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April 12, 2017
With no parent to guide my passage through the bumps encountered emerging from adolescence into adulthood (mother died when I was 14, and I did not speak to my father for a decade afterwards), I deliberately sought mottos I could use to help me navigate. Three played an important role:
Never take no for an answer
More than ninety percent of the articles I have submitted to scientific journals were initially rejected, but following this motto I have always fought back. I asked for a re-review, I appealed to the board of directors of the journal, and so on. And with only one exception in more than one-hundred instances, I eventually won. I came to regard initial rejection as proof of my unorthodox, creative approach.
Leave no stone unturned
A good example of this was my decision to answer those who criticized my evidence for universality of facial expressions of emotion by going to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea to study people who had had no previous contact with the outside world or the media. It was quite a schlep, took over a year, but I got the evidence that those who argued against me could not easily dismiss.
Aim higher than you can see
I always reached for the heavens, trying to aim beyond what I could easily see, so I would have some chance of following my childhood hero Magellan. My sister once asked me what made me think I could aim so high, to which I answered there was no choice; it was what I had to do. Was it because I had a father who scorned me? (He wrote the government protesting the waste of the taxpayers’ money when he heard I had received my first federal research grant). I admit that I enjoyed knowing how envious he was of my achievements. He was not a parent but a competitor, who I beat again and again, enjoying my victories!
These mottos were like mantras, in that I frequently said them over and over to myself. When I reached a decision point, a fork in the road, I consulted them for help about how to make my choices. I credited these mottos for my success in life, although I see now that it was my use of them that mattered. But that is not how I thought of them then. I always felt that these mottos pointed the way, resolved the choices about which direction to take. My choices were rewarded; I was successful at whatever I took on. I never wondered where I found these mottos; I still don’t know.
I didn’t acknowledge the role of luck, although now I can see the important role it has played. I had to believe it was in my hands to make the right or wrong decision. My favorite poem, which I often repeated to myself, was from Henley’s Invictus: “It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll, I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul.” And, to a large extent I was.
I was lucky that there were opportunities, lucky that I had the capabilities and the drive to succeed. But although I could not acknowledge it then, for to do so would make the world seem even more hazardous than I thought it was, now I see the importance of luck. Although I still believe it was not luck alone, but my grabbing the fates around their throats, shaking them and twisting them to get what I wanted from life.