When you click on a region on Google maps under satellite view it will first come in fuzzy. If it is a well-covered area, it will gradually come into focus in amazing detail. Other less popular regions never come into focus. I view a successful academic career as bringing a fuzzy area into focus.
What does this mean exactly? It means you choose some corner of the universe and learn how it works. You make observations no one else has made. You become the world expert on a small corner of the world, remembering to understand its links to other work. There are lots of ways to do this. Yesterday philosopher James Griesemer talked about model taxa studied in an integrative way that includes systematics, morphology, and development and used David Wake‘s work on salamanders as an example. He talked about the power of comparison, the power of knowing all the species in a clade, and about the love of a system studied for a lifetime.
But that is only one way of bringing focus. Someone else might study a particular pathway, or a model organism, leaving out the rest of the clade. Another person might write a taxonomy of a group like dragonflies or beetles from a certain region, thereby allowing others to know what they might be studying. Still others might study the history or philosophy behind the scientific approaches we take. We should also focus on our students, the shining gems of the future, for how much more we can understand the world if we lead others to do the same.
For success we need to explore a system and an idea, and help our students do the same. We need theory and observation. We need to remember how seldom ideas stand and constantly be open to new ones. We need to share our doubts and our methods. The thing about this definition of success is that it is focused on things we can do. Find something and study it. Find someone and teach them. Find a course and take it.
The satisfying thing about this definition of success is that it is under our control. We can never do everything, or please ourselves entirely. I will never write a book useful to identifying the wasps of Texas or Venezuela, or even the wasps of Houston, but this is an active choice, something I could change if it bubbled to the top of my priorities. I do not meet all the goals I set for myself, but they are all active ones, things I might do, with enough time. With this definition of success, you do not need to worry about whether you get this or that kind of recognition. It is nice, but has to follow so many rules outside scientific excellence, that it would only be frustrating to make recognition a goal. Concentrate instead on bringing that fuzzy region into focus. Recognition will follow, perhaps in surprising ways.