Thursday, September 5, 2013

Rules for success

Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame has come up with a list of ten rules for success. Surprisingly enough, I think that most of them apply to success in academia as well as life in general, or at least life as a maker who blows things up on television. The rules (shamelessly copy-and-pasted from Boing Boing) are:

1. Get good at something.
Really good. Get good at as many things as you can. Being good at one thing makes it easier to get good at other things. 
2. Getting good at stuff takes practice.
Lots and lots of practice.
Everyone at the top of their field is obsessed with what they're doing.
4. Doing something well and thoroughly is its OWN reward.
5. Show and Tell.
If you do something well and you're happy with it, for FSM's sake, tell EVERYONE.
6. If you want something, ASK.
If something piques your interest, tell someone. If you want to learn something, ask someone, like your BOSS. As an employer, I can tell you, people who want to learn new skills are people I want to keep employed.
7. Have GOALS.
Make up goals. Set goals. Regularly assess where you are and where you want to be in terms of them. This is a kind of prayer that works, and works well. Allow for the fact that things will NEVER turn out like you think they will, and you must be prepared to end up miles from where you intended.
8. Be nice. To EVERYONE.
Life is way too short to be an asshole. If you are an asshole, apologize.
9. FAIL.
You will fail. It's one of our jobs in life. Keep failing. When you fail, admit it. When you don't, don't get cocky. 'Cause you're just about to fail again.
Work like your life depends on it...

In my opinion, these rules apply to success in research and academia as well. Looking at them one-by-one:

1. Get good at something

While there is something to be said about the value of a generalist, everyone in research is a specialist at something. This is what the process of getting a PhD is about: becoming an expert, or specialist, in one particular topic. Of course, it's better to be good at several things, which is why I've been able to publish about computational intelligence and ecology as well as developing software. But I was only able to get into ecology because I'm good at computational intelligence, especially neural networks, and I was only able to get into neural networks because I'm a good programmer. So, being good at one thing can lead to being good at another thing.

2. Getting good at stuff takes practice

When I was an undergrad I was always programming - it was what I did to relax. But I got really good at it, which led me to neural networks and research. I've also written a lot of papers: the early ones were pretty bad, but after enough practice I got to be good at that as well. Even my experimental design has improved through practice. It's been said that mastering any skill takes 10,000 hours of practice, which doesn't seem too far off the mark to me.


Obsession can be dangerous, it can keep you from your family, ruin your health and drive away your friends. But obsession also drives you to find the last bug in your code, to run just one more experiment, to refine your writing just that little bit more. Obsession leads to great results and great research.

4. Doing something well and thoroughly is its OWN reward

This is really close to the heart of research. Academics don't get paid for the journal articles they publish (despite the huge profits the journal publishers make, the content is provided for free). For an academic, doing your work well enough to get published is its own reward, and only research done well and thoroughly gets published.

5. Show and Tell

If you're an academic or a scientist, you should have something to say to the world about your work. That is why we publish our research, which is just the grown-up, scientist way of showing and telling the world about you've done.

6. If you want something, ASK

Some bosses, the good ones, will want to develop their staff. Development means pursuing something that you are interested in, something that you can do well and something that will help you do your job better. Even if it's only peripherally related to your job, it's still worth asking for support.

7. Have GOALS

Everyone in academia should have goals. Everyone in academia with goals should know that you're probably going to end up with something that is completely different to your goal, but just as good. Two years ago my goal was to get a permanent lecturer / senior lecturer position at a university. Now I'm the head of department at a private college. A different role to what I was aiming for, but just as good, if not better.

8. Be nice. To EVERYONE

My best friend likes to say that good things happen to good people, and it's true. Not because of any mystical, karmic nonsense, but because people who are nice to others make more friends and are the kind of people that others like to help out. Treating people badly might achieve short term goals, but long term, it's a self-defeating strategy.


You learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. There are certainly people who don't fail early in their careers, and become professors in their early thirties, but they also unfortunately tend to be insufferably arrogant people. Failure teaches you humility, and it teaches you persistence. If my nine-year-old daughter is trying to learn how to do something, and is doing it wrongly, I don't stop her because she needs to learn through failure, and she needs to learn persistence. An academic is the same: you need to fail to learn what doesn't work.


The people who are most successful are the ones who work the hardest. Which is why I'm sitting at my dining table typing on a laptop at 11:15pm instead of dozing happily next to my wife.

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