What once seemed lacking,
Met tempered expectations.
Arrived all the same.
When I first started at JPL, I was once asked what I considered the most profound contribution of my PhD. I snarkily replied that if my PhD had been successful at all, I'd be off setting up my own lab or doing my own thing, not supporting other people's tasks. My guess is that most academics don't think of a doctorate as a multi-year detour before joining everyone else in the real world. I'll be the first to admit that's a little negative, but even when confronted with the historical numbers, I wonder how many graduate students are ready to accept that in all likelihood, their work would be middling at best. How would their priorities change? Would they push themselves harder or not so much? Would they give up all that much sooner?
I've told more than a few people that I think the main difference between a successful advisor/mentor and a fumbling novice is their sense of timescales, not their experience. So much of success depends on a haphazard combination of hard work, fortuitous timing, and appropriate decision making (writes the guy struggling to define his variation of success). Assuming he or she's not just riding a perpetual wave of good fortune or superhuman willpower, I believe that the truly successful ones have the hindsight and patience to ride out the frustrations, setbacks, and missed shots, all while maintaining the faith that another opportunity will come as long as they do just enough to keep the lights on.
I'd say that even now, as salty as I tend to be, I've always been driven to try hard. I may not have the right smarts, and I may not have the useful connections, but hey, at least I'm in full control of my effort, so why not maximize the fuck out of that? Why leave anything on the table? If you half-ass something and fail, how can you ever say you gave it a fair shot?
During my senior design course, a shop manager told me a story of a team some years before ours that made a collective decision to stop trying midway through the semester and take a C on the course. They instead focused on their other courses and only put in enough effort to ensure that they could pass the course and graduate. At some point, enough of the team simply made the decision that a Deadpool-level of maximum effort simply wasn't worth it.
That story bothered me for a long time. Hell, it still bothers me. At the time, I couldn't believe that anyone could just quit like that on something that was such a big part of the meche curriculum at MIT. Nowadays, I can't believe they had the (metaphorical) balls to do the right thing. It's more than just a case of having the aptitude to identify diminishing returns. I think a significant component of success is aggressively and fervently sticking with doing just the bare minimum in the right situations, nothing more and nothing less. That's the magic of 'good enough.'
There's generally a finite amount of time and resources for any attempt. A finite amount of time to get the bare essentials to support a proper attempt. A limit to the number of mistakes you can make. An end to any remaining grace periods approaching on the horizon. This idea of an enlightened expert or an irrationally impassioned hard worker breaking through all obstacles just doesn't ring as true to me anymore. I think that the successful ones figured out not only what to prioritize, but also the bare minimum, most efficient courses of action were. Spend a little too much time here, miss an opportunity somewhere else. Commit a little too much effort on something, no longer have the energy to work on something else. Give up just slightly too early to focus on an alternative, turns out you were on the right path all along. It's like running a race without ever being told what's up ahead or how long is left.
The winding roads from start to finish aren't always clear. Sometimes they suck, sometimes they're incomplete, and sometimes you get knocked off-course. When do we struggle? When do we push forward? When do we bide our time and wait for better conditions? How far are we willing to go down a wrong path to get back on track? There's generally so much talk about shortcuts and planning that I think we forget about the journey, one that doesn't always make sense, as LA traffic should remind us daily.
I understand effort, and I still have some to spare. I can figure out new things and seek the insight that I need. But I have no idea what's good enough.