Potential and Ambition

A few weeks ago I chatted with a colleague. One issue that came up was this colleague’s frustration with a student whom the colleague recognized as very talented, someone with great potential in the colleague’s area of study, but also someone who had no interest in applying themselves towards achieving excellence. I understand where the colleague is coming from: when you are someone who works in the field that has always been your passion, it is indeed quite disheartening to see a person who has what it takes to succeed but who simply does not care.

It took me a while on the tenure track to accept that most students didn’t share my ambition. They just want to get a well-paying job, no matter how much potential for this or that they have. The colleague’s student simply isn’t interested in doing research for a living, irrespective of how good he could be at it. Research doesn’t float his boat. I am not sure what else does; perhaps nothing at all. There are, in fact, a great many people who go through lives without developing an overwhelming passion for any activity. This is a hard truth to fathom for the intense, perhaps obsessive overachievers, such as myself and my colleague; I cannot claim to have fully internalized it.

Last semester I taught a great undergraduate class. There were several kids in there who I think would do splendidly in grad school. I spoke with a couple of the best, and neither wanted  to do grad school. One is a wonderful, laid-back kid, who reminds me of my eldest offspring; this student appears to be paired up with a very intense young woman and is very happy to just go with the flow and follow her. Another feels very strongly that he has to get a job and start earning money right out of college, and he will do great wherever he lands. Of this cohort, the most intense kid, one with passion and focus, is an AB student; very good indeed, but not the absolute best technically. He really knows what he wants to do and is voracious about learning more. We could lament the fact that the best students won’t become career scientists, but so what? They are smart kids, they can do whatever they want with their lives. Besides, what does “the best” even mean? Potential and talent are very nebulous; they just mean you could do well in a certain broad field, but if you don’t actually apply yourself, talent doesn’t mean very much. However, the student who is very good and very focused can indeed get far, potentially as far as his passion carries him.

In the US, there is a prevalent “singular-focus” mindset. You have only one talent, only one outstanding thing about you, and you have to embrace it, have it define you, and hone the related skill with all your might, if necessary at the expense of everything else. This singular-focus mindset, which is quite foreign to most of Europe, is why there are also so many achievement-related stereotypes.  That’s why we have the dumb athlete stereotype — of course you can only be athletically blessed, you could not possibly have other ambitions or talents, because being able to throw a football somehow precludes being able to do math, sing, or paint. Then there is the stereotype of the socially-clueless, athletically-hopeless geek, as if one could not possibly be able to understand calculus, swim fast, and have a girlfriend. Based on my experiences, most smart kids have multiple talents; there are several things they could do quite well, even if not prodigiously. For instance, I know a number of kids who can write very well, sing, play an instrument, play a sport, and who also excel academically. Who’s to say which one of these avenues should the kid pursue? Some are very passionate about one of the things they can do, but many are lukewarm about all of them. In fact, based on a lot of time spent around geeks, and having taught at a high school for the gifted in math and physical sciences, I would say that most kids don’t have strong passions early on. I am sure someone somewhere has done research on this topic, but my gut feeling is that the following happens: when you have a very smart kid, things come easy to them, and everything being easy may be an obstacle to developing a keen interest in anything. I think to develop a passion for something there needs to be an equal mixture of awe and challenge;  but perhaps this is BS and it’s all about personality — you are either A-type or B-type personality. and however gifted you may be, you won’t drive yourself insane trying to overachieve if you are B-type and you will be irritated by the perceived ambivalence of others regarding their talents if you are A-type. [I am talking purely based on my own experience (a.k.a. out of my a$$), people who follow the literature on giftedness may have different views.]

Anyway, having been a professor and a professional scientist for a number of years, I can safely say that there are a many more kids with the potential to do science than there are those who actually elect to be scientists or even purse any career with a strong science component. Many of these kids have other talents and interests that they may prefer to focus on. Many have a number of talents and they never really decide what it is that they are pursing, and are rather satisfied just dabbling in variety. I think what the A-types among us professors have to realize is that we are talking about these kids’ lives, and that they are completely entitled to spend them however they like, even if that means not using their science potential or any other potential at all. To us it may seem like a waste, but to someone who never thought of science as cool or enticing, just something they can easily do if they have to, it probably doesn’t seem like a waste at all. Being free to make choices means you are free to excel at whatever you want or not excel at anything.

Maybe the people who are not tightly-wound overachievers have a point. One day, we’ll all be dead and most of us will prove to be completely inconsequential in every way imaginable, except for perhaps having left a little bit of DNA. Instead of focusing on achievement, which for most of us appears to be just smoke and mirrors, why not enjoy the people around us,  the connections for which we are apparently wired, the sunsets and good books and the giggles of our kids and grandkids?  I can answer for the likes of me: because there is an internal engine that does not allow us to sit idle and just take in the world and the people we love, because the awesomeness of life and people does not scratch the perennial brain itch. But we should also learn to live and let live, and find ways to work productively with our smart and happy but itchless students, and not consider their lack of ambition to be anybody’s failure.


