Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, May 2, 2001
Vantage Point by Richard Zare: My top 10 principles for success


Success is a relative thing that is not easily measured, certainly not simply measured by awards and prizes -- it is intensely personal. Successful careers don't just happen. They involve planning. They also involve the consistent application of some key principles. With apologies to David Letterman, here is my top 10 list:

1. Take responsibility for managing your own career. No one else will! Avoid the trap of getting caught up in the expectations of others. Polonius said it -- to thine own self be true.

2. Plan your career. As Yogi Berra said, "If you don't know where you're going, you might end up someplace else." But life is more a stochastic process than is first imagined. One crazy thing after another keeps happening to you. Consequently, long-term planning is less useful than it might seem. When opportunity knocks, open the door. Always make plans but be flexible and be willing to reassess your plans.

3. Practice persistence. You may or you may not need a Ph.D., but you do need dogged persistence in solving problems. Good things never come easily.

4. Don't grow up! Peter Pan was right. A child-like sense of wonder allows great creativity and invites discovery. You were born with this sense of wonder; don't lose it because it is not regarded as adult behavior. Serendipity can be made to happen. Unlike lightening, once it strikes, it can be made to strike again and again.

5. Become a happy, contented schizophrenic, believing and not believing at the same time. If you believe too easily, then you will delude yourself; if you are too critical, you will never try the outlandish. Become your own worst critic but simultaneously dare to try something different.

6. Embark on a program of continuous self-improvement. Remember that a dull ax requires great strength to chop wood. Be wise and sharpen the blade.

7. Seek challenges. A little-known secret is that it takes about as much effort to solve a hard problem as an easy one. Don't wait for your ship to come in. Row out to meet it.

8. Go to people you trust and respect for career advice. Recruit mentors and make friends. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the value of critical friends, people who will not simply tell you what you want to hear, but who will speak the plain, unvarnished truth, even if it hurts. Critical friends are priceless. Of course, when you ask this of others, you must be willing to offer the same quality of friendship.

9. Keep your life in balance. No job should serve as a substitute for your family or for a rich personal life. Make your work something you love. Life is short and a career is even shorter. If you don't love your job, you better think about leaving it for some other job that you do love. Be aware that no perfect job exists. Every task has its drudgery and its frustrations. No situation is free of politics. What is important is to be able to pass through the negative so that you can dwell happily in the land of the positive. Blessed are those who achieve equanimity in this age of angst, stress and false gods.

10. Have a dream and do something that you love. Build sandcastles in the sky. Their foundations will follow. Select something that you love -- something that you value. Study it. Live it. Work at it. Work harder at it than you have ever worked before. Immerse yourself totally in it. In that immersion you will find happiness and contentment in a life truly well lived.

Let me close with a few thoughts about the more traditional meanings of success and failure, and their relative unimportance. I have found that what matters most are to have a dream, to do something that you believe in and to love it passionately. Do not fear failure. Do not crave success. If you ask for financial reward for what you do, for peer approval or even for thanks from others, then you are asking to be paid for what you should be giving freely as an act of love. The true reward is not in the result, it is in the process, not in the achievement but in the achieving. With the power of love, transform your dreams into action. If you do what you love -- professionally and in every other way -- happiness and success will follow.

Award-winning chemist Richard Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science, is scheduled to outline elements of a successful career for aspiring chemists Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he will accept the American Chemical Society's Charles Lathrop Parsons Award for outstanding public service.

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