When I entered grad school, I was so naive. I mean really, really naive. Starry eyed, idealistic, determined to save the planet. I’m not sure how I defined success but it quickly became apparent how my Ph.D. advisor saw it. “If your dissertation doesn’t produce a paper in Science, it’s a failure.” In his definition of failure, he defined what success looked like in graduate school: a paper in Science. Science is among the highest tiered scholarly journals. Getting a Science paper at any point in one’s career is a mark of high achievement. For the record, my dissertation did not produce a paper in Science.
After I earned my Ph.D., I started defining success is “get tenure track job.” Tenure is a great privilege and an honor to hold. Getting tenure means that a professor has fulfilled, and often exceeded, all the metrics of performance in academia including teaching, getting grant funding, and publishing. Tenure is a mark of high achievement. For the record, I left academia six years ago, never having held a tenure track position.
As I was transitioning out of academia, I published a book, Genetics for Dummies. Around that same time, I went home to visit family and had dinner with some friends from high school. As the evening was winding down, one of my pals said to me, “You’re so accomplished and successful!” I think I stared at him like he had two heads. I couldn’t think of any way to respond. What I thought, but could not say aloud was: If I’m so damn successful, why do I feel like such a failure?
What is success, anyway? Is it getting the desired results or having the desired experience, as David Allen writes? I mean really: how often do you get exactly what you want? Me: not that frequently. Yet I’ve come to feel that I’m highly successful. Because I changed how I define success.
I don’t define success by outcomes or results. Even if I do all the right things, I can’t control my outcomes or results.
I don’t envision desired experiences. Those create expectations that reality will not fulfill.
Instead, I measure my success by four criteria: effort, engagement, progress. and gratitude.
- Effort: Did I work diligently to determine what the most appropriate and effective course of action was? Once I determined the best course of action, did I follow it? Was I industrious? Did I practice initiative? Did I work hard at it?
- Engagement: Did I bring my whole self to the project at hand: head, heart, and hands? Was I present and accounted for? Attentive? Mindful?
- Progress: Are there signs that I am making progress? Am I learning? Getting better at what I do? Becoming more skilled? Seeing milestones that align with the course of action I set out on?
- Gratitude: Did I receive my results and outcomes with humility and equanimity? When I ended each day, did I offer gratitude?
In many ways, defining success by effort, engagement, progress, and gratitude is much more rigorous than comparing what happened with desired results or experience. Working toward meeting any of these criteria is demanding. It also requires me to be honest with myself when I fall short along with giving myself credit when I’m giving my best. Success has become more nuanced and, I have to admit, much more satisfying.
As you look toward the next year, think about how you define success. Ultimately, the only definition that counts is your own. But if, like the me of a few years ago, you’re looking at what you’ve accomplished and not feeling as satisfied and fulfilled as you’d like, a new approach may be in order. And no matter how you define it, I wish you tremendous success in 2013. Happy New Year!