The secret behind success: It’s not what you might expect…

I’ve been extremely successful in many areas of my life.

  • I completed a PhD in physics, writing a thesis in just 3 months which the examiner described as one of the best he had ever read
  • I’ve represented my country as a competitive martial artist (and am the only person to have won the British Universities aikido championship twice)
  • I’ve cycled the English coast to coast trail in a single day (more than 130 miles, with a total climb of 4000 m)
  • I’ve climbed a mountain with a broken ankle
  • I’ve lived in 4 different countries other than the UK (Japan, France, Spain, Iceland)
  • And I’ve created this site, which receives between 1000 and 2000 unique visits daily

My life is pretty good, I do meaningful work that by I’m good at, I’m in superb physical shape, and genuinely believe I can do anything I put my mind to.

There’s a secret behind this success, but it’s not what you might expect. Many other successful people share it, but few talk about it. And you can’t learn it, but you might already have it…

The secret

I suffer from depression.

There are times when I’m torn apart by self-doubt and self-expectation. There are times when I feel like there’s a hole opening up underneath me. Or worst of all, there are times when I just feel emotionally numb.

There have been times when I’ve fallen asleep on the sofa, and woken up feeling paralysed, literally unable to get up under my own strength. It’s hard to describe what it’s like, but if you’ve been there, then you know.

The contradiction

Some of the world’s greatest achievers and most creative minds have suffered from depression, including;

  • Buzz Aldrin
  • Bob Dylan
  • Fyodor Dostoyevski
  • Michel Foucault
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Akira Kurasawa
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • JK Rowling
  • Oprah Winfrey

The contradiction is that what you feel on the inside can often bear little relation to how your life looks from the outside. You can have all the success in the world but still feel like a failure. You can be surrounded by people who love and care for you, but still feel alone.

It’s not easy to talk about

This contradiction makes it difficult to talk about. If you feel like crap, well-meaning people will try to help by pointing out all the good things in your life. They will treat it as a logical argument where all they have to do is provide a solid counter-example to convince you life is actually OK.

But sometimes it just fucking isn’t OK and there’s no logical reason for it.

If you have a broken leg, nobody tries to convince you it isn’t broken. They’ll tell you to take it easy. They’ll ask you if you need anything. They’ll understand. With depression, most people don’t know how to help so they try to tell you there isn’t a problem.

But you should talk about it. We all should. It’s a part of our society, and if you don’t suffer from depression yourself, I can guarantee you know someone who does.

Talk about it…

There are so many reasons to talk openly about depression, most of which I’ll leave to this video since he puts it so well:


For me though, one of the best things that has come from acknowledging my depression is a deeper understanding of myself, why (or how) depression manifests itself, and how that relates to my creativity and success.

I believe my depression, my creativity and my success come from the same place. They come from two character traits I have quite deeply engrained.

The first is obsessive thought

When I get depressed, it’s often because I am stuck with the same thoughts going round and round and round endlessly in my head. I won’t be able to sleep. I will be distracted during conversations or during writing while I obsess over something I can’t do anything about. On the surface I’ll be fine, but I’ll be tearing myself apart inside.

It’s not something I would wish upon anybody, but I’ve come to realise that this obsessive thinking, when focused and directed towards action, is the source of everything I have ever achieved.

When I cycled across England in a single day, it’s because once I got the idea to race the sun from the east coast to the west I had to do it. I couldn’t let go of the idea.

When I write, I’ll stay with an idea for days if necessary. I won’t let go of it until I understand the concept and find a way to put it into words I’m happy with.

The second is self-belief

It might seem strange that self-belief is a source of depression, but it can easily turn into self-expectation, and there is a subtle difference between the two.

Self-expectation can cause deep depression if I don’t meet those expectations. It’s knowing I could do more. Knowing I could do better. It’s regretting not doing something I should and could have. It’s pressure. It’s a burden.

