Editor’s Preamble to the Profile of James Willerson
Jim Willerson is a living legend in cardiovascular medicine. He is a splendid epitome of the scholar who has reached the pinnacle in all three facets of the academic triple threat: patient care, research, and education.
What I find most extraordinary about Jim Willerson is not his extraordinary career, whereby he rose to be President of The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and, now, of the Texas Heart Institute. It is not his ability to turn anything that he touches into gold, creating new programs and dramatically elevating existing programs wherever he goes. It is not his prodigious level of productivity, which has continued unabated for several decades. It is not his innumerable awards and recognitions. What I find most extraordinary is the intensity of this man—his total, relentless, and unconditional commitment to academic medicine. You cannot interact with him without being struck by his intensity. Below his calm, soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor burns the inextinguishable fire of a boundless passion. Jim Willerson is a man who lives his life as a mission—a mission to advance cardiovascular medicine.
What is the secret of his success? For this, I exhort you to read carefully the Profile below,1 where you will find a treasure trove of insights and advice. These are invaluable to everybody, but especially to young investigators. Like all highly successful people, Jim Willerson is blessed with a rare intellect; it is obvious that his superior intelligence and remarkable vision have played a major role in his career. These, however, are things that cannot be learned or acquired by others who don't have them. What can be learned and emulated by others are some of his habits, among which I would like to highlight 2 that I believe are essential for an investigator to succeed.
First and foremost is the habit of hard work. The most important statement that Jim Willerson makes is that “one can't really do anything of any significance without devoting oneself to the task and working hard.” As I have written before, this is one of the greatest truisms of life (and not just academic life, but life in general, as this axiom applies to anything that we wish to do). Of course, one must also possess talent, but that is not the most important thing. The most important thing for success is, by far, hard work. There is simply no substitute for good old-fashioned hard work. No talent, however great, can make up for it.
Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Curiosity, creativity, innovativeness, and even intelligence and talent will not be enough if they are not accompanied by long hours of hard work, day after day, week after week, year after year. To put it plainly: You can be smarter than Albert Einstein but, if you don't work hard, you will not go anywhere. The world is full of very smart people who never made it because they did not work hard. In biomedical research, where the educational system is fairly good at selecting the brightest students, there are tons of smart people competing with one another, and so intelligence is not a particularly distinctive or differentiating attribute. What does differentiate one investigator from another is their work habits. I have seen so many smart and talented investigators fail because they are lazy or want “reasonable” work hours. Sorry, success in research requires unreasonable work hours.
Let me repeat this concept one more time, lest it may go unnoticed: Nothing of any significance can be accomplished without a lot of hard work and without devoting ourselves to the task. I have underlined the sentence because it is my impression that young investigators are not told these things anymore; sadly, in today's culture, it seems no longer fashionable for mentors to tell young people that they must sweat and sacrifice in order to succeed. The truth, however, does not care whether it is told or not; failing to explain this truth to students/trainees does not change the reality of life.
The second habit that emerges from this interview, and that is also essential for an investigator to succeed, is perseverance, which is really a measure of one's inner strength. What makes it necessary is the fact that research is very arduous and very frustrating; ergo, one cannot achieve his/her goals unless he/she is able to persevere. Without perseverance, any effort will be futile and short-lived.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out another key ingredient of success that Jim Willerson embodies: drive. Although this is not a habit but rather an inherent personality trait, I wish to mention it because it is necessary to make things happen in research. In fact, it is an absolute sine qua non. Drive (the “fire in the belly”) is the force that fuels and propels research efforts, enabling us to overcome all sorts of difficulties. Unfortunately for those who don't have it, drive is innate: I don't know if it is genetic or acquired in early childhood (as a result of the environment in which a child grows up), but I know that once an individual reaches adulthood, drive cannot usually be taught, learned, transmitted, or acquired. Trying to instill drive in someone who doesn't have it is like trying to change someone's height—not only useless, but also counterproductive.
These are but some of the precious lessons embedded in the interview below. I hope that you will enjoy this Profile, which will give you a glimpse of the personality, qualities, and habits of this great man. I am certain that you will sense his extraordinary commitment. Commitment to caring for the sick. Commitment to advancing the frontiers of research. Commitment to teaching those who wish to be educated. For trainees and early career investigators and clinicians, Jim Willerson is one of the best role models that the academic world has to offer. His life and his work, as they transpire in this interview, teach us many things, among which is the fact that without total commitment and boundless effort, nothing of any significance is possible.
This Editor's Preamble was originally published as part of the interview with James Willerson for the Circulation Research series Profiles in Cardiovascular Science. The original article is available online at http://circres.ahajournals.org/content/110/3/381.full
- © 2015 American Heart Association, Inc.