The first thing I noticed about Donna Strickland, the third woman in history to receive a Nobel prize in Physics, is how much she enjoys her work. This alone is wonderfully refreshing in the world where more than 70 percent of people don't feel satisfied with their career choices. But there is more.
I had an immense pleasure to be a guest of the University of Waterloo (where Donna is a professor) during the Nobel week celebrations in Stockholm and get to meet Donna herself. What an inspiring and humbling experience. As I boarded the plane back home, my head was overflowing with reflections. Out of roughly a hundred, here are my favourite 3 take aways. I hope that sharing them with you will help me keep my inspiration battery charged for as long as possible.
1. Follow your curiosity.
Donna was recognised for her 1985 PhD thesis where she figured out a way to create short, high-intensity laser pulses. It was her first research paper and she often mentions how much fun it was.
Little did she know this method would end up changing the life of millions of glass wearers who undergo corrective eye surgery each year.
Here's the thing. When you choose what to work on, you never know how the dots will connect. In her interview with the National Post, Donna said: “If you want to do something, get out there and do it. That's all you can do.”
This may seem particularly relevant in research, but it's as important in building our careers. Take up projects that interest you, even if they might seem disconnected or irrational (or everybody thinks you've gone mad). Study things that you find fascinating, even if they're not immediately applicable to what you do today.
The picture on the puzzle of your career will become clear later.
2. Even Nobel laureates have self doubt
Despite being a pioneer in the field, when Donna received the phone call announcing the award, she immediately thought it was a prank. When the news finally sank in, she thought she "lucked out" on the whole thing.
Impostor syndrome is unbelievably common. Although typically associated with high achieving women, there are plenty of men who experience it just the same.
I find it comforting to hear when people I admire feel the same way. Have you ever thought that your achievements are down to luck?
The truth is - it's a likely sign of intelligence.
Many poor performers don't experience much self doubt [a few politicians who could use with a healthy dose of it come to mind too!]. This is because on the opposite side of the confidence spectrum is the Dunning-Kruger effect: not being smart enough to appreciate own lack of ability.
3. The world works best when we all do what we’re good at.
Donna is an inspirational story for women in STEM and other male-dominated professions. A bit baffled as to why there is so much fuss about her gender, she thinks of herself as a scientist first.
She fell in love with lasers as a child. In her own words: „It is our responsibility to expose our children to as many career options as possible so they can make informed choices. We should encourage them to play to their strengths. The world works best when we all do what we’re good at.”
As the aura of inspiration from last weekend slowly fades, I'm adding a few projects and educational initiatives to my list for 2019. The ones I'm curious about but don't yet know where they will take me.
Quite high up the list is also a trip with my son to our local science centre.