Self-belief is when it doesn’t even occur to me that I can’t do something. It’s knowing that I can cope with whatever happens, taking things in my stride that others would be terrified by. It’s this self- belief that allowed me to say, “I don’t care whether I pass or fail my PhD, I trust in my ability that I’ll be OK”. It’s liberating

These two traits combined can tilt me towards supreme confidence, creativity and action or depression, pain, and inertia. I don’t always know how to control or channel it, but understanding helps.

Speak out

I don’t have any solutions to share, but I know that talking about depression is essential.

Leave a comment below and share your experience (anonymously if you like), share this post on Facebook or Twitter, or check out the resources below

Resources and links

  • Talk to your university counseling service or GP
  • The habits of happiness (video)
  • Authentic happiness (includes online questionnaires to measure depressive symptoms)

“The best of the best”

On the very first day of my PhD, I sat with all the other new students through a whole day of induction meetings.

Various people came to speak to us over the course of several hours; the safety officer, someone from the finance department, somebody else to talk about the monthly reports we were supposed to fill in…

But there was one that stuck in my mind. It was the “motivational speech” where we were told that we had been accepted onto a PhD program because, by definition, we were,

… the best of the best…

I’m sure it was meant to motivate us and give us confidence, but for me it had the exact opposite effect.

I was definitely not the best of the best. I hadn’t done particularly well as an undergraduate, and I felt like I had bluffed my way onto a PhD program. Maybe these other people were the best of the best, but I was the impostor and I spent the next couple of years with a small but ever-present worry that I would be found out.

Worrying about what you don’t know

I was always worried about what I didn’t know. My maths wasn’t that great by physicists standards, and there was a lot of fairly basic stuff that I had either forgotten or simply never learned in the first place.

I would occasionally try to fill those gaps… I would get a book and leave it on my desk in the hope that the knowledge would enter my head by virtue of proximity, but of course it never did.

Background stress…

The fear of being found out added a level of background stress. It wasn’t particularly bad… my life was perfectly comfortable and I woudn’t say that I was suffering, but there was certainly a slow erosion of confidence.

But this background stress stopped me working to the best of my ability. When I did an experiment, I never really believed that it would work, and so subconsciously I undermined my own effort by not doing thiogs quite as carefully as I could.

Of course, this menat that things were less likely to work, which reinforced my negative beliefs, and the whole thing became a self-sustaining cycle of futility.

The realisation…

It was only in my third year of the PhD, after nearly quitting, that I realised something crucial…

Everybody has different skills and expertise. It did not matter that I had weaknesses and gaps in my knowledge, because there were other things that I was really quite good at. Other people weren’t better or worse, they just knew different things.

I had forgotten a lot of basic physics and maths becasue I didn’t need it for my project and wasn’t using it. But I had learned a huge amount about the experimental technique I was using, and knew the equipment as well as anybody.

I had become a specialist. An expert in one or two things, and so I decided to focus on that and not worry about how much I didn’t know.

I didn’t have time anyway to fill in all the gaps, so there was no point worrying about it.

The thesis

When I came to write my thesis, I decided to focus only on material I knew and understood well. By focusing on my strongest areas, I could write faster and with more confidence.

There was always a risk that an examiner would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, but I just took the view that this is my work, I am proud of it and I am happy to defend it, and if the examiner doesn’t like it, I don’t care.

With this attitude, I was able to relax and actually enjoy the writing process.

Get really good at something

The best of the best is meaningless. Everyone has different skills and strengths and weaknesses, and nobody knows or is good at everything.

So don’t worry about comparing yourself to others, and don’t worry about the gaps in your knowledge, because you can never fill all of them.

But what you can do is get really good at a small number of things, know where your strengths lie, and focus on them instead.


There’s a good reason why Shakespeare called sleep “chief nourisher of life’s feast”. It is as important as food for physical and mental health.

