I have some long-term hard-core nerd credentials. Back in early primary school, in the pre-homework years, I would set myself my own assignments and complete them with vigour and hand them in to bemused teachers. One infamous project in the Lewis household was “Fun with Planets”.
I come from a chilled out family with a love of learning. My parents never pushed me, but they never needed to. I was driven and pushed myself more than enough. I worked hard because I enjoyed it.
I’ve also had more than my fair share of good luck. I grew up in a loving and bookish family. I grew up in an area with great schools and dedicated teachers. I grew up in a time of indoor sanitation and dental hygiene.
Back in October, I posted a blog about my personal experience of the ubiquitous struggles of post-docing. To paraphrase, a senior academic responded that I should get over it, “You are lucky to even have a post-doc and its up to you to make a success of it.”
Good grief was I angry! Lucky? Certainly, but how about all my hard work? Why was that being ignored?
Thinking back over my career, it’s hard to deconvolve good luck and hard work. As a child, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to academically strong private school. My mum had entered my name for the exam on a whim, forgotten about it until late the night before and rushed to make last minute arrangements.
I succeeded in the exam with a combination of luck (the absence of a competing Alberta Einstein) and hard work (all that early investment in Fun with Planets). I ended up with a mixed bag – it turns out I hated the school but received a world-class education.
My good luck/hard work bundle continued. I was lucky to get into an advanced program for my undergraduate degree, lucky to go to university at a time when I could be generously supported by the Australian taxpayer and lucky enough to have many excellent lecturers.
But I also worked hard and enjoyed the opportunities I was afforded. I’m sure I studied with others who had equal opportunities and abilities but achieved less.
I agree that I’m lucky to have a post-doc, when others who are capable and hard working miss out. I’m particularly lucky that during my PhD I meet great scientists who were willing to invest in my research. I’m most grateful that I was lucky enough to apply for a postdoc working with a senior scientist who was willing to take a gamble on an under-qualified but overly enthusiastic young graduate.
At the same time, its more than likely they were willing to take such a chance because my Fun with Planets hard-working credentials were apparent.
All in all, I’ve had some good luck and some bad luck. In effect, ‘luck’ is meaningless. A successful and satisfying career requires hard work, persistence and taking chances. As a result, good things will happen, and of course, bad things will happen. Academics tend to retro-describe these respectively as ‘good luck’ and ‘I’m never going to be good enough and I mess up everything I touch’ .
I’m exceptionally grateful for the abundant opportunities and privileges that have permitted me to embark on an academic career. But these are just a starting point, hard work is also required.
* I’ve been meaning to write this post since that comment back in October got me thinking. Meanwhile, there’s a great complementary post you can read over at cubistcrystal on risk and hard work.