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)

39 thoughts on “The secret behind success: It’s not what you might expect…”

  1. Excellent observations. If I may add one which underpins your ability to communicate this, it’s that of self awareness. Being tuned in to what’s going on inside you, listening to and observing your own state. I don’t believe this correlates with academic intelligence, which is why it is so important to highlight it to PhD researchers. I know of at least one person who is academically very capable of attaining a doctorate but is “emotionally shallow” to the extent that there is no understanding of what makes herself tick.
    Thank you for an astute observation succinctly presented, and one worth keeping foremost in one’s mind even for those who do possess self knowledge.

  2. Dear James
    Thank you so much for sharing all these insights! I’m so impressed by the depth and the clarity of them. And they are highly helpful to me.
    I too suffer from depression from time to time. There is this incredible feeling of me being all wrong and everything being completely senseless. It’s encouraging for me to read that I am not alone with this and that you actually managed to write a phd. And a very good one even. I am still in the process of writing and really really thankful for this encouragement (I am in a down-phase right now, but I know, this will only be temporarily.)
    Also, your speech that you held in Edinburgh (I found it on youtube) is brilliant and has also helped me enormously. I agree with you: When things seem to go completely wrong and seem totally useless, it’s important to take off some pressure and give myself time to rest and to think creatively. It takes courage to stop in a time of stress. But it’s probably very important.
    Do you know Eckhart Tolle? The two of you seem to share some common experiences.
    Thank you so much and kind regards from Switzerland,

    • I do know Eckhart Tolle… Our experiences aren’t exactly the same, and he comes at things from a more spiritual point of view, but there is at least some common ground between what we say!

  3. I am so lucky that I did a positive procrastination and bumped to this website. I am extremely under stress now and completely under denial that I actually depressed. Some people have stopped talking to me for good.

    I just got your book. When I read the introduction where you wrote about your undergraduate, somehow I could relate to that. My GPA was always average.

    Next month, I have to submit my PhD thesis abstract. I am under stress but thank God I found your web.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. great discussion.

    I’m suffer from great depression and want to be perfect. I don’t know how to overcome the problem.

    it is very hard to tell or even speak to othrr people about them.

    I’m feeling down, it take me a year trying to gain my mlife back. still trying

  5. James- Thank you, really. The courage you have to speak up about your struggles and to share your success is really empowering .

    • Thank you for putting it out here. I am glad I googled ‘scared phd student’ and hit on your column. My thoughts resonate with your blog post. I am probably reading this quite late. I am a grad student and have been struggling to stay calm.

      The dichotomy of self belief as you spoke about is a double edged sword. As much as I believe I am meant to do great things in my life, I do feel at times that I am worth nothing at all. Self pity at times but mostly self abhorrence.

      The fear of exposure of my inner struggling self is paramount over all other fears. In fact I would go on to say I have come to feel that I fear no pain, not even death, I fear being seen for what I actually think of myself. In fact I have contemplated what people would think about me if I were to lose my life by my own hands. I’ll be happier to meet with an accident than being shown truly what I possess or m possessed with.

      I am being quite blunt here but I literally visualize my advisors killing me not for fun but to purge this world of me. That’s the extent of my self degradation. Even more the physical manifestation of the stress is worse. I feel my stomach churning and feel excessively sick of fear of exposure.

      These are the segments of my life. Ironically I am a funny happy go lucky guy. I am quite invested in learning new skills cooking, music, dancing, mimicry. I think I am constantly afraid of the time when I shall implode. I am a deer caught in the headlights of an internal shock of lack of control.

      The scene from inception where they lie on the tracks waiting for a train to come is my life.
      But I’ll still shall hopes I write this

      • It might be a good idea to speak to the university counseling service, just to let it all out in a confidential setting. I went and had a few sessions when I was at rock-bottom, and it was well worth it

  6. James
    Thanks for an honest discussion and insight. I am just starting out on my PhD journey (quite late in my career 😉 and your site and recent lecture provide a lot of inspiration.