Of course you have to make sacrifices sometimes in order to finish your PhD, but sleep should be the last thing you sacrifice.

Cutting down your sleep even by a small amount per night can have serious negative effects;

  • Decresed alertness and cognitive performance
  • Impaired memory
  • Irritability and stress

To succeed at PhD level research you need your brain working to the best of its ability. So giving up sleep might gain you an extra ahour or two of working time, but if you can’t think straight then that extra time isn’t very useful.

If you deprive yourself of sleep consistently over a long time it also affects your immune system meaning you are more likely to become ill. So any working time you gained by cutting back on sleep, you can lose in sick days.

Sometimes research demands a late night. There were times when I was still in the lab when the sun came up. But it’s not sustainable in the long term and you have to give yourself time to recover!

If you have too much work, if you are stressed and not making fast enough progress, slow down and think about how you work. Depriving yourself of sleep is never the answer.


PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs!

Pretty much everyone who goes through a PhD will experience some kind of stress, but this isn’t always a bad thing. Some PhD stress can help focus the mind, and the discomfort of going beyond your current limits is often necessary to learn.

But stress can also be destructive. Instead of helping you focus it can have the opposite effect. And instead of helping you learn it can make it difficult to do even the simplest of things.

In academia, there is a culture of just accepting that stress is part of the job. Everyone goes through this, so just keep going. It’s normal. Get on with it. Sometimes, though, stress is a warning sign that something is going seriously wrong.

PhD stress: signs you should not ignore

  • Constantly feeling you can’t work hard enough
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the workload
  • Feeling like you are not working to your true ability
  • Inability to focus
  • Feeling like nothing you do has any impact, and that you have no control
  • Feeling that even easy things have become difficult
  • Constant fear of failure
  • Feeling like you don’t belong on a PhD program, and that you will be “found out” (impostor syndrome)
  • Physical or mental exhaustion

Just working harder, or trying to be more organised is not going to make a difference if you feel these things. You must address the root of the problem.

Slow down

The most important thing to do (and often the hardest, when under pressure) is to slow down.

Give yourself time to think, and simplify what you are trying to do.

Ask yourself…

At a simple, practical level, reducing the number of things you are working on is a good start

  • How many different things are you trying to work on at the same time?
  • If you were to just focus on one thing, what would it be?
  • How can you break it down into steps, and what’s the simplest thing you can do?
  • How do you react when things go wrong? Do you stay with the problem or switch to working on something else?

Slowing down and reducing your area of focus is easy in principle, and in terms of the practical component of PhD stress this is often enough. But it’s not always so simple…

Signs of depression

  • Change in sleep patterns (waking up much earlier or later than usual)
  • Emotional numbness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feelings of guilt or grief or worthlessness
  • Feeling like everything you try to do is exhausting

This is not a comprehensive list (and I am not a qualified psychologist), but just some common signs to look out for. I strongly recommend watching Robert Sapoloski’s lecture on depression linked at the end of this article for a more detailed description.

If you’re experiencing any of these, the best thing for you to do is seek help. Here are a few possible options;

  • Talk to your doctor
  • Find out if your university has a counselling service (and book in a session)

Many therapists offer sessions via Skype (so if, for example, you’re an international student and want to talk to someone in your native language, you can find someone online), but talking to someone face to face should be your first option if available.

There is a directory of online therapists here

My own experience

I’ve written before about my experiences with depression and PhD stress, and while I usually focus on addressing the practical component, I also spoke to my doctor and had a number of sessions with a therapist through the university counselling service (something I should have done much earlier).

I often found when talking to friends that they tended to say things like “it’s OK, everybody goes through this”, but this never really helped. It was only when I acknowledged that things really weren’t OK (and spoke to people who were qualified to help) that I was able to do something about it.

Robert Sapolski’s Stanford lecture on depression (this link includes the YouTube video and a text summary)

The invincible mindset

If I were to ask you the number one factor that will determine whether you succeed or fail at your PhD, what do you think it will be?

