It’s funny (or maybe sad) how we spend a lot of time planning experiments, thinking about our next paper or preparing for a lab meeting, yet we don’t take time our to plan our lives, to think about what we really want. Most of us think that what we really want is to be successful. And that’s fine, if you know what “successful” means.

Q1: Name the most successful person you know…

Take a second to choose someone.
I bet you named someone professionally successful. Didn’t you? Nowadays, success equals professional success. Everyone seems to want career success even if that means failing in other areas of their life.

Who is more successful, someone at the top of her/his profession with a six-figure salary and no time to do anything else. Or someone with a not so high position, a modest salary and with time to spend with his/her family and to pursue hobbies and go on vacation?

I’d definitely choose the second option. But let me ask you something:

1. Is it worth it to pursue career success at all costs, even if that means failure in other areas of your life?
2. Have you ever considered what success would actually constitute for you?
I don’t know if you have ever asked yourself those two questions, and I don’t know what your answers would be. But if you haven’t done it yet I recommend you do it sooner rather than later.
There are lots of cases of professionals at the top of their careers who realize that they feel miserable, and that what they have is not what they really wanted for themselves. They just assumed they wanted what everybody else considers success (the omnipresent other people’s expectations…), and didn’t think about it twice, they just followed the logical path. And the reason they are feeling miserable now is that they forgot that work is a part of their life, it can’t be a substitute for everything else…

Work out what you want

So grab pen and paper and ask yourself: What is success for me? If I were successful, who would I be? Where would I live? What would I do? How would I spend my free time? Do that considering all areas of your life.

Are you staring at the paper blankly? Try this: Write down the most important areas of your life; career, friends and family, significant other, mental self, physical self, surroundings, spirituality. And now write for each one of them a statement that defines what success is for you.

Don’t worry about what other people would write or think, we are all different, and so is our definition of success. Let me give you an example. When, as a child, I decided to be a scientist, I also decided that I was going to win the Nobel prize no matter what.

That was the meaning of “success” for me for a long time. But when I finally started my PhD, and after spending one year working long hours and weekends (and believe me it was nothing compared to what some people work), I realized that I wanted to have time for my life more than I wanted a Nobel Prize! At that moment my concept of success changed.

It is your choice

After analysing your feelings you might conclude that you ARE prepared to make sacrifices to pursue a hugely successful career in science and so you choose to have your career very high up (or top!) of your priority list. Great! The important thing is that you make a conscious and informed choice, and that you don’t just take the line of least resistance, do what someone else says you should be doing or follow the crowd.

The definition of success is very personal. Doing what other people want you to do is not going to make you happy.

Success can be the Nobel prize or to have five kids or to travel the world or to live in a beautiful apartment with your partner and your pet, or to volunteer your time to help others. You decide…

What is success for you?

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  1. Hi Aida… That was a small snap shot of a thought provoking and inspiring article.
    Great Job!!!!
    Well I am in final year of my PhD course and when I just take a sigh and look back at myself….I get a feeling I started research with all beautiful, flying colors….after two years of untiring efforts….some of the colors started fading and now I feel like being Black & White…..
    Your paragraph about starting with a feeling of getting a Nobel prize and ending up with just dying to have some time for yourself fits me the perfect.
    Sometimes I feel that it becomes more tough to handle all these pressures being a woman. I think we are in evolving phase?
    Life is too short to make mistakes and then go back to correct them. I think it takes a lot of time for a person to realise ” What does he/she actually wants in life”? By the time you realise, its already to late….so there is no choice but to be happy with whatever situation you are in….
    What do you think Aida?

  2. I am glad i came across this. Thanks for this simple yet wonderful article Aida! Ever since i joined the Biotechnology program for my diploma, I have been telling myself that I must complete my PhD and become a lecturer in future. Currently 1 year into my PhD, I start to think if i really want a PhD as it seems to be more than i can handle. Although i have a feeling of uncertainity if i quit my grad school, but i think i should really think hard about what i really want in life.

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