    I don’t suffer from depression (‘dark’ thoughts, as many do, from time to time) but I certainly do know others and the impact it has on their lives, careers, family and friends. One of my colleagues has been doing a lot of social research in this area with regards to anti-depressant medication, which was recently launched by Alastair Campbell.
    Readers may find the following website helpful

    Best wishes

    • It’s great to see that I am not alone.

      I has caught in PhD for FIVE! year since I was 22.
      I curled myself into the corner and cried a lot, finding no mean of my life and work.
      I thought I was crappy, paralyzed and unable to fulfill anything.

      I have a nice tutor but only recently I have a talk with him about my problem.
      We worked together to figure out the framework of my thesis.
      He encouraged me to take my time and work hard.

      I think I still stuff much emotion; and I feel tired of the lab, the dormitory.
      I don’t know how long I can persevere.

      • Does your university have a counseling service? If so it might help just to be able to talk about it openly but in confidence

        • Thank you James!
          I really appreciate your courage and efforts.

          Actually, I found your Web by Googling the words “I hate research” this morning (and I’m in China where lots of people believe depressing and anxious people are either mad or lazy).

          I feel much better in the afternoon and night.
          But I am not sure how long this peaceful situation will last.
          I’ve consulted the clinical psychologist and I’m taking some mild medicine to help me feel better.

          I wasted so much time and I always feel guilty.
          But I don’t want to screw my PhD up.

          I will follow your web. Encouragement and replies from the other side of earth make this day not so bad.
          Thanks a lot!

  7. Thank you so much for this post, it could not have come at a better time for me! I am currently coming to the end of my second year of my PhD in English literature and of actual chapter content I feel I have nothing to properly written… I am now ready to accept that this is because I am a chronic perfectionist, absolutely terrified of failure, and have thus become a terrible procrastinator. I am also juggling a university teaching internship, an editorial position for a journal, tutoring high school students, and learning how to be a full-time step mum… All at 23. Needless to say, my stress levels are through the roof and I lately I am just not coping like I used to be able to at the start of my PhD. I have even started having panic attacks and find just getting out of bed in the morning is hard because of this constant feeling of anxiety. I am just so worried that I have neglected my PhD for too long that getting back into writing has become terrifying. By your post, and your blog, have helped me realise I am not alone in these feelings. And perhaps more importantly, that it is ok to experience them! I suppose now I just need to figure out some better ways of coping with the stress! Thank you for your bravery to write about something so many of us are afraid to even admit we experience.

  8. Positively bewildering and absolutely self-confirming. I didn’t expect you to write that. I am so glad you did. I won’t elaborate any further than to say: I can relate. Mercifully that doesn’t feel entirely bad. Thanks.

  9. What an inspirational thing to wake up to as I sit in a cabin where I have sequestered myself in Northiern Canada finally trying to make headway on my dissertation as the snow falls around me…..when I got here it was warm and sunny:-). Ironically, or not perhaps, my research focuses on mental health and addictions, and I too suffer from chronic social and performance anxieities combined with bouts of paralizing depression. The fact that I have a pretty good understanding of the dynamics of mental illness merely speaks to the power it has to overcome all the rationaling we or others might do.

    Like others, I too greatly appreciated how you have so eloquently found a silver lining. Truth of the matter is that I have sometimes considered the up sides of being so immersed and obsessive at times, but heareing someone else say it out loud–or rather in black and white–gives it a new legitimacy and power. Moreover, the downsides of this state in terms of unhappiness and life disruption has caused me to overlook the upsides and wish that things were completely different…whereas the way I am has undoubtedly resulted in the levels of success that I have thus far realized in my life. So like most things, it is about finding that balance. And more specifically form me, about tempering those negative thoughts to some extent.

