Ask Kathie: The Meaning of Success

I have a suggestion for your New Year's resolution: Live each day to the fullest.

I know that might not seem like advice appropriate for a career-advice column. Let me tell you a story and offer an explanation why I think that it's important advice for anyone thinking about his or her career.

Over the past few weeks, I've been struggling with what to write for this month's column. Like many people, the parties, work expectations, and general hustle and bustle of the holiday season have zapped my creative energy. And of course, the column is due at holiday time for a January publication date. I finally decided to discuss this dilemma with my mom. My mom has always been the biggest supporter of my career. Right now, she's lying in a bed at a hospice dying of metastasized breast cancer. Her comment to me was to tell my readers to "live each day to the fullest." I rebuffed her, saying that I frequently write on similar themes. It doesn't matter, she retorted. People still need to hear that advice, so I should tell you again, anyway.

On my drive home from that visit, I recalled a lecture I heard a few months ago by Howard Figler, a well-known career practitioner and lecturer. Figler spoke about the concepts of essence and ego in career counseling. "Essence" Figler defines as the personal satisfaction that comes from being yourself. "Ego" is the satisfaction we feel when we know we have the approval of others. Now I had a topic for my column.

Although perhaps I am extrapolating a bit, Figler's concept of being in a state of essence seems necessary if we are to live each day to the fullest. You can't live fully if you spend all your time worrying what everyone else thinks about you. So I thought elucidating these concepts might help you evaluate some of the career choices you'll face in the upcoming year.


We are in a state of ego when we are seeking the approval of others and pursuing success as determined by others. We often seek the respect and approval of our parents, our peers, our bosses and co-workers, our culture, and society as a whole. External things--income, material goods, office quality, job title, or level of responsibility--provide measures of this kind of success.

In an ego state, we worry about how we fit in. We compare ourselves to others, desire security and control, and focus on the future. Young scientists are trained by the culture of science to judge their success by their achievements, goals, results, and comparisons with others. This is how research is published, funded, and accomplished; we must be in a state of ego to succeed in science. Research proposals demand that we evaluate our scientific pursuits in comparison with others, report results, and justify to others why we deserve funding. Success in science, in the "ego" sense, is all about justifying ourselves to others.


Essence is the state we are in when we are being ourselves, expressing our talents, pursuing endeavors in line with our values, doing what comes naturally, and fulfilling our own internal sense of success. In an essence state, we focus on the present, embrace risk, make choices based more on intuition than on reason, and measure success as the happiness that comes from being ourselves. A scientist who is happy with his or her pursuit of a research career may feel this state of essence.

I had an undergraduate student researcher describe to me recently how he felt when he had found where he belonged. He loves being in the lab, he feels that he is doing something that comes easily to him, loves the sense of success of a well-run experiment (even when the results aren't what he wanted!), and feels his work is contributing to the greater good. He is describing essence. I hope he will continue to be authentic in this way, true to himself, as he continues to pursue research as a career.


Figler incorporates these concepts into career decision-making because he believes that our ego and the need for approval from others can prevent us from being essential, from being our authentic selves. If we always make career choices in an ego state, we may not pursue choices that allow us to fulfill our internal sense of purpose and may not feel as if we are living our lives aligned with our values. Figler acknowledges that we simply aren't always going to live in an essence state and that there is tension between ego and essence. But by recognizing this tension, he argues, perhaps we can make career decisions with our ego in check, living in the present, and taking reasonable risks with our careers to help us create a career that allows us to be true to ourselves. We need to succeed, but we have to do it in our own way.

My two cents

So what do I think you should do with all this? When it's translated into career-counseling jargon, it can sound a little esoteric. But it's really very basic and human. I think you should follow my mom's simple advice: Endeavor to live each day to the fullest. It's easy to say this, but it's not so easy to do. At the end of each day, perhaps it would help to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you comfortable with how you measure your success today?

  • Did you play it safe today or take a risk?

  • Did you plan for the future, do the unexpected, or live in the moment?

  • Were your values expressed in any actions you took or words you spoke today?

  • This is not a magical list of questions. You can make up your own; any questions that ask you to examine the balance between ego and essence in a given day will do. There's only one question I can think of that you should be able to answer with a "yes" each and every day, and I'll end with it.

    Are you happy with how you lived your life today?

    Follow Science Careers

    Search Jobs

    Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

    Top articles in Careers