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How An 84-Year-Old Scientist Schooled Me On The Art of Success

A Long Obedience In The Same Direction

I know nothing about physics. My science journey ended in high school after a generous B minus in Chemistry my junior year.

But I was fascinated last week to read the story of Nobel Prize winning physicist, Peter Higgs.

Nearly five decades ago, a young Peter Higgs theorized that there was a particle that acts as the building blocks of the universe. He believed that a subatomic particle must exist that made matter clump together to form everything around us today.

His theory hinged on the existence of a so-called “God Particle” and while his ideas were good, they couldn’t be proven. Until now.

In July of this year, with the 84-year-old Higgs sitting in the lecture hall, the European Organization for Nuclear Research announced that Higgs’ theory as a young man in Edinburgh, Scotland, was indeed true. That all along, he’d been right.

The resulting emotion, from the very British, very stoic, physicist is pretty cool. He’s clearly moved to tears upon hearing that his theory has been proved while he receives praise from the scientists around him. See the quick video:

“I was about to burst into tears. I was knocked over by the wave of the reaction of the audience. Up until then I was holding back emotionally, but when the audience reacted I couldn't hold back any more. That's the only way I can explain it.” – Peter Higgs

What fascinates me about this story isn’t really the science part, or whether it proves or disproves the existence of God. What fascinates me is the grit, determination, and long suffering work ethic of Higgs. I’m speculating, but I wonder if he knew full well in the 1960’s that the technology to prove his theory simply didn’t exist yet.

But Higgs had the long view. He knew his particle could be proven one day, so what did he do? He kept working. As a young physicist, he didn’t pout like a child that no one was listening to him. He put his head down and theorized and theorized, researched and researched. He waited for the time his career would peak at just the right moment.

And peak it did. This year he won the Nobel Prize for Physics and had his 50-year-old theory proven in a room full of his peers. How’s that for a good 2013?

My friend, Donald Miller, was the first to tell me that as a young social entrepreneur, the best thing I can do is to set myself up to “peak when I’m 65.”

Now, if you’re already 65 or close to it, take a cue from Peter Higgs and kick it back to your 80’s if that helps.

But it’s less about the age, and more about the pacing. I’m surprised by how many times I have remind myself of the wisdom of the Tortoise and the Hare. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Like Peter Higgs, pacing yourself in your work achieves two very important things:

1. It releases a lot of the pressure you have on your shoulders right now. Believing that you don’t have to be at your absolute best in this moment helps you focus squarely on your actual work today. It’s about doing something small and doing it well. This is liberating.

2. It frames your work into long-game thinking, forcing you to strategize a mental map of where you want to be in year one, ten, twenty, and so forth. Your life doesn’t just happen to you. You can envision and create a life road map for long-term success.

People often think they should be further along than they are now. It’s amazing how many conversations I have with really talented people who lament that they aren’t as far down the path as they thought they’d be. While it’s good to experience discontent from time to time, be careful that it doesn’t turn toxic.

Every so often, I’ll see the lineup at a conference I wasn’t invited to or an event I wish my organization could be involved in. It’s easy to get bitter about that stuff, to get jealous of other people and begin comparing myself to others.

Lately, I remind myself of 84-year-old Peter Higgs and it quells the anxiety. When I see the event I wish I could be involved in, I’m a lot more adept at framing it correctly. The correct response is this:

Don’t worry. Be patient. Pace yourself. It’s only a matter of time. Put your head down, do your work.

“Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” - Mary Anne Radmacher

- JZ

Photo Credit: Wallpaperswide

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