    To that end I too have engaged with mindfulness meditation, and tried to simplyify my life so as to avoid all of those distractions (other tasks, television, alcohol, junk food) that I latch on to avoid my anxieties which , of course, compromises my physical and mental health in the end…not t mentiaon adds to a growing tuition bill:-)

    And as much as society has become more familiar with and accepting of mental health issues, unfortunately a deep seeded victim blaming persissts and nowhere is this more applicabl than in the case of academia where toughing it out, publishing or perishing still the norm irrespective of more promising outward appearances. But I digess critically on what was an otherwise a refreshingly positive moment. Typical academic:-)

  10. Thank you.

    On the days I am debilitated, unable to enjoy anything, and too afraid to talk, the only thing that rescued me and keeps me going was and is art. I have always been the artistic type; writing, painting – but somehow only when my life suddenly lost all meaning, my art found one. Until then I was just pretending to make art, it was something I naturally did and enjoyed but it never felt like my soul was in there. It was more like practising, like doing a hobby. Now it is survival.

    I get the feeling that I’m ruining my life because of how sad or empty I am most of the time. I feel enormous amounts of guilt towards myself and the people who care about me. I even feel horrible for having thought of this terrible cliche of the tortured artist, having thought that maybe depression can be a good thing because I’m so creative, because I make things I can share with people and comfort them. So, thank you for writing this: it makes me think that it’s not me who’s broken, but the world. And I have to carry it.

  11. Hi James, reading the comments (and the post) clearly this is a topic which resonates with many readers. Like far to many people, I also suffer with depression. However, perhaps a change of tact in describing depression is called for. I also have asthma, but rarely describe this as a suffering, it’s simply a part of my physical and mental make-up. Maybe we need to say that depression is less of a suffering and more of a genetic make-up? For asthma I use an inhaler and exercise. For depression I try to meditate and exercise. Asthma has inspired to work on my aerobic capacity to help to cope. Depression has provided me an opportunity to explore my mind and digger deeper than perhaps I would have without depression.. To be clear, I am not suggesting that depression is a good thing, but rather than trying to defeat it, I try to work with it and see how the traits, that you eloquently described, it can be of benefit to me. Self-contemplation is always beneficial is this frantic and materialistic world.

    My motto has always been ‘How hard can it be?’ it transpires this has driven me to breaking point many times, but so far I have always survived.

    As ever James, really good work, and for this post alone you deserve a coffee from each person that comments….. C’mon Three month thesis fan-club, Let’s each buy this man some caffeine!

    • Hi Steve (thanks for the coffee)

      I see what you mean about the word suffering, and I did consider phrasing it differently and it was a conscious choice to phrase it that way. “I have depression” doesn’t feel right. It’s not what I wanted to say.

      I don’t disagree with you, I just think that’s a different blog post for another day.

  12. Great post – I work in the area of enterprise & mental health and have seen both the negative sides of severe mental health problems and the positive drives, energy and creativity. Thanks for all your blogging…

  13. Congratulations for coming out! I am still uncomfortable openly discussing ‘myself’ as you have done in this blog, but I have reached many of the same conclusions as you. I was never been diagnosed as being depressed, probably because I have never went back for follow ups to the uni counsellor! I have always treated myself from the ‘self belief’ I possess. I too have spent weeks in inertia, weeks in obsessive thoughts, weeks in doubts, but people find it hard to believe, because on the outset, I too have many achievements you can count. I am 27, mother of a gorgeous toddler and nearly finishing off my PhD (ahem, contemplating a 3 months thesis!). I have lived in 4 countries, spent significant time in many other cities. I have been a highly successfully blogger in a different language, I always meet people who are thrilled to meet me in person.

    My self-treatment involves something that I am not comfortable discussing in scientific circles because of the existing prejudice. I am a practising Muslim. I am obliged to pray 5 times a day within definite time frames. It is highly recommended to wake up pre-dawn for a sixth set of voluntary prayers. I can cancel appointments, but I cannot forgo of my prayers, however bad quality they may be, which stops me from falling into absolute abyss. When I suffer from inertia, a few days of the pre-dawn prayer really helps putting things into perspective. People generally think of holy books to be either full of words of rewards-punishments, or fluffy love and hope. But I find Quran to be full of truisms and great ‘reminders’ for a healthy living. In fact, ‘reminder’ is one of the most recurring words in the Quran. Being a mother also helps! While I have less ‘me time’ now, which I need for my personality type, I do think having a little person to take care of puts a brake on all the obsessive self-doubts!

