The secret behind success: It's not what you might expect...

By James Hayton,
October 23, 2013
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

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 thoughtWhen 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-beliefIt 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 liberatingThese 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)
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