Having better time management and procrastinating less?

Having a better system for dealing with literature?

Better resources?

Or even just having more time to do what you need to do?

Well it’s none of the above. They might be important, but there’s something more fundamental that makes everything else possible.

The importance of mindset

Everything starts in your mind. Your mindset, or your way of thinking about the problems you face is the basis for everything.

The way you approach a problem, the way you react to the challenges and surprises ahead depends entirely on the way you think about it.

A positive psychology makes all the difference in the world. It’s what will help you keep going when you face problems, it will help you stay creative when you need to be at your best, it will help you start the day excited about what you’re going to do and it makes a real difference to your chances of success.

But if you believe that no matter what you do nothing will work, then you aren’t very likely to achieve what you are really capable of. You can try all the time management techniques in the world, but if your own psychology is working against you then you’ll never make progress.

Fortunately, no matter how stressed you are right now, a positive attitude is something you can practice.

There are lots of positive mindsets to take, here’s just one to get you going.

The invincibility mindset:

No matter what happens, I will deal with it

Lots of things can go wrong. It’s easy to imagine the worst, and allow that to become a crippling fear.

  • What will the examiner say?
  • What if I fail?
  • What if this goes wrong or that goes wrong?

It’s easy to end up focussing on what might go wrong. The problem is though that it eats away at your confidence and stops you doing the things you need to do to succeed. It makes you doubt yourself and your work, and that makes you hesitant with everything you do.

Now of course things can go wrong. But you have to take the view that whatever happens, you will deal with it.

Let’s look at the worst case scenario.

If I fail (at part of the PhD, or the PhD as a whole) then is it the worst thing that can possibly happen? No. I’ll deal with it and move on. Whatever happens I will deal with it. But in the meantime I am going to give this my best shot.

When I did my PhD in experimental physics, my failure rate was probably well over 90%.

I let it get to me, and it ate away at my confidence until I reached a point where I was constantly expecting to fail. I saw myself as powerless… out of control. That meant I undermined my own efforts. I was sloppy in my preparation and rushed experiments.

It became a self-fulfilling philosophy.

But when I shifted mindset and accepted that things might go wrong, but decided to do things meticulously anyway…  my success rate increased and I made faster progress.

Whatever happens, I will deal with it. It cannot hurt me. I am invincible. So I’m just going to do my best.

What if the examiner asks a question I don’t know?

When I started writing, I knew that there were holes in my knowledge that the examiner might find. He had invented one of the techniques I had used… he could easily ask me something I didn’t know. Or he could ask me a basic undergraduate physics question involving maths I hadn’t used in 4 or 5 years… that would be embarrassing.

But my view was that If I get asked a question like that, I’ll just be honest. If I don’t know then I don’t know, and if I have to work it out or guess based on what I do know, then that’s what I’ll do.

I couldn’t go back and relearn every bit of physics I had forgotten (or not learned in the first place), and so since I couldn’t do anything about it I decided not to worry about it and get on with it and do my best at what I was doing.

I thought… well I’ve put the work in. The research is competent, I understand its implications and its limitations, but if I fail then I fail. So be it.

It takes the pressure off, and builds your confidence at the same time because it assumes, at a fundamental level, that you have the ability to cope with whatever happens…

It gives you a kind of invincibility. Nothing can harm you, because whatever happens, you will deal with it.

One of the big blocks that comes up again and again in my conversations with PhD students is a kind of reluctance to make a clear statement about what they are trying to argue. I think this is because it could be a point the examiner could disagree with… and so instead they write 1000s and 1000s of words circling around the issue.

But there is no avoiding it. You have to state your central premise clearly. So just say it. Take the invincible mindset, and have the courage to say what you think.

There is uncertainty in the future, but you have to be willing to take risks in order to move forwards, knowing that you are able to deal with whatever happens.