  14. Thanks for sharing your story.

    I want to share my point of view in general regarding how to overcome these kinds of feelings under the phylosophy of life.

    It is simply about the concept of how we reach “real success” and “true happiness” in our life. Literally I think differently than most people nowadays think about them.

    There is another way of understanding success by knowing the composition of human being. Human is composed of two parts: Body, Spirit or soul. People need to eat every day to supply their bodies with energy and to keep them healthy. If they stop eating for a period of time, diseases will sneak up upon them and overtake them. Similarly, people also need food of another kind, food for the spirit and soul. In other words, the real Success is about the balance between making “living” and making a” life”. we need to make a wonderful living to fulfil our physical desires, but at the same time we need to work hard on the invisible part to reach the real success.

    How to achieve the true happiness-? , Is it enough to just be rich and famous to be really happy. Sometime these kinds of success lead us to the other way around. What kind of happiness you need to reach then? . You need to know the purpose of our life, and to fulfil the requirements of reaching the real success in order to reach the ultimate result “ true happiness”.

    Overall, Lets calculate it mathematically as a PhD student in Computer Science:

    Fulfilling the requirements of reaching the real success (Faith + Righteous Deeds + Exhortation to Truth + Exhortation to Patience) = Real success
    Real Success + knowing the propose of life = True happiness

    Many thanks again.

  15. Thank you for this post, James. I really appreciate your honesty on the subject of depression. It’s strange that mental health issues are ignored or only spoken of in hushed tones given how many people experience depression or anxiety. I think so many people, myself included, just see it as a weakness and something to be battled against rather than worked with or accepted. It’s really hard to break that pattern of thinking as it seems to have been drummed into me over the years (probably by myself and my own expectations of myself rather than by other people now I come to think of it…) I’ve come to realise though that putting the extra pressure on myself to perform when in the depths of the blackness is pointless and just makes things worse.

    You make an interesting link between the obsessive thoughts and depression/creativity. Have you got any tips for channeling your energy and obsessions and breaking thought patterns? I’ve tried the “I just don’t give a f***” approach to my work and found it helpful… it definitely helps with breaking the perfectionist thinking with writing but still struggle with being able to get the fear of failure obsession out of my head enough to actually finish writing. I also find myself obsessing over things that have got nothing to do with my PhD and researching them instead, sometimes for days on end without moving away from my computer. I just am at a loss to know how to focus the obsessive energy (though removing the internet helps…)

    Anyway, thanks again. Reading this post tonight has been really helpful for me, as it has been for many others I imagine.

  16. Thank you James for this brilliant post which speaks volumes about your honesty and deep integrity.

    When I trained as a psychiatric nurse in the 1980’s, mental health issues were a great unspoken and we were once described as the price society paid for keeping it that way by working almost invisibly to support people whose lives were often fractured and isolated from their families.

    In the decades since, more and more people have spoken up and out and everyone, like you, who does makes it that bit easier for others to do so and deepen the well of understanding and compassion for those who suffer (which is the correct term) from depression. Society’s tolerance and acceptance of those with mental health needs is now greater than even the most optimistic could have hoped and that has to be better for us all. Much of that is down to those who acknowledge their inner lives, like you have, and give permission for others to do so too. I trust the feedback and support you are receiving underlines the default setting of compassion that exists in most people.

    Finally, you mentioned doing meaningful work and having you as my own thesis coach is testament to that. You make an enormous difference and you matter. For that, I and many others, thank you sincerely.

    Talk to you later!

  17. Hey James,

    this post is to great value for me. Although I wouldn’t say I”m depressed, I recognise a lot of the things you are saying and it’s nice to know that other are struggling with this as well. For me it manifests in days where can be most sociable and confident that people say it works inspiring, to just being on myself in my apartment for a week, cancelling all appointments and just wandering about.

