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Tooling Up: I'm Special, Aren't You?


Like many parents, my mother and father tried as hard as they could to make me feel special. They instilled in me the belief that my future success in life was assured, and I left home believing that I could accomplish just about anything. My parents didn't know that they were doing me a great disservice.

Of course you are special. Everyone is special. But in the job market, you have to compete with all those other special people. You will face disappointment. You will fail sometimes. In my view, believing otherwise -- believing that the constraints and realities that apply to other people don't apply to you -- is a poor philosophy upon which to build a life and career.

Don't let a feeling of entitlement stand in the way of your career progress.

There's an oft-cited stereotype about the generation now entering the workforce -- Generation Y, or the "Millennials": They have a sense of entitlement. That may or may not be true; I'm not here to reinforce the stereotype. But I will say that, no matter which generation you're from, a sense of entitlement is not an advantage in looking for a job or moving into a new one. Instead, you need to be practical, realistic, and clear-headed about your abilities -- and your competition -- not just now but at every career stage.

In this month's Tooling Up column, I'm going to describe some of the lessons and pitfalls I've learned about being "special." I'll also make a few suggestions that you can take away to help you manage the transition from this innate sense of specialness to a more durable life philosophy for success.

Searching for a sense of "specialness"

Three major stumbling blocks can adversely affect the career or personal life of a person who is wedded to the idea of their own uniqueness:

Never feeling appreciated: Let me guess: You have completed projects with spectacular results (or have at least made very laudable progress), but you haven't heard an "attaboy" or "attagirl" in quite some time. You're feeling like no one appreciates you. Welcome to the club. Unlike at home, in the workplace there's no one whose job is to provide daily affirmation. Hopefully, you've been lucky enough to get some feedback on the big stuff -- but even if you do it may not be constructive.

Praise is not all that common in the world of science (or in any work environment, for that matter). I hope you're fortunate enough to have a principal investigator or adviser who acknowledges and praises your work when it merits it. Unfortunately, there are advisers out there from whom you'll be hard pressed to even get credit for the work, let alone praise. If you crave that occasional rave, your most reliable option is to recognize your own success and get used to patting yourself on the back -- when you deserve it.

Learn to appreciate your own talents and efforts. At the same time, know what others expect of you and always strive to exceed those expectations. Don't just hit the mark; clear it by a mile. Then, when the project is finished and the paper submitted, take satisfaction in a job done well. I've solved the problem of not feeling appreciated by others by constantly striving to beat my own personal best -- and enjoying it when I do.

A sense of entitlement: Over the years, I've thrown my hat into the ring for one opportunity or another only to be surprised and disappointed when someone else was selected. When I reflect on those experiences, I realize that, almost every time, I expected that my past accomplishments would entitle me to certain honors and rewards -- a critical error. I forgot that strong credentials are only a starting point. Add intense effort to the mix, and you'll give yourself a chance -- but other people, with even stronger credentials, may be trying even harder.

Employers are constantly judging our degree of specialness. You aren't special just because Mom and Dad think the world of you, or because you had a big success 6 months ago. It's a matter of "what have you done for me lately." It's a constantly running evaluation, one in which you are judged by how much effort you expend and the results you achieve. You aren't entitled to anything -- you have to earn it and keep earning it. Don't let a feeling of entitlement stand in the way of your career progress.

Unrealistic expectations: It's one thing to be positive and expect future success -- we all should do that. It's quite another to look at your accomplishments through rose-colored glasses and lose the ability to look at things realistically. The scientist targeting a tenure track career who settles into yet another postdoc needs to have a serious think about whether she is pursuing an achievable goal.

People who think they are special need to have dreams and goals that include one or two backup plans. Be practical about what you have and can accomplish.

Avoid being a victim

The truly nasty side of being "special" is that it is so easy to look at what happens around you and feel you've been a victim when the appreciation doesn't flow or when the honors go to someone else. Instead, you've got to learn to make an honest and critical assessment of your accomplishments and figure out how to win the next time.

Instead, you've got to learn from life's ups and downs. Here's an analogy from the world of pharmacognosy: A special plant grows in the mountainous areas of Iceland's interior, called Angelica archangelica. It produces flowers, seeds, and roots that have been used as medicine by the local population for nearly 1000 years. It was only recently that scientific research highlighted the value of these roots, which led farmers in other countries to grow Angelica in controlled environments.

At first, botanists were impressed with this cultivated Angelica, as the plants look lovely when tended properly in a garden. But unfortunately, although the specially cultivated plants look beautiful, they are nearly worthless. The medicinal value of Angelica develops only under the stressful conditions of real life in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Fertilizer, pesticides, and good soil do nothing but build a very weak immune system in the herb, translating to a plant with little or no commercial value.

Like Angelica, which only develops its magic when it hits the ups and downs of real life, we can't achieve our ultimate career success by sitting around feeling special. If you're going to succeed in the workforce, you've got to first understand what makes you unique, and then build something special through intense labor. Finally, and almost more importantly, you then have to translate that something into special benefits for those who would employ you.

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