In an article about memoirs, a copy of Hope Jahren's Lab Girl

An Actress, a Scientist and an Attorney Define Success in their Memoirs

Amy Poehler, Hope Jahren and James Comey reveal that although success seems bright and shiny from the outside, the journey there is often bumpy.
July 7, 2020
8 mins read

Oftentimes, memoirs begin when their authors identify what contributions they can make to the world and what equips them to succeed. In her memoir, “Yes Please,” Amy Poehler describes it as “know[ing] your currency,” that is, ⁠⁠the unique talents, strengths and experience you have to offer. To Poehler, knowing her currency meant realizing and reminding herself that personality is far more valuable than beauty. By acknowledging that there will always be someone more attractive than you, you are freeing yourself to excel in different areas. According Poehler, success is filled with MSG, and she’s not wrong. Success is addictive, insubstantial, unpredictable and unsustainable. In her memoir, Poehler elaborates: “You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful … It doesn’t matter how much you get; you are left wanting more.”

The path to success can also be lonely, as renowned geochemist and geo-biologist Hope Jahren argues in her memoir, “Lab Girl.” Despite the immense gratification that came with making her first important discovery, Jahren was also reminded of her loneliness from prioritizing her career in science over starting a family. Success can be alienating when you have to sacrifice pleasing the public for the sake of your values. Nevertheless, achievement in one area of life might require other dreams to be put on hold. Jahren knew she had what it took to be a scientist, so she chose to delay starting a family.

James Comey, former FBI director and author of the memoir “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” also touches on the difficulty of choosing between personal values and public approval. He chose to reopen the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, despite knowing that there was a possibility of jeopardizing her candidacy, which he did not want to do. Turning a blind eye to the controversy because he favored Clinton would have been unethical. Although the extent of the investigation’s effect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election is unknown, he has to live with public disapproval of his decision.

In these three memoirs, accomplished authors share wisdom on how to navigate success in the real world. By being both realistic and encouraging, their words can serve as a guide at any point in your career.

The three memoirs also encourage readers to try new things before they are ready, because feelings of “readiness” will never truly come. As we have all been told at some point, embrace discomfort, embarrassment and the fear of failure. These memoirs help us address how we can make this process easier. Poehler suggests “do[ing] work that you are proud of with your talented friends.” In her memoir, she thanks numerous brilliant coworkers and creators, especially her best friend, Tina Fey, who recruited her to join the “SNL” cast. The two comedians first bonded over a Chicago improv class, and supported one another as each found fame. They even won the first-ever shared Emmy Award together.

Similarly, Jahren worked with longtime-friend Bill Hagopian throughout her entire career. After completing her Ph.D., she gave Hagopian a job in her new lab. Today, they still work as a team, turning pipe dreams into new knowledge. However, being a female scientist hasn’t been easy: “I’ve been told that I can’t do what I want because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman… I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine… Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am.” Knowing her currency and working alongside people who supported her gave Jahren the encouragement she needed when facing harsh judgement.

Despite criticism, neither Jahren nor Comey lost sight of what was important to them because they were guided by what they valued most. For Jahren, it was discovery and the pursuit of knowledge, and for Comey, the truth.

In his memoir, Comey maintains that “ethical leaders choose a higher loyalty to those core values over their own personal gain,” which is why he was fired from his position as FBI director. When President Trump instructed him to let go of the investigations of his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and of Russia’s potential interference with the 2016 election, Comey refused to comply. Step down when you need to move on to something new, when your professional life feels stagnant or when your job requires you to sacrifice your values.

Comey also remarks on how to handle the success of others, especially those with whom you disagree. In particular, he expressed his desire for Trump to succeed as president, because anyone who loves their country should want the presidents to succeed, as satisfying as it may be to prove his voters wrong.

To avoid comparing her success with other women’s, Poehler repeats one of her mottos, “Good for her! Not for me.” In her memoir, she introduces the phrase when describing her envy of Maya Rudolph’s childbirth, which seemed effortless when compared to Amy’s experience in the delivery room. Even so, it serves as a reminder to appreciate friends’ good fortune and achievement, especially in positions, fields or industries in which you had no prior interest. Applaud them and get back to your own work.

Finally, Poehler advises readers to “treat your career like a bad boyfriend.” Careers change, and success will always be filled with MSG. Achievement is only one of many factors that contributes to happiness — it is unable to fully satisfy on its own. If you want your own success story, these three memoirs urge you focus on what you can contribute to the world, to seek mutual support from colleagues and to chase personal goals rather than praise.

Emilia Chavez, Rice University

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Emilia Chavez

Rice University
Social Policy Analysis major, Statistics minor

Generalist, idealist, optimist. My motto: It be like that sometimes, but not all the time.

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