    I recognise the need to become the best version of yourself. Physically and mentally pushing yourself to that limit and being devastated if you don’t reach the goal you set yourself. Even if the result is remarkable, if it isn’t the mark you set, it’s worth nothing.

    I also believe that creativity and suffering go together. In a talk of John Cleese on creativity he speaks about the fact that creative people simply ponder longer on finding that original solution. This pondering can become so extreme that it’s numbing. It is torture and can consume you completely for days on end. The weird thing is that this is, for me, the breeding ground for my best concepts/ideas. Trick is to focus this compulsion on usefull things. Can’t say I always manage to do that. Also keeping focus to actually develop an idea or research it, maintain that focus is the hardest thing for me.

    for me balancing these “alone” days, spent thinking, combined with “public” days speaking, networking, teaching… works.

  18. This is a truly excellent post, thank you James. I suffer from anxiety, but alas don’t benefit from the obsessive thinking in the direction of my research! I do make an effort to to talk about it a lot though, and particularly to anyone who expresses something that sounds like anxiety or depression. I feel that the normalisation of these types of feelings is as important as recognising that the thought patterns can be disrupted and can be managed over time.

    Like you, I have a degree of self-assurance and so it can be difficult sometimes for others to believe me when I talk about my anxiety! – How can someone who on one hand believes in themselves, also suffer from so much self-doubt? – However, this confidence also means that I deliberately, and repeatedly, put myself into situations, like the PhD, that I find uncomfortable and scary.

    Thank you for speaking up, I hope that many more will do the same.

  19. Brave and wise words. Well done on being so open and encouraging people to talk about this, one of the few big taboos we still have as a society, joining the ranks of folks like Stephen Fry (who also views his manic depression as a blessing and a curse).

    Knowing that my being stressed can lead to depression is one reason I follow your site- the more ways to reduce stress when doing something like a doctorate the better. My Uni counselling service recommended Mindfulness Meditation, in a form which is linked to CBT for stress although i believe it has wider applications in encouraging a more peaceful, centered, happier state. It seems quite similar to some of the things that you post here. It is something you would take on as an activity and skill for your whole life, and seems to me from what I’ve read- and experienced- so far that this can help stop the downward spirals that lead to depression. It’s early days yet, but I hear from creative people that it doesn’t stop the upside spirals of inspiration, so I’m hoping it will allow me to manage the down and benefit from the up-side. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has also used mindfulness for that and whether it works; I would recommend trying it at least.

  20. James: A very insightful expression. I too am depressed,most of the time, and yes, it’s very difficult to express one’s fellimgs to a non-professional individual. I have done well in most stages of college,and have attained straight A’s in Philosophy;however these achievements haven’t overcome my dark moods of depression. I have high’s and low’s, meaning a diagnosis of Bi-Polar Disorder. The only satisfaction I get from life is reading,and research. When I say this, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other parts of life. I love music, writing, traveling,and the like,and many other interests as well. My depression is somewhat reduced when I engage in something that has meaning for me.I,like you may seem contented on the outside, but within me lies a different story.Depression may be painful, but once you can overcome the sadness by immersing yourself into your passion of interest,your depression will ease. Thanks for contributing and explaining a somtimes overlooked disease.I have no problem speaking up for my feelings.

    • Thanks for the comment Marv! I think you’re right that immersion in something you love doing helps, but sometimes if the depression is severe it can prevent you from engaging. I hope you find happiness in whatever you do.

  21. Thank you James for this post. I suffer from depression too, and reading this gave me some hope for trying to accept it as part of me, rather than struggling against it, and to potentially see it as having (at times) a silver lining. It really hit home how isolating depression is, as to read of your experience made me well-up immediately with the recognition of it. You are so right in saying that no one speaks of this, or if they ever do (me included) the extent of it is greatly distanced or reduced, and so hearing your story was a great relief — to feel less alone, and to somehow feel kindness towards this part of myself because of that. My main way of coping is just to tell myself ‘hold on’, somehow that helps. Thanks again.

Comments are closed.