The month before I began my PhD, in October 2019, I sat down with an idea. The concept was to reach out to people I admired—mostly academics and authors—and ask them about the decisions they made when they were in my position. What did they do when they were grad students that set them up for success later on? Sure, I wanted to know about their success, in some sort of career-prestige sense. But I also wanted to understand how they thought about what it means to make a substantive contribution to their field, whatever that may have looked like to them. I envisioned it as a podcast, which I called Cognitive Revolution.
I produced about 90 episodes of Cognitive Revolution. Toward the end, I began to feel like I’d learned what I wanted to from that line of questioning. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with a podcast that represented the dimension of growth I would pursue in my next phase. But eventually I came up with Meaning Lab: a cognitive science perspective on the mechanisms of meaning in work, life, and relationships. I’ve done about ten Meaning Lab episodes now. I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it.
But to mark my 100th podcast episode, I wanted to do a retrospective on what I learned interviewing scientists about the “personal side of their intellectual journey”—as I framed the tagline of the show. I got to talk to so many of my heroes. I got to talk to people who were great scientists, but not well known outside of their immediate discipline. I got to talk to people who were both accomplished scholars and well-known to a broader audience. I tried to talk to different people from different backgrounds, and to explore stories told by everyone from established tenured professors who came from academic families, to first gen college students from an array of backgrounds who more or less stumbled into research and found they were good at it. People were incredibly generous with their time. And I’m honored to have had the pleasure to talk with them and learn from their experience.
Overall, what stands out to me is that there’s no one path to success. Not in academia. Not in writing. Not in making a living from ideas. Not in, as far as I can tell, any aspect of life. For everyone I talked to who said doing X worked for them, there was another person who said they got to where they are by doing not-X. Sure, there were trends and consistencies—and I try to get at some of them in the lessons below. But the overarching point is that you have to figure out what works for you. You can’t take a strategy from a successful person you look up to and apply it blindly. You’re a unique individual with your own strengths and weaknesses. Your success as a scholar depends, in large part, on learning to use them to your advantage.
Another point was how just about every single person I talked to—especially the big-name scholars who seem to have everything all figured out—admitted to feelings of uncertainty early on in their career. The vast, vast majority went through significant patches of their journey where they weren’t sure if they were going to make it. But they stuck with it, and eventually they got to the other side. Personally, I identify with these kind of doubts more than I do the concept of “imposter syndrome.” To be honest, I don’t really care if I belong right now, right here, in this room. Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. Whatever. I’m more concerned about whether what I’m doing is going to end up being worthwhile in the long run. Am I continuing to grow and get better? I can survive being bad at something now, if I know I’ll be good at it later on. It meant a lot to know that when I’m feeling that burden of doubt, pretty much everyone I look up to felt some version of it when they were in my shoes.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to come on my show. I learned something from every one of you. What follows are some of my favorite clips from scientists I talked to. It doesn’t include segments from some of my favorite conversations in general—mostly with people who were authors than scientists. And instead of short, snappy sound bites, I opted for longer clips, so you could hear a bit more of the context and story behind the lesson. I hope you find something in here to help you on your own journey, whatever that may look like. If you’re anything like me, I think you will.
Here are my 12 lessons I learned from interviewing 90+ scientists about the personal side of their intellectual journey:
12. There’s no one right way to be productive; do what works for you. (from Paul Bloom)
11. Sometimes your biggest setbacks become your most significant accomplishments. (from Chantel Prat)
10. Being a good grad student is not the same thing as being a good professor. (from Nancy Kanwisher)
9. Everyone has a CV of failures; but they only show you the one with the successes.(from Bradley Voytek)
8. Write for an audience of smart, interested undergrads; anyone older than that is too set in their ways to truly be shaped by your work... Oh, and write from an outline.(from Michael Tomasello)
7. Listening is one of the most undervalued skills in academia (and probably beyond); if you can master that, it’ll take you far. (from Susan Goldin-Meadow)
6. Even the most successful scholars were uncertain early on. (from Steven Pinker)
5. Some of the most influential papers of all time were rejected in their first submission—rework and resubmit. (from Mark Granovetter)
4. For some researchers the best part of their career will be their PhD and postdoc (because they want to get their hands dirty with the work); for some, they just need to survive that phase until they get a faculty job (because what they really want to do is run a lab). (from Weiji Ma)
3. You don’t need a grand plan; make the best decision you can at every juncture, and you’ll get somewhere worth going. (from Linda B. Smith)
2. You can be a traditional academic... or you can be an entrepreneur of knowledge.(from Wade Davis)
1. Someone says you can’t do it? Fuck ‘em. There’s no one path to success. (from Mahzarin Banaji)