Tag Archives: drive

Why do I not celebrate my own successes?

“Do you know there are rumours about you at work?” Chills down my spine: what is this about? Then I spot the look in his eyes and understand he is kidding me. Well, he is and he isn’t.

“Rumour says you won a research award of the year in the county? What the f… were you thinking not telling us all about it? How bad can you get at promoting yourself?” He laughs and shakes his head in disbelief. “Seriously, this is big, isn’t it? Like, you make a huge fuss about someone in the group winning an award for best poster at a national conference, but you don’t think this is even worth mentioning?”

Well, to be truthful, I did mention it to the two PhD students who were still at work when I got the message about the award. A couple of others had seen the press release the day after and there was some talk about it during coffee, especially since my husband sent me flowers to work! He clearly knows more about celebrating success…

But then I never really thought to bring it up at the team meeting, maybe because the official prize ceremony will not take place until another month. And there were lots to do and all that. But maybe considering my PhD student’s question is worth the while. Just because he is American doesn’t mean he cannot have a point…

I often tell my PhD students how important it is to always celebrate small successes and it’s true, I am quick to celebrate theirs. So why don’t I follow my own advice?

The standard joke in my family of origin is that when someone gets an award – and my parents often do – the question asked is: Is it just the humiliation or is there some cash involved? This irony does not mean we are not proud, but it is kind of part of the expectation to excel. There is no fanfare and certainly no bragging about that prize or award. And to distance oneself and show humility is more important than anything else. But I am afraid we might be missing an important point here.


Only judging people on what they achieve is of course very dangerous and no child in the world should have to feel that not succeeding with something takes away their worth as a person. Nevertheless, an important driver for people is mastery and achieving something in the face of effort is truly rewarding per se.

Think of the child who finally succeeds going up the steps, finishing a puzzle, solving a maths problem or getting a 100 likes on Instagram for a photo they have worked on! Achieving results through effort is good for children’s self-esteem and builds resilience. So we should probably not shy away from expecting both effort and certain results from our children.

But even if there is an intrinsic reward of flow there, is it wrong to celebrate when an effort is successful? I think I could do more of that. Even if the phrase “promoting yourself” still makes me genuinely uncomfortable.

But there is change about to happen! Today I got an e-mail summarising the evaluation of a seminar I have participated in at the national meeting of our governing political party. We got 3.91 on a 4-point scale as presenters (with a high response rate) and the seminar as a whole got 3.85. Someone even wrote that my presentation was best. So I bought an ice cream and gave myself two extra minutes in the sunshine. And I will probably tell my colleagues about it at the next team meeting.

In fact, I will post those results right here, right now, as a later e-mail I just received put us as the top-ranked seminar of the 28 that whole day, in front of seminars with ministers and other high-profile politicians. The average score for the day was 3.34 so the general quality was pretty good, as well! I am not sure if this is bragging, self-promotion, or celebration, but here I go:


Measuring for improvement

One of the things I have to do as a leader is to guide my group to reach its goals. This, of course, requires setting measurable goals. Then we have to monitor our progress based on data that somehow describe the goals we set up. If we do not measure our achievements, we will not know if we have succeeded. If the goals we are to reach are not described in ways that are in accordance with actions we can take to reach them, we might as well save ourselves the trouble of setting goals in the first place.

In the swimming hall in Uppsala where I like to go to do my laps, there are three lanes: Extra fast, Fast, and Exercise swimming. In Melbourne, there were also three lanes: Fast, Medium, and Slow. There was also a sign saying that if someone taps your toe while swimming you should move to a slower lane.

If my goal is to be faster at swimming what should I do? “Exercise” will get me there, right? But if no one taps my toe if I am too slow, how will I know I should be moving faster? If my goal is simply to exercise – is the Exercise lane the right one for me? Well, no, because the ones who swim there are extremely SLOW and I do crawling.

ImagePhoto: Fanni Sarkadi, Melbourne, Australia

The issue of measuring is of course not an easy one. In science we use things, such as impact factors and rankings. Such technical measures of success are criticized for creating a business management paradigm in research and are argued to not necessarily enhance quality. However, I guess the fact that there is a journal called Scientometrics (a Hungarian co-publication) shows that bibliometry is here to stay.

It is also hard to measure quality in health care. Physicians are particularly weary of letting the essence of their profession be forced into dry numbers. Nevertheless – if your loved ones had cancer, would you rather have them treated at a centre with 0,5% complications and 85% 5-year survival rates or somewhere with worse or not even measured outcomes?

Schools are a third sector where measurement is a subject of perpetual debate. Should we or should we not give grades, from which age, based on what criteria?

When Johanna saw her grades in year 5 in Australia she said she wanted better ones. At our meeting to develop Johanna’s study plan for this year in Sweden I asked the teacher if she could help Johanna by giving her an indication of what grade her performance on tests would give her. “We don’t do grades in year 5”, she said. I know that, I said indication, you know, make-belief type of thing. Nope. And my daughter, obviously in need of some kind of measure and/or external motivator simply said: “Ok, I will study in sixth grade, not now”. That really made my day.

Don’t misunderstand me: I truly believe that intrinsic motivation (fun animation of Pink’s book in the link) is the best motivator and that as a research group leader my task is to find, not kill people’s drive to do good work. But even people who are truly intrinsically motivated need a certain measure of goal fulfilment. They want to know they are doing their job well. They want to be reaching goals. They want to know they have contributed!

I have heard so many frustrated colleagues who work hard and never know whether or not they are doing a good job. They become bitter and negative and lose their motivation, not because someone is trying to control them, but because nobody cares to value their work!

So I think the discussion every sector and workplace should be having is not whether we should be measuring our goals, but rather how this should be done best to tell us (and our clients and financers) if we are doing a good job.