My lesson from successful scientists: success can be learnt

Ruth Gotian’s book The Success Factor.

Credit: Ruth Gotian

At the age of 43, while working full-time and raising my family, I decided to pursue a doctorate, studying the most successful physician-scientists of our generation. I wanted to investigate whether there was anything special about their habits, mindsets or lifestyles: something that could be later replicated in researchers’ training programmes. My research focused on Nobel prizewinners, National Institutes of Health directors, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators, and winners of a top award such as a Breakthrough or Lasker prize, as well as a former surgeon-general of the United States.

After graduation, I continued my research on success, branching out to study other extreme high achievers. What became apparent to me in the course of this research is that the mindset of a Nobel prizewinning scientist is similar to that of an Olympic champion or an astronaut. I realized that, if these mindsets are shared across fields, then success becomes a skill that can be learnt, going far beyond latent talent, embracing a growth mindset, advice from mentors, skill development and internal strategies to deal with challenges.

What defines success is a mixed bag, and if you ask someone for their definition, it varies — depending especially on their gender and seniority. In some related research1, I found that junior physician-scientists focused on metrics that affect promotion, such as publications and grants; senior physician-scientists, by contrast, focused on aspects of their legacy, such as their contributions to the field, and their mentoring work.

After multiple rounds of research, I decided to define successful people as those who have created a shift in their field, who are recognized for their accomplishments, and who give back and help others to succeed, too — usually through mentoring individuals or groups. Generally, they are widely acclaimed in their field, having won notable awards and accolades.

In my latest book, The Success Factor, I outline the four mindsets found in extreme high achievers and offer ideas, underscored by adult-learning theory, on how others can develop the skills required to succeed in a way that fits in with their careers and lives. Of course, simply copying the habits of an award-winning scientist doesn’t mean you’ll become a Nobel prizewinner. But, by emulating their mindsets, you can set yourself on the path to success.

Intrinsic motivation

High achievers have worked out their ‘why’ — why they chose a particular profession, or a particular problem to solve. Many told me that they would pursue their discipline even if they weren’t paid to do so. When I asked Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, how he chooses which projects to focus on, he told me that he’s drawn to things that he finds important, not just interesting. This sentiment was echoed among all the physician-scientists, astronauts and senior government officials whom I interviewed.

I have found that, in general, scientists are not driven by ‘extrinsic motivators’: promotions, accolades, diplomas or awards. If they were, those I interviewed would have quit doing science after winning a Nobel prize. Instead, many leading scientists are still doing research long after they qualify for retirement. They simply love it — the pursuit of the unknown; being on the cusp of something transformative; the challenge of seeing where their curiosity will take them. High achievers remember why they pursue their chosen profession, or a particular problem, and use their internal passion to fuel their research.


Talent will get you only so far. High achievers, having found their intrinsic motivation, outwork everyone. By this, I don’t necessarily mean they put in more hours than anyone else; often they work smarter, not just harder. Sometimes, long days are necessary, especially before grant deadlines. But high achievers try not to make that a habit, ensuring that they have time off to recharge and let their minds wander. While working, they use the hours when they’re most focused for their more cognitive tasks, such as writing grants or manuscripts — leaving more passive activities, such as Zoom meetings and e-mails, for when they’re less focused. They work to achieve a state of flow, where they are so focused on the task before them that time seems to stand still.

But they know the importance of rest, too,, understanding that a break is often what their minds and bodies need. This is why sometimes the best ideas come during the coffee breaks at conferences, or on long walks when we can let our thoughts drift.

There are always challenges, from failed grants to rejected papers. However, the high achievers approach these obstacles differently from many of us. Ultimately, they fear not trying more than they fear failing. They work diligently to ‘control what they can control’, and they don’t ruminate over issues and challenges that are outside their jurisdiction.

Strong foundation

High achievers do not rest on their laurels. What worked for them early on in their careers is what they continue with later, even after their accolades. Every year, Twitter goes viral with photos of scientists who, hours earlier, were notified that they had won a Nobel prize — but who, later in the day, teach a class, hold a laboratory meeting or submit another grant application.

These scientists are still designing experiments and writing grant proposals and papers to further their careers. They don’t stop just because someone else has recognized their accomplishments. Many of the leading scientists I’ve spoken to had turned down prestigious opportunities, such as chairing a department or becoming a dean, because they felt that such commitments would take them away from their scientific exploration. They’ve told me that coming up with ideas and designing experiments, which is what they did in their early years in science, is what they still enjoy doing today.

Continuous informal learning

Despite their advanced degrees and commendations, the high achievers made a point of continuing their learning through informal means. For many of them, classroom learning is not practical, but they learn continuously by reading books, articles and blogs, listening to podcasts, watching videos and talking to others — casting a wide net to include people at every level and from a variety of industries.

From early on in their careers, the high achievers I spoke to had surrounded themselves with a team of mentors, who helped them with their career development and acted as their cheerleaders when things didn’t work out according to plan.

No one aims to be average in life. People want to succeed but often lack the understanding of how to achieve more. By learning from some of the most successful scientists of this generation, we can apply great lessons to our own careers.