Albert Einstein. Pablo Picasso. Willie Mays. Michael Jordon. Viswanathan Anand. Most every Nobel Laureate. These luminaries succeeded in their respective fields by being the best at something.
But as I keep telling my 13-year-old, being the best is not necessarily the best path to success.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been the best at anything, but most everyone I know says I’ve had a very successful career at a science writer. Certainly, I’ve managed to thrive in my adopted career despite the ups and downs of the journalism business, even as long-time colleagues – many better writers than I’ll ever be – have been forced to change professions as magazines and newspapers went out of business or dramatically pared their staffs. What’s helped me is that I’m very good at a writing for a wide variety of media and for a variety of audiences.
I have a cousin who’s a synthetic organic chemist, and he’s been at one large chemical company over 30 years now. Every time his company announces another reorganization or wave of layoffs, I expect to hear that he’s looking for a job, but he’s never the one to receive a pink slip. Why? He’s not the best synthetic organic chemist in the world, or even in his company, but he’s very good at it, and he’s demonstrated that his knowledge is general enough that he can adapt to any new project thrown his way.
My wife, known in her field as the Monoclonal Queen, was certainly one of the best at making monoclonal antibodies to virtually any protein, but that only helped her career to a limited extent. When her small startup merged with a larger biotech company, which was subsequently bought by an even bigger one, her skills were less valued. Eventually, being the best at making monoclonal antibodies was something she could be proud of, but it ended up doing nothing for her career prospects with her new bosses. So much for being the best.
I have a friend who was among the best glycobiologists around when we were finishing graduate school. Fat lot of good it did him, because nobody at the time gave a hoot about glycobiology, and for a while it looked as if he was destined to be a career postdoc. What saved his career was that with each postdoc position he took, he became good at another area of biochemistry, and eventually, he was well-rounded enough to secure a faculty position. Of course today, glycobiology is a hot field and my friend’s expertise there serves his well now, but what’s really distinguished his career to far is his emphasis on chemistry and cell biology approaches – things at which he’s good, but not the best – to the field of glycobiology.
The lesson here, I think, is not to stop trying to be the best – I would never discourage anyone from that goal. Instead, I advise students that while striving to be the best that they not forget to become very good at more than one thing. If your very good at being a chemist and very good at communicating what you do – or very good at understanding the business or legal side of the research world – you’ll increase your odds of career success.
This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.