Success is how you define it…

“Success is how you define it,” is easier to write than to practice. I know. I’ve been struggling with this for years, and it’s a topic that came up several times during the Motherhood panels. Too often our gauge of success involves external validation – particularly for us working on our own, or without ties to any one particular job or institution – we wonder “what do they think of my work?” or we’re concerned that others might think our choice of a nontraditional career route meant we failed to make it along the traditional route. Additionally we often forget to include our lives in the “success” equation.

Below is a comment recently left on the post about the AAAS Panel, by Suzanne Epstein, immunologist, mother of two, musician and one of the contributors, writing about success:

“A happy and successful life, as a scientist-mother or in general, does not correlate with fame, fortune, prestige, or any other particular circumstance. People in quite varied situations that are not at all what they expected can end up quite happy and fulfilled. On the other hand, people who do exactly what they planned and expected, and are very successful, can end up happy or very unhappy. Depends on their attitudes, whether the plan really suited their natures, other events, and so on. Being an optimist helps.

I guess that’s small comfort to a young scientist who doesn’t know what will happen and is fearful. There is no shortcut, and many people go through painful experiences, even if things work out fine later. This is true for the other difficulties and transitions of life. But the improvements in scientific career conditions and institutional features we talked about might help. Also, maybe people could really learn to skip the apologizing and guilt, and just get on with it.”

Thanks for the reminder Suzanne.

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4 Responses to “Success is how you define it…”


  1. 1 Alanna Shaikh June 13, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    My dad left a research position at Cornell to become a professor at a community college so that he could create a stable life for my mom, brother and I. He does consider himself a success, for the students he’s impacted and for the family he raised, but I know it would be very easy for someone to look at his whole life as a missed opportunity.

    Seeing how happy my dad is with his choices has made it a lot easier for me, as I try to balance work and family in my own life. I am also very proud of him for making such an unusal choice for a man in the 70s – to deliberately choose a less prestigious career because of his family.

  2. 2 ddigenti June 13, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    I agree with Emily and friend’s recognition that being at the pinnacle of one’s chosen field is not always a guarantee of happiness in life. While I am not a scientist, I chose a career for the past 15 years as an academic staffer/consultant, basically following interesting (soft money) projects that I could do within a regular work week, so that I could spend time with my daughter (who is 15!) and be present. When I came out of grad school in ’98, I thought I would become a top-notch organizational consultant, but no one happened to mention the 60-80% travel required for that. I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t want to do it. I’d rather be home than in some sterile hotel room being “successful.” There have been costs (literally) to this choice, but there have been inestimable benefits as well. I hope that academia, and the corporate world as well, come around to the European model that supports a more reasonable work/life balance. Emily’s book leads the way…

  3. 3 Emily June 16, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I’d also like to add to Alanna’s comment about her father moving from Cornell to a community college. It was coincidentally at the Cornell Panel back in May, that we discussed the benefits to the broader community of learners provided by those who “could be teaching anywhere,” and who choose instead to work at community colleges. Rather than keeping the elite at the elite colleges – the wealth of scientific knowledge is shared with a broader community – some students who may not have had the opportunities to enter some of the more elite four-year colleges, at least not right away.

  4. 4 Bill Bartmann September 3, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Cool site, love the info.


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