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?

Win more grants

Ask yourself the following questions: 
Do I think it’s possible for me to write better grant applications? 
Am I willing to challenge my own preconceived ideas of the grant application process? 
Am I willing to overcome the depression I will feel after I discover that the grant application system is not about the quality of ideas? 
Would it be great if I can increase my application success rate? 

If you answered yes to all of the above, then this is the book for you

This book has a straightforward purpose. To increase your chances of winning grants. It does this by looking at all the factors that influence the likely success of your application, The decision to fund grant proposals is ultimately made by humans, and humans are inherently fickle and unsystematic, and are influenced by many factors beyond the pages of your grant proposal document. 

If you are having trouble getting grants funded, then perhaps now more than ever before is the time to try something different. As national funding agencies struggle to maintain historical levels of financial support for researchers in the face of budget cuts and other “austerity measures”, competition for grants is more fierce than ever. 

There are already many, many, books on grant writing, but I wrote this book because all the grant writing books I ever saw were just too basic. They cover all the right topics and they go through all the correct procedures. They help you to craft a well-formulated case and help you submit a high quality grant application. All important stuff, if you don’t know it already. But most colleagues of mine already know how to compose a high quality application. They have seen examples, or are writing their case with some help from colleagues who have done it before. They are not novices. They don’t need help in putting together a high quality application. 

The problem is that a “high quality application” is no longer enough to secure funding for your research, because every application being considered (at the final round, at least) is a well formulated, appropriately structured, excellent proposal. The quality of the project you are proposing is not the differentiator that will get it funded. I’m not saying that quality is not important. I’m saying that you are not even in the running if your grant proposal doesn’t meet high standards, but it has to be more than just “high quality” to get funded. 

So I wrote this book for people who can already write a good grant proposal and know the ropes. It is for people who apply for grants, have possibly even won some of them, but overall don’t win them as often as they would like. It is for people who want to spend less time writing grant proposals, and more time doing their research and teaching. 

This book is based on my own experiences as a grant proposal writer (as an academic) and as a member of various panels deciding on grants. Beyond that, I also bring a different perspective based on my experience as a founder of two start up companies, and an adviser to a further two. Raising investment for a start up is very similar to writing a grant application: you have a great idea, you get a team together and you pitch for funding. In this book, it is the mentality of “pitching” that I bring to the challenge of grant writing. That is why I believe it is different to the other books on winning grants.