The Other Nine

I spend an awful lot of time listening to podcasts while out for the walks that keep me on the leanish side of powerlifting. I choose to listen to one particular interviewer who specialises in speaking with Irish citizens who have been successful, very successful, in their chosen careers. Only some of these were successful as human beings, spouses or parents in my opinion. Yet each and every one of their tales is one that teems with lessons. Lessons for the person who’s trying to figure it all out. When to make that strategic move. To foresee when there is an opportunity for success or, more importantly, no dice. I listen and learn from them as best I can and I ponder what decisions I should make and when.

Eddie O’Sullivan is the former Irish rugby coach. He uttered the sentence that I felt most enlightened in this respect upon hearing. I approached every job as the interview for the next position. Suddenly it became so clear. You don’t start behaving like the best in the world when you reach the world championships. You begin now. You behave and act like the best. Learn your trade. Pay attention. Develop. The obvious inference from Eddie is that you will reach your plateau as soon as you stop thinking about being better. It’s one thing being happy with one’s lot but one can still continue one’s personal and professional development at this point.

Michael O’Leary is the man responsible for making Ryanair the most used and profitable airline in the world, though criticised for his poor treatment of employee and customer rights. He talked about his childhood. He spoke about how he had an affluent upbringing but that at times money had been tight. His primary motivation was never being poor. He talked about how his career changed one day when he phoned up a client and suggested he did something dodgy with respect to his tax returns….he definitely wasn’t telling fibs then! Still, he is the CEO of the most profitable airline in the world and a man who revolutionised air travel, making it affordable to the average punter.

Bill Cullen is an Irish business man most famous for buying the rights to Renault cars in Ireland for one pound, his book about his upbringing in inner city Dublin and his role as the boss on the Irish franchise of ‘The Apprentice’. Bill talked about working very hard as a core value. If you work hard you will be the last person to be let go should redundancies be necessary and the first to be promoted when a position becomes available. He says that one should be up at four in the morning and on the phones soon thereafter, though many have ridiculed this in pondering whom Bill might talk to at this hour. Bill’s point though is well made. If you work hard you will often be successful. Bill is happy with his partner, Jackie, but admits that the numbers of hours he spent in work likely lead of the break-up of his earlier marriage. It’s impossible to argue with Bill’s monetary success but I found myself wondering about success and work-life balance. So there might be a bit more to it than just working hard…

We’ve all made decisions that altered the direction of our lives for better or worse. Some people play it safe. Others take chances. When we look at these chancers they seem almost reckless. But the truth, I suspect, is quite different. Rather than being afraid of making the change, successful people are afraid of the consequences of not making that decision. Of staying in the dead-end gig. Of that being their lot. Their family’s lot. Whereas one person might see this as a gamble, the successful see these times as the greatest of opportunities. If not taken, how could one live with oneself?

The list goes on and on. There seems to be at least one consensus sequence in their tales. Each made what appears to have been that very brave and profound decision at one point or, in most cases, continuously during their careers. Many of these involved moving to another country. In this there was a profound difference to the world I find myself in. In their earlier careers, they were almost all in the financial position to start a family and thus had this support when they arrived in this new location. I wonder if the science world would be better if they paid just a wee bit more. If they gave tuppance for a weekend of overtime. A few pennies bonus for publishing. Or just enough to live on as a basic salary. Simple gestures that might make a big difference…

A wise friend once said to me that only one in ten PhD graduates will do a post-doc. One in ten post-docs will become a PI and one in ten PIs will be successful enough to avoid struggling.

I sat last weekend with my best friend in Neil Connolly’s Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield Dublin. We drank tea and I contemplated the genius of moving this beautiful cinema from its previous location. The world didn’t make sense but somehow I felt surrounded by the dream of someone who understood. And as we talked it out, my dear friend and I thought little of the one in ten and wondered about the other nine and if they knew exactly what they were doing…..

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