In an exciting week, I’m reminded that science is less about knowing things with certainty, and much more about knowing how to deal with uncertainty. A growing debate amongst scientists regarding the best policies to fight the second wave of the pandemic draws attention to this.
Last week I was reflecting (incoherently) on success, and I continue this week with some more examples of what I think success could look like as I try and understand what it should mean for me.
Zanny Minton Beddoes
Editor in chief of The Economist since February 2015, Beddoes is an established economist and one of the most influential voices in financial journalism. In the video above Beddoes describes that at The Economist she leads “some of the smartest people in the world who could almost all be either more famous or a lot richer if they work somewhere else, but yet they choose to work at The Economist.”. Success for me includes a workplace with such a “collegiate spirt” and getting “to think about the most important issues at the moment.”
As Chancellor of Germany for the last 15 years, leading Europe’s largest economy has occasionally made Merkel the de facto leader of the European Union. Along with her political success, Merkel is also a published scientist, receiving a doctorate for work on quantum chemistry.
I realised I don’t have a clear vision of what success means for me. Reflecting on Leading by Alex Ferguson last week, his career as a football manager was a success, but it is not a type of success I am pursuing. I am fortunate to regularly meet people who impress me; by what they have achieved, by their conviction in their beliefs, by the clarity of their vision, or simply by the goodness of their actions. This was one such week, and it gave me pause to reflect on what my definition of success is.
Writing this post sent me spiralling into several topics, from classical philosophy to hip hop, from pure mathematics to politics, and from the very personal to the pragmatically populist. Below are some of the more coherent strands to share as a starting point.
Exercises to try
I think a conception of personal success is intimately connected with values. Angela Duckworth is successful, and shares thesethreetips on reflecting on your values.
Start with the basics
Whilst acknowledged by Maslow himself to have little scientific basis, this simple model (pictured above) for the needs of any person are a valuable reminder of the privileges I enjoy. For most of the existence of homo-sapiens, “success” was simply meeting basic physiological needs. I enjoy that my basic and psychological needs are almost always met, and can define my version of success at that final stage of achieving potential and creating.
Hard work (Obsession)
“I do not give up” – this is the thought I come back to when I feel the desire to quit, usually while exercising hard. Living this identity is part of how I imagine success.
There are two related elements here. I think Alex Ferguson had the obsession for football that matches Paul Graham’s Bus Ticket Theory of Genius. Obsession can look very similar to hard work, but there is a separate satisfaction that I have found easiest to learn in physical exercise. To me, success looks like being the hardest worker in the room:
Gut check. Always be the hardest worker in the room. A philosophy I still embrace, & one shared by the athletes in my new @UnderArmour campaign. We’re all from different backgrounds & struggles. It’s either the excuse or the reason…So how are you gonna get here? #WillFindsAWaypic.twitter.com/PW09VzYn7W
A close friend shared an insight several years ago, “Nick, you don’t want to be generally liked, you want the respect of people you respect”. It is valuable when people you trust can share an external perspective. Some common markers of success are easily quantified: dollars in the bank, gold medals, or even social media followers. How interesting one is, or how well respected, is difficult to quantify. Perhaps this is why those other, shallower, metrics are more often compared and pursued. This weekend while running I happened to meet someone I respect, who expressed happiness to see me. For now, being able to bring joy to my friends is a way I feel successful.
This week the Nobel Prizes were awarded, and I suspect winning one is a dream most scientists have dreamt. The criteria for the Rhodes Scholarship have inspired some of my pursuits, particularly attempting to become a “renaissance man“. I will never achieve either accolade, but they are not ends in and of themselves, rather ways of recognising a certain conception of success that I can still work towards.
Barack Obama and Steph Curry answer a question of how to change the narrative around what it means to be a man. Achieving self confidence is part of my vision for success, as is using strength to lift others up and not put them down. Expression of sexuality through healthy sexual relationships is also an important part of what a successful life means to me, and Barack and Michelle Obama demonstrate that, albeit heteronormatively.
I value both the utility and aesthetic of mathematics, and solving one of the Millennium Problems would absolutely meet my definition of success, but I would not be willing to pay the cost of living a reclusive life like Grigori Perelman.
Similarly Bobby Fischer achieved incredible success in chess, but suffered from a range of personal problems and health issues that ultimately leave his life as a whole undesirable to me.
Steve Jobs’ vision defined the way the world interacts with technology today, but his death (caused by a treatable pancreatic cancer) was hastened by pursuing alternative medicine.
Rapper Eminem and runner David Goggins have both overcome difficult childhoods to succeed, and to achieve success without privilege is admirable. I do not desire celebrity, nor to court controversy and exist in a social media spotlight.
Turning the corner into October and the final quarter of 2020 this week, with generally a positive outlook both personally and professionally. ONI launched a new website and hiring is beginning to accelerate out of the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
I shared some notes about Leading by Alex Ferguson. I’ve largely been an outsider to football culture, and so this book has been my most significant exposure to The Beautiful Game. Reading about legends Ronaldo and Rooney from their manager’s perspective reminded me of the following ad (directed by Guy Ritchie).
12 days have passed since I started the Last Hundred Days habit project. I’m measuring an 88% success rate at present. The failures are causing embarrassment, but the overall direction is positive, with my behaviour generally improving.
Alex Ferguson combined an incredible work ethic with an obsession for football to become the most decorated football manager of all time, having won more trophies managing Manchester United from 1986 to 2013 than any other manager in the history of football. ONI is not a particularly football focused work place: I rarely hear the game discussed around the coffee machine, but Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz is recommended reading here. The lessons shared on leadership can be generalised; perhaps best explained in the extended epilogue by Michael Moritz, who states Ferguson would have been a successful founder “if for some reason Silicon Valley had developed between Glasgow and Edinburgh”.
Leadership in brief
In 3 words: Preparation. Perseverance. Patience. In 1 word: Consistency.
Throughout the book, anecdotes about travelling to distant fixtures, taking little holiday, waking up in the night to watch games, and being the first and last at the office, emphasise the amount of effort expended by Ferguson to achieve. He describes the need to work very hard as “baked into [his] marrow” (p. 38), and gives the examples of playing football on his wedding day and the day his first son was born. Pointing out that “an hour … squandered is time you will never recapture” (p. 164) Ferguson explains that he “cannot imagine how, if you aspire to be better than everyone else, you can have balance in your life” (p. 167).
In the first chapter titled “Becoming Yourself”, Ferguson begins his guide to leadership by emphasising the importance of observation. Listen to others, detach and watch, and read. He guides this by suggesting the test of being surprised: “When you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises – and it is important to allow yourself to be surprised” (p. 17).
Ferguson’s partner Cathy, married since the age of 24, has supported his obsession throughout his career. Ultimately it was the death of Cathy’s sister that drove Alex to retire. He writes: “It is hard to conjure up a more tangible reminder of mortality, and I felt that, after all those years during which Cathy had put me first, it was time that I took care of her needs” (p. 335). The singular focus on work that Ferguson demonstrates often comes at the expense of an enduring relationship, but in this case that relationship seems to not only have survived, but thrived.