, your mind regains energy but generally remains on task, mulling over the most recent problems you were working on. Some approaches for taking quiet time include daily walks, exercise, meditation, and writing. Charles Darwin, a prolific scientist and author, is said to have walked through nature, alone and quiet, each morning and afternoon. He considered these walks his most important thinking time. Quiet time, especially when filled with some form of exercise, such as walking, running, swimming, or cycling, allows your mind to shift focus to the ongoing movement and quiets down the frontal cortex “thinking” part of your brain. This concept of transient hypofrontality, where the frontal cortex temporarily rests, has been shown to allow deeper thinking and trigger so-called flow states, in which ideas and goals appear freely and often result in creative solutions. This quiet time helps you to remember the larger goal of your professional efforts, so that you remain connected and regularly reflect on the future impact you want to have. Writing is another effective approach for reflecting on your bigger purpose. Journaling in response to a specific question, such as “Why do I need to understand the molecular differences between cells that respond to drug A vs those that do not?” can help you work toward a broader understanding of the impact of your work, such as understanding why some patients do not respond to drug A and identifying new drug targets to improve patient outcomes. Similarly, spending time reflecting on and writing the significance section of a research grant proposal or the introduction to a manuscript can help re-focus the big picture aim of your work. Quieting your environment and mind helps you to regain perspective and to return to what truly matters, i.e., the purpose of your work.

Staying connected with your professional purpose requires you to periodically take a step back, pay attention and engage with others. Ultimately, none of us work in silo; we work to make a real-world impact to improve current conditions. What are some ways you remain connected with the bigger purpose of your work or professional mission?