Inspired by Others but Measured Only Against Yourself

Following Jonathan Martin’s address, Eric Snodgrass of the University of Illinois spoke to the AMS Student Conference this weekend about how to get the most out of an Annual Meeting. Here’s a condensed version of an inspiring story he shared:
It’s the way that you spend your time for the next two days both in sessions and in talks and out of session, in the hallways, at lunch, at dinner, and on Bourbon Street, that is going to make this conference memorable for you. I think conferences like this are about three things:  The first thing is exposure. You were just exposed to some serious meteorology from Dr. Martin.
You’re going to see stuff like that over the next few days from the top minds on the planet. When you see it, the second thing is, you need to be inspired. Look at what people are doing, take it away. Go back and apply it to your research. Take it and run with it.
I want to talk about a guy named Cliff Young. He’s Australian, a sheepherder. Two thousand sheep on a two-thousand acre farm. Forty years of herding sheep on foot puts you in pretty darn good shape.
So its not a big surprise  that Cliff Young decided to run an ultramarathon from Sydney, Australia, to Melbourne—544 miles. The problem is, Cliff Young was 61 years old; he signs up the day of the event and he showed up in overalls, a t-shirt, a baseball cap, and rubber boots—not the attire of an ultramarathoner. He was also three times the age of most of the competitors. Cliff gets to the very back of the line.  When the race starts he lets the others go first. There’s another big problem: Cliff can’t run. He shuffles; his stride is only like two feet long.
Now there’s a strategy to the ultramarathon. Run 18 hours and sleep 6. Then run another 18 hours and sleep six. You do that until you finish the race. Cliff had no training, however. That night as everyone else slept Cliff continued to shuffle. He shuffled right past every single one of those racers. For five days and 50 minutes, he shuffled his way to Sydney.  He broke the record for the race by two days. He beat second place by 10 hours. When he crossed the finish line he did not know he was going to receive $10,000 in cash. That was a lot of money in 1983. He didn’t know what to do with it, so he waited and handed out a thousand dollars to each of the next competitors who crossed the line.
It’s easy to find inspiration in that—it’s the ultimate tortoise and hare story. So why am I telling you this in an AMS conference? I’ll be honest: the first few times I came to a conference like this I was incredibly intimidated by what I saw. You will see some amazing things by students, faculty, and research scientists. So inevitably sometimes you get in a comparison mode: “How do I compare to what they’re doing?”
I’m going to tell you something, however. You are allowed to compare yourself to only one person . . . and that one person is you. You see what you don’t know about Cliff was that the year before this race, he’d tried to run another ultramarathon. That was a thousand miles long, but he only made it 500 miles before he collapsed.
This race was 544 miles. All he wanted to do was be better than he was a year ago. The five points that Dr. Martin gave to you–that doesn’t happen in a few days. It takes time; it takes perseverance. And you must remember that the only person you can compare yourself to is who you were yesterday, a month ago, a year ago. If you’re making progress, everything is going fine.