Writing a thesis is hard, but it’s not THAT hard.

Not like rowing across the Atlantic or climbing Everest, and it’s not like surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash. It’s not even as hard as raising a family

There is no massive physical effort you have to make, other than sitting and typing. And there’s no real danger either.

The invincible mindset allows you to work without being afraid, and once you remove fear, then you’ll be surprised how many perceived obstacles melt away.

Dealing with PhD research stress

September 2005: While queuing to sign the paperwork to register for the third year of my PhD, I was talking to a student from astronomy who mentioned seeing one of his fellow students struggling to get his thesis finished before the final deadline. It wasn’t the usual case of being a bit stressed and tired in the run up to submission, desperate to do the final editing, or a last-minute crisis like trying to get it printed and bound. The poor guy had been awake for over 36 hours trying to write new material. It just wasn’t finished. The words that stuck in my head were, “his face has gone grey”.

I didn’t want to be that guy, but it scared me that I could easily imagine myself in the same situation. I’d been there before. I could feel his pain; the racing heartbeat and the gut-wrenching self-recrimination, knowing that he was perfectly capable of doing it earlier.

I had always been a serial procrastinator. During my undergraduate degree, I constantly left work until the final possible moment (or later). There was a set pattern; after coursework was set, I never worried about it until the deadline was looming. Even by the time it became urgent, I’d still find myself doing other things; anything other than work. Still, I managed to get through on late nights and buckets of coffee.

When I reached the final year of my PhD, I had little in the way of results, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and was wasting huge amounts of each day stuck on the internet. It felt like I was working – I was expending energy anyway – but without any forward momentum.

It seemed I had no control over the outcome of the research. I’d put hours in; sometimes it’d work out, more often I’d get nothing, and sometimes I’d end up undoing work I’d already done. My default would be to go and waste half an hour on the internet when something went wrong, or when I just couldn’t find the motivation to do anything productive, so then I’d end up feeling guilty about not doing enough work.

In the summer of my final year, I was on the verge of a breakdown. I didn’t have enough results, time was running out, my personal life was a mess, and I absolutely believed that I was going to fail. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and the whole thing seemed pointless. I had trouble sleeping, which in turn meant I couldn’t function during the day, and the whole cycle just continually reinforced itself.

I’d become extremely irritable, even shouting at a first-year student for doing nothing more than asking how it was going.

PhD’s are supposed to be difficult; at a basic level that’s the whole point of them. But when it affects your mental and physical well-being, something has to change.  In July 2006, two months before my funding was due to run out, I hit rock bottom. The mental defences I’d built up against my situation, which largely involved carrying on as normal, were blown apart.

I was depressed and desperate, but was forced to actually face up to reality rather than simply trudging on waiting for something to change. I realised that if I was stressed, miserable and getting nowhere, then I was doing something wrong.

Where do you go when things aren’t going to plan?

So what did I do? Work longer hours to try to make up for lost ground? No. I relaxed. I started looking after the simple things, like my mental health, by taking a walk around the campus when things weren’t going right, rather than defaulting to checking email. I could think the problem over and go back to it when I was ready.

That one habit alone saved my PhD. Without spending any more time in the lab, and far less time at a computer, my productivity rocketed. I started getting results, started to regain confidence, and started to think that I might actually pass my PhD.

Where you go, physically and psychologically, when things aren’t going exactly to plan can have a massive effect on how quickly you can get back on track. My old default habits of reverting to the internet to fill up time and avoid the problem whenever I lost momentum were destructive, but not in an obvious way. It took a bit of trauma to force me to actually asses them.

Often, physically stepping back from the source of stress can help gain a new perspective, but I think the key is not to let information in as a distraction, and let the brain engage with the problem in a relaxed way. In any kind of research, things will go wrong at some point and we can’t always control everything, but we can always choose how to respond. The point though is that it needs to be a conscious choice, not just reverting to habit.