  1. This is great advice not just for profs but for parents, too. I could never figure out why my older son wasn’t interested in math because he’s really good at it. The reality is that he’s just not interested. Once I realized that and stopped pushing, we started being a lot more on the same page about what he’s doing and his plans.

  2. “because there is an internal engine that does not allow us to sit idle and just take in the world and the people we love, because the awesomeness of life and people does not scratch the perennial brain itch”

    Love It !

  3. I like the Garrison Keillor quote, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” It’s my belief that people are not only “wired” to be social but are also “wired” to do constructive things with our time.

    I don’t think one need to be a crazy type A type to do achieve this. I’ve always felt I could be happy doing a lot of different work and I have ZERO desire to be famous (though like anyone I find it satisfying when people like and admire my work). I think science is super interesting and I enjoy my day to day. I don’t think “ambition” is really necessary to be successful (in any field), just a desire to do good work and sufficient ability to do it.

  4. So, I’m probably as passionate as one can get about this career. I knew that I wanted to be a scientist when I was just a little kid, probably before kindergarten even. I watched Mr. Wizard and other shows like that and loved it. When I saw an interview with Sally Ride, probably around 1983, and she said that she had a PhD in physics, I knew that I should get a PhD in physics, because that’s what astronauts do. When I was in college, I figured out that I wanted to be a professor, and would often spend time thinking in my head about how I would teach a class or what I would cover in a class. Academic science is something that I have immersed myself in.

    Despite that, I have absolutely no problem with students who don’t go for the PhD, even students who have done research with me. Yes, there’s a part of me that gets wistful and wishes more of my academic progeny would go down the route that I followed. It’s natural that when one invests energy in helping to shape and train a student that one will hope that their legacy will carry forward. But that’s an emotional response. Logically, I know that most of my students would be happier and better-off both emotionally and financially if they just get a job and start building their careers. I’m fine with it. I don’t get all the “We need to push more students into STEM, and more STEM students into the PhD” mania. So, while I get a bit misty-eyed at the thought of sending my students to follow in my footsteps and continue the legacy, I’m quite happy when I hear about their adventures in the private sector.

    I do admit to actually being a bit defensive about my long-standing obsession with science and academia. I sometimes feel like it’s almost politically incorrect to be so single-minded, at least in certain circles. Given how hard it is to get an academic science position, I feel like there’s nothing wrong with leaving that pursuit to the poor suckers like me who developed an obsession and can’t let go, rather than telling everyone to enter this game of long training and long odds. God bless those who didn’t develop the itch for it, because there’s a wide world out there, and they’ll get to explore it more than I will.

  5. This is a beautifully written post, xykademiqz. How do you reconcile the sentiment here with your final post in academic jungle when you were pissed off about getting scooped?

    I do feel like on the one hand there is a tendency (among professors mostly, but probably among others, like parents, too, both in the blogosphere and in real life) to lament the fact that so many highly talented students choose to not pursue research….on the other hand, if some of these these highly talented students don’t end up being as successful as they could be for whatever reason at the end of graduate school, they’re told that “academia is just a job” and “there’s no shame in leaving academia/research/science”, and basically being given permission to scale their ambitions down to something more realistic, given their circumstances. I think there are a lot of really talented students (as judged by the professors who admit them to graduate programs) who end up not necessarily being the ones who are most successful. At what point does it become appropriate for someone to scale back their ambitions if reality just doesn’t cooperate (for example, they aren’t good enough, had bad luck with a project/advisor, had extenuating family/personal life circumstances, whatever)? It seems like it would be less emotionally painful not to have big ambitions in the first place.

    I, too, am talking out of my posterior here. I’m not a social scientist, just reflecting on my personal anecdotal experience. I was pretty ambitious as an undergrad and failed at research, a lot. I went to graduate school and failed more. Now I’m continuing to fail in my postdoc, and am realizing that that’s just how things are going to go for me–I’m never going to be a “successful scientist.” My choice is just to keep doing science while I have the opportunity, or to go do something else, which is scary and uncertain. But you know, my mentors when I was an undergrad and even grad student had pretty high hopes for me. Maybe they were just mistaken?

    I also think I would be more ambitious now if I needed to be- if, for example, my family really needed my income. But they don’t because most of my family makes more money than I do, so it’s hard for me to justify to myself neglecting my family (currently parents/siblings/spouse) for the sake of pursuing more success at a career that I don’t even seem to be that good at. I sometimes wish I had optimized more for high-paying job in the last 10 years; then I would probably feel like I was contributing more to the lives of people I care about instead of selfishly pursuing my at-best-mediocre research career.

