Whether you’re a scientist or not, young or not-so-young, Dr. E.O. Wilson’s book, Letters to a Young Scientist, is a primer in how to building a meaningful life from a purpose-driven career. I first encountered Dr. Wilson’s work as one of the most esteemed biologists in the world while I was a fundraiser at Conservation International. Dr. Wilson is a member of the board of directors and in many ways was (and probably still is) a supreme guiding light of the organization’s strong science basis. I picked up his slim volume to read how he addresses a young audience in search of meaning. What I found was much more than I expected.
“Opportunity is [now] broader, but more demanding.” This was a light bulb line for me. We have more opportunity now than past generations thanks to technology, the democratization of knowledge and learning thanks to the growth of the Internet, and the rapid and extensive sharing of inspirational stories. Dr. Wilson explains why we now struggle more to seize opportunity—with great privilege comes great competition and an even greater need for commitment and determination.
“When you select a domain of knowledge…go where the least action is happening…observe the fray from a distance…consider making your own fray.” This is my favorite bit in the book. We’re so quick to rush to a field that is gaining traction and popularity but if we really want to have an impact, it’s best to go where no one else is going.
“Imagine looking back on your life. What do you want to be known for?” Imagine yourself at the very end of your life. When you’re rocking in a chair and watching the sun set for the very last time, what do you want to remember and what do you want to be remembered for? Work your way back to the present day from there and follow the breadcrumbs that you’ve left to guide the way.
On determination and passion
“The more difficult the problem, the greater the likely importance of its solution.” When the going gets tough, we think of giving up. Dr. Wilson encourages the opposite. When the going gets tough, go further.
“Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you…put passion ahead of training.” Education is only valuable if we are educated in something that lights us up. Figure out what you care about and then obtain the training to make it into a career.
“Waste and frustration often attend the earliest stages.” It’s always easiest to give up early on. That’s the stage where we need the most determination—when something isn’t going well. Doubt is a powerful deterrent and formidable opponent. That second step, the one that we have to take when all of our early hard work feels wasted, is the one that hurts the most. Take it anyway.
Passion and curiosity are skills we all need in abundance, especially given the current state of our world. There’s plenty of engaging work for all of us if we know where to look.