My 5 Secrets of Success

You will pay good money for books and workshops on how to be a success — in business, in life, in everything.   For the benefit of my children, and anyone else who is interested, I distill here a century of self-help books, and 40+ years of experience, into the following 5 “secrets of success”.

1. Be lucky.   
I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but most of the “success” advice out there misses one key ingredient: luck. Luck is extremely important (see Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, and my Win More Grants blog). People who consider themselves successful usually downplay the role of luck, and up-play the role of their talents and actions in achieving success. They then write books and give talks, on the assumption that if you follow their advice, you too will be a success like them. Of course, “luck favours the prepared”, which is why there are four more items on this list. You can also improve your luck (see “The Luck Factor”, by Richard Wiseman, for instance). And certainly, if you want to win the lottery, you need to buy a ticket. To double your chances of winning, buy two tickets. If you want that dream job, you need to apply. And keep applying. If you want to run a successful charity, you need to start one. And so on….

Unfortunately, the one luck factor that has an enormous impact on your likelihood of success (at least by some criteria) is the socio-economic status of your parents. I’m afraid I can’t offer advice on how to change that, other than to encourage everyone to remember this fact when voting at the next election.

Do you know what "success" means to you?

Do you know what “success” means to you?

2. Know yourself
You are your own eternal life partner. Your own business partner. You are always there, with you, all the time. So, make sure you know who you are working with. Spend time finding out about who you are. Explore all the possible ways to discover yourself — meditation, counselling, coaching, just talking with friends, or writing things down, etc. Find the one that works for you. If you want to steer a path through life that suits you, the more you know about you, the better.

3. Be good
I don’t mean Mother-Theresa-style good. I simply mean be true to your own values (and if you did (2) properly, you will know what that means). Be tolerant of others, and of yourself. Be generous. Be courteous and polite. Behave. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Help others succeed, especially when they haven’t had as much of (1) as you. Always look for a win-win — if you live your life thinking that everything is a zero-sum game, someone will always lose. On your path to success, the least you can do is leave positive ripples behind you.

4. Define your success
Once in a while, someone finds their success by accident (see (1)). But for the rest of us, we need to work at it. We are more likely to achieve “success” if we actually know what that means. Ask yourself this: if I wake up tomorrow morning and I have achieved “success”, then what would it look like? What would be different? Success means different things to different people. Do you know what success means to you?

5. Do
All of the above only happens if you make it happen. Act. By all means wait for life to happen to you. But you increase your chances of achieving your own idea of success if you actually get on and “do”. Besides, it is the “doing” of all of the above that makes the journey much more fun.

Good luck.


Why bother writing grant proposals? 

Writing grants is a tiresome, thankless task.  I’ve never known overall success rates on grant schemes to be more than 50%, and even that is only one scheme I came across in nearly 20 years of seeking research funding.  Somewhere between 10-25% seems to be typical, from my experience. Perhaps that’s because if overall success rates were higher, the funding agency might feel they are not getting enough choice. Whereas if it drops significantly below 10% (and potential applicants know that it has) then the number of applicants probably starts to dwindle.  In terms of the success rates of individuals, the literature typically seems to suggest that a success rate of 40% to be the boundary between high and low performers. That is, to be considered as a “high performer” in terms of winning grants, you would be winning more than 2 out of every 5 of grants that you submit.

It is safe to say, then, that most of the time, whoever you are, your grant writing will mostly be in vain, and doubly frustrating if your chance of success is random and steered by a group who aren’t really experts in grant selection.  It shouldn’t be considered a complete waste of time, though, as material can be recycled and the process of writing a grant application often helps formulate better ideas.   So, what I propose here is that you spend just a little bit of time thinking through why you actually want to write a grant! I don’t want to talk you out of it, but it’s important that you are motivated.  There is much to be done, in preparation as well as execution, so you need to decide whether you want to invest the time doing it as well as you possibly can (with a view to doing it less often, as your success rate increases), or that you are happy with your current success rates, and that is fine for your purposes, whatever they may be.

So, ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve by getting a successful grant application?”

Some people write grants because they believe they need it for promotion. If you are one of those people, ask yourself this question: how much do I need to bring in, on average, ever year, in grant income in order to make a good case for promotion.  Take that number and divide by your success rate. (If you don’t know your average success rate, take 20% as a reasonable ballpark figure, so you divide your number by 0.2).  This is how much money you need to be applying for every year, in total, to meet your target.   And even if you are successful, you still need to apply for this amount every year (otherwise you need to multiply by the number of years your projects last).  For example, if you think you need to bring in £100,000 per year, on average, and your success rate is 20%, then you need to apply for grants totally £500,000 every year.

Perhaps you simply have a great idea and just want to see it happen?   Then focus on choosing the right funding source, and work hard, using the tips in the book.  If that doesn’t work, and you really want to see your idea happen, then get a better team behind you. The track record of the team is the one thing that is sure to improve your chances (although not guaranteed to get you funding). The risk to you is that someone else takes the lead and gets all the credit when it finally happens, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you consider it more important to see the idea being funded than you getting the glory. If you prefer the glory, then go back to the beginning and work doubly hard.

