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.

Simple health and wellness: slowing down

“We fear the future because we are wasting the today… Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” – Mother Teresa

The last two posts in this series focused on simple ways to be more proactive about our health. The first post looked at diet and exercise, and the second addressed screening and self-education. This last post is about one central idea- slowing down and being present. 

I was reminded about the importance of slowing down last week. I had volunteered to help a group of young students learn about different local plants. We were walking on a nature trail when a little girl of about 7 years old took a photograph of flowers growing in a field. Looking down at the image on her camera, she smiled and remarked, “Everyone is always so busy; they never get to see all these amazing things.” Her comment caught me off guard. I looked around, taking in the bright colors of the plants and flowers, the sun streaming through the leaves, and the shimmering light from a lake in the distance. I was so focused on making my next point to the students that I had failed to notice how beautiful this trail was. 

There are days, many days, when I know I have been guilty of thinking too much, worrying too much, and letting amazing, beautiful things slip by unnoticed. Ironically, thinking and worrying rarely help any of us reach our goal, whereas being aware and clear-minded usually do. Anxiety and stress not only decrease our productivity and compromise our purpose, they also destroy our wellbeing. Slowing down, paying attention and appreciating what surrounds us is the quickest way to regain perspective and restore  our peace of mind.

Figuring out simple ways to re-center yourself when you are stressed will help create more balance in your life. (1) Breathe. When you become aware of physical signs of stress and anxiety, slow your breathing by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Mindful, slow breathing has an immediate calming effect and is one of the quickest, most reliable ways to reduce stress. (2) Forget busy, and figure out what truly matters to you. Limiting distractions and learning to say “no” will declutter your overly busy schedule. Creating space will allow you to slow down, be present, and spend time on the activities and people you hold dearest. (3) Become reacquainted with nature. Making time to be outdoors every day is fundamental to your health. Nature is one of the most effective healers. Being outside and noticing what surrounds you- trees, communities, schools, people, animals, parks, businesses- will automatically remind you of how much there is to appreciate. 

Life moves at a rapid pace. We miss much of what happens around us. Slowing down is a proactive choice to more fully embrace life and enjoy a greater sense of peace and wellbeing.

Nature is full of abundance

Sometimes writers forget to take breaks. We disappear into foreign worlds deep within the pages of our notebooks or screens of our tablets. Hours fly by. We forget to look up, and rarely wander far from our project. The unfortunate side effect is that we isolate ourselves, forgetting about the outside world. Instead, we sit, restlessly struggling with how to transfer ideas to paper. Ironically, the best solution for a frustrated writer may be to break out of isolation, forget about writing, and leave it all behind, at least for a while.

Yesterday, I left all my writing gadgets behind. No pen, no paper, no phone. I left all of those inside and ventured out. The dogwood trees were in full bloom. The azaleas were at their peak. The park was full of giggling children, motivated runners, and dogs chasing frisbees. I watched for a while before continuing on my walk. My first reaction was that I would have missed this if I had stayed at the keyboard. Then, I kept looking up. I’m not sure why, but I felt compelled to look up. I saw birds and a clear sky, and I felt a rush of gratitude. 

We spend so much time striving, pushing forward, and working for tomorrow. We forget about today. Slowing down, and paying attention to what surrounds us right now may be the healthier choice. Remembering to stop, reconnect, and appreciate nature and all its life forms may renew our energy, so we can return more optimistic and productive. We work hard seeking abundance in its many forms as we grow older. But maybe there’s nothing to seek. Maybe abundance has always been here, surrounding us in all her beauty. Maybe while we sit, thinking, working, worrying, she waits patiently, waiting for us to reconnect. If we regain our awareness, forget about distractions, leave manmade walls behind, and venture outdoors, maybe then we can openly invite nature to share her abundance. 

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?