I am a scientist. I am a writer. I am a teacher. I am a mentor. When I ask myself, which of these titles matters the most, the last two always win.
Science and writing are exciting, invigorating, challenging, annoying, frustrating, depressing, sometimes all at the same time. Science rarely leads to fame, occasionally to recognition, but usually only within your narrow field. A scientific discovery today, a new step ahead in science, may be recognized for a year or two or perhaps even ten, but rarely more. A paper published in the most prestigious journal, Nature or Science, will be read by some, used and cited by a few, but almost never acknowledged more than a decade later. Ask a well-informed citizen, a listener to NPR, to name an active scientist and he or she will be unlikely to name even one. Ask them to name an actor, an athlete, or a politician, and the response will be quick. But if our work trickles down to a development that aids humanity, if it helps in some small way to answer a long-asked question, we find satisfaction in that.
However by far the most important part of my work is the day to day effect I have upon the young people who work in my laboratory and sit in my classroom. If I stimulate even one in a class to ask questions they had never thought about before, I am successful. If a student dishwasher listens to my encouraging words and goes on to become a physician, a research scientist, a teacher, that is success. When a former student turns up at my door 25 years later and speaks of fond memories of the lab, and tells me about his achievements, his family, his bright future, I know that I have had a real impact. When another, the first in her family to graduate from high school, explains her PhD research to me and it is so complex that I can barely understand it, I know why I continue to work with these students. When my former students come together from all over the country to share stories of their adventures with me, that is success- and joy.
Teachers and mentors do not make great money for their efforts. They do not achieve fame and glory. But in the end, it does not matter how famous you are, or how rich, but the impact you have on the lives of others. The truly successful person can be judged by how many lives you have touched. That is the true Nobel Prize. This I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.