So, do you know why you are putting in all that effort into proposal writing?

If grant selection were random, could you tell?

(This post is based on an excerpt from one of the “Tips for Managers” sections in  Win More Grants eBook now available on Amazon and iBooks.)


The randomness of grant success is potentially a very touchy subject given that academia typically rewards those staff who bring in lots of grant funding by giving them promotion. W. Edwards Demming wrote substantially on this topic and specifically in his classic book, Out of the Crisis.  In it he warns of the problems associated with merit systems that are simply lotteries. Here is an extract, where he quotes from The Face of Battle, by John Keegan.

As to the influence and genius of great generals – there is a story that Enrico Fermi once asked General Leslie Groves how many generals might be called ‘great’. Groves said about three out of every 100. Fermi asked how a general qualified for the adjective and Groves replied that any general who had won five major battles in a row might safely be called great. This was in the middle of World War II. Well, then, said Fermi, considering that the opposing forces in most theatres of operation are roughly equal, the odds are one of two that a general will win a battle, one of four that he will win two battles in a row, one of eight for three, one of sixteen for four, one of thirty-two for five. “So, you are right, General, about three out of every 100. Mathematical probability, not genius”.

We can apply the same logic to grant applications. Let us consider thirty equally clever, equally qualified, equally creative academics and ask them to apply for a grant-funding round that has a success rate of one in five (20%) that is offered once a year.  After five years, that is five applications each, we would actually expect one third not to have had a grant awarded. That is, ten out the thirty would still not have had a successful grant application, even after five applications. In a competitive academic environment this would seem disheartening and entirely depressing to the individual and their self-esteem. On top of that, a typical management regime would consider this to be underperformance and they certainly wouldn’t be looking at these individuals for promotion. Instead, management will be considering putting forward for promotion the two staff members that managed to get three or more grants, and perhaps thinking about it for the six who won two of the five. This is a merit system that works on a lottery.

Of course, this is contentious and perhaps it is not quite as simple as that, but it is certainly worth discussion. Managers and senior staff will tend to disagree wholeheartedly with the notion, but that is to be expected – they will not want to acknowledge any flaw in a system in which they have been rewarded on their “merit”. And while people who are frustrated by their lack of success will find solace in such mathematics, they shouldn’t use this as an excuse not to look for possible other reasons why they are not being successful.

But here is one final thought. There is no evidence that quality is the determinant of grant success (that is not to say it is not, simply that there is no evidence that it is) but there is evidence that track record (i.e. previous success) is correlated with success. Early winners of grants (by luck) are more likely to win subsequent grants, and whether by luck or not, they have set themselves on a good career path.

So, as managers, what should you take from this? Firstly, don’t be fooled by the statistics of grant success. Staff who win more grants are not necessarily producing work of any better quality than those who don’t. Secondly, nothing succeeds like success. If you put a great deal of time and effort into supporting staff onto the first rung of the “winning” ladder, this is likely to be the most effective way of improving their chances of further success.

(Read more, buy the eBook:  Win More Grants.)

The myth of the “expert panel”


(This post is based on an excerpt from Win More Grants eBook.)

A common phrase to be heard in the procedures that evaluate, and decide upon, research grant applications, is the “expert panel”.  Many of us wish to hold to the idea that the so-called “expert panel” should just be trusted to get it right – to make a wise choices about which grants should be funded, and which should not. They are, after all, experts.

Unfortunately, this is entirely misleading.

That phrase, “expert panel”, is often used to describe the “jury” that will judge your grant application. But the word “expert” can mean many things, and in this case it is used entirely misleadingly. What your funding agency is actually saying is that the panel is composed of members who are knowledgable experts in their field, not that they are experts at making judgements about grant applications. Unsurprisingly, therefore, we tend to conflate the two, and think they are the same. They are not the same. To become an expert at choosing the best grants, you would need feedback on your decision making. Without feedback on a task you simply cannot become an expert in that task. You cannot become an expert dart thrower without knowing what score you got each time. You cannot become an expert decision maker without knowing the consequences of decisions.

To become an expert grant selector would require situations whereby you could grade a set of grant applications, have them all funded and then later receive feedback on how well they all did, and whether your predicted rankings were accurate or not. To the best of my knowledge, this never happens.

Given that most grant applications are of excellent quality anyway, it is not surprising that the grants that are funded are successful. This positively reinforces the funding agency’s perception that the experts are doing their job well, and positively reinforces the panel members perception that they are experts at choosing grants. So, the important point to note is that when people refer to an “expert panel” they are referring to expertise in the subject, not expertise in grading grants. That is a pretty important distinction.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to make that distinction.   But remember it, next time you apply of a grant, or next time you are on a panel.