This may be a harsh way to start off this column, but it is a way to get your attention about the principle behind the statement.
Technically, things aren’t always your fault. There are circumstances, reasons, environmental variables, and people’s reactions that play into every situation you face.
However, what is always true is that you are involved in the situation. And there is always something you can do about it.
But before I go deeper into this, let me describe a situation I was in during graduate school…
I was taking a class called “Oceans and Atmospheres” (or something like that) and, I’ll admit, I didn’t really groove on this subject. It was all about inversion layers, radiative transfer, and relative humidity – for me, not what drives me.
(Go figure that I’d go on to work for a company whose primary specialty was in oceans, but that’s another story…)
So, I found myself having a tough time “getting it” – I had received a C+ on the midterm (although I’m not sure I really deserved such a low grade…). I could have just given in and said to myself that I’ll never really learn this well, and lived with a lower grade. However, I decided to work with some of my friends in the class and work through the problems together.
Now, one day I received my grade on a homework assignment, and I knew that I had solved the problem correctly (we had to prove that the given statement was true, or something like that…). Yet, the professor marked it wrong, and appended the comment, “Yeah, if I really believe it”, to the problem.
What?! Did the professor really write that? I mean – he was really going after my work for no good reason. I was just astounded…
So, I went up to the professor after class, and asked him if he could explain the comment and why I didn’t get credit for the correct answer. He just looked at it, laughed, and said something like, “I suppose I shouldn’t have said that. Here, I’ll mark it right.”
Now, this got under my skin even more. How could he be so cavalier with the grades he was handing out? Plus, he wrote this condescending comment on my work, yet he just dismissed as a quirk in his personality that wasn’t important…
It turned out that he and my graduate advisor were on the same faculty and there were, let us say, tensions. Based on the environment and the reactions, I could tell that I was being held to a different standard that other members of the class, based on nothing of my own doing.
Yet, instead of giving in to the situation, accepting a lower course grade, and explaining it all to myself through excuses and rationalizations, I chose to do everything I could, within my own control, to create a different outcome. I wanted to make sure that I got the absolute best grade possible, given the circumstances.
So, first, I buckled down and chose to study this material like I studied no subject before in my life. I know that this professor had given an A+ to some students on the midterm (to some of his “favorites”), so there was a possibility, if I knew the material down cold, that I could get a similar grade.
Next, I went to the graduate student advisor in the department to let her know the situation, just to make her aware. I didn’t expect that she would do anything about it, but I wanted to let someone know of the circumstances. I had never done anything like this before, so I was a little nervous. But it was a step that I felt I needed to take to do everything I could about the situation.
As the final approached, I had probably learned more about oceans and atmospheres in school that at any other time, and I really think I knew the final material better than anyone else.
And the test bore that out – I had aced the final, receiving that A+ that he probably never wanted to hand out to me, because he had no other choice. I knew the material backwards and forwards and I blew the curve of his test. He put me in a situation that I didn’t enjoy, and I turned the tables, took control of what I could, and put him into a corner – he had to give me his best grade on the final.
It turned out that I got a B+ in the class as a result – a fair score given my poor grade on the midterm – and I didn’t have to see the student advisor after that.
I did what I needed to do, and I took complete responsibility for the outcome that came to me. As a result, I got the grade that I wanted, given the circumstances.
So, where does this all lead? It shows how, even when the situation seems bad and things are stacked against you, there is always something that you can do to change the outcome in your favor. Always.
Things may not turn out as well as you might like them to turn out (I did only get a B+ in my course…). However, there’s always something that you can do to make the situation better. Always!…
Successful scientists don’t fret about the situations they’re in, and they certainly don’t get down on themselves, thinking that the world is against them. They overcome their circumstances and put their best foot forward.
So, to become as successful as you can be, take complete responsibility for the situation you’re in, and do everything you can to perform the best you possibly can.