  6. what i want to know is: is it even possible for the typeB’s to succeed in academia? Is it even worth pursuing? See, I am definitely NOT a type A. I have no problem relaxing, I enjoy spending my time with friends and family and have many interests outside of my field of study. I have hung around academia for a long time now (masters, phd, 2 postdocs), hoping to find some proof that typeB-s can succeed in academic science. See, I actually do love science, and I would love to make this a career, but I don’t want to have to sacrifice everything outside it to make it happen. But all I find is scary examples of people who send me emails at 3 am, or who have 4 kids and a TV show while also being the head of a department, etc. Or run a huge lab, meet with each student for an hour a week and still have time to write and get huge grants and business funding. And it freaks the hell out of me. Is this really the only way? I am still searching for the elusive counter example. In the meantime, I decided to give it my all this year, as a last push to basically to fake being a type A and see if anything changes. I want to see if I can really turn into this person who only thinks and talks about work at the expense of all other things I love to do. It’s only one year and I am thinking of it as an experiment. Will I miss these things? Will the work be enough to counter the things I miss? Will it just make me depressed to turn into a type A person because my environment pushed me into becoming one?
    I guess I want to know if people in more advanced stages of their academic careers think it is a place for a type B in academia? As more than a permanent postdoc?

  7. Very nice post. This is mainly a response to FX: I think it’s a little counterproductive to think of “ambition” and “type A vs B”, much less “success in academia”, as these binary or single-gene traits that you have in spades or have not. I think there are plenty surviving as PIs in academia, at least for the moment, that are not quite as driven or single-minded as the examples you mention; we are just not the most visible– the heads of big labs and centers, the plenary speakers, the presidents of the societies. We may not be the ones emailing you at 3 am. There is quite a spectrum of models for practicing science. What constitutes acceptable “success” to you is for you to define. For myself, I have only a little lab, and I’d have to admit it is not at all certain that I will survive in this career all the way to retirement age, but I do have an NIH grant funded through 2018, so I do get to continue pursuing my kind of esoteric passions for at least that long. It is for me to decide if I want to think of this as a success or a dismal failure! It may even vary from one day to the next.

  8. “is it even possible for the typeB’s to succeed in academia? Is it even worth pursuing? See, I am definitely NOT a type A.”

    I was relieved during grad school to have one informal mentor who was (or at least appeared to be) similar to what I wanted my life to be (someone who wasn’t freaked out all the time like my adviser and had interests outside of work yet was still as productive as the freaked out profs). So I think it can happen. I think it can even be helpful for some types of work, because sometimes you just need time to let your mind relax, which having other interests can do.

  9. Totally agree with jojo. I have been working with a very driven advisor. And I can tell you…never try to emulate others! I do not wish to have the work craze this advisor has, as I would like to reach old age. So I am the type of prof I want to be: driven, ambitious and loving every minute. But with absolutely no guilt to drop work to enjoy friends, family and life!! As an example: I am going back to my country for a whole month in summer. I am sure some people would not recommend that to a tenure-track assist prof., but I work hard enough the rest of the year and I will not sacrifice this family time. Does that make me a worse prof? I don’t think so. Do I care what others do? Not at all. I will try my best to be a prof merit of tenure, but I do not want to enter the competition of who is more stressed, writes more papers/min, gets less sleep and is more screwed in life for the sake of tenure. Hehe, maybe I should update after my tenure-track time is over 🙂

  10. I can’t speak for all frazzled-looking people, but in my experience and opinion, the type-A stressed-out people aren’t doing it because they enjoy looking frazzled. They end up looking so because of overpowering internal drive, which makes them go go go. Also, because they likely have demanding family obligations.

    Maybe the drive is, to a degree, rooted in insecurities or some other anxieties, but maybe it’s just pure drive, and I bet most don’t really realize that they look unappealingly frazzled to the onlookers and they may not even feel stressed out in a bad way at all. There is actually something profoundly pleasant about working non-stop for prolonged periods of time, you get into this manic, surreal state, and you feel AWESOME inside, whereas you probably look completely disheveled to those around you.

    Having said that, there is definitely a continuum of work styles in academia. Also, driven does not equal frazzled. The most successful heavy hitters are very ambitious and driven, work very long hours, but also look very polished; they have someone else taking care of home and they are very protective of their work time (and often their gym time).

    There are also many completely devoted A-types who end up not amounting to much prominence. That’s because work and devotion are not enough. You have to be lucky early on, fall in with the right professional crowd at the right time, and then these initial advantages accumulate. You also have to be smart and creative. Right initial conditions and support network (professional and personal), together with smarts, creativity, and drive, is how you get far.

    I must say that I don’t know anybody who is really mellow and laid-back but who is also a very heavy hitter (centers director etc). But there are many good scientists with small to medium-sized operations who are anywhere from frazzled to very well balanced. In this pool, there is a great variety of personal styles that all result in being a good or very good but not superstar scientist.

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