What is the Key to Success? My Number 1 Answer

Apr 08, 2021

By ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson

I work with many candidates who are striving for big goals such as getting into graduate school, applying for competitive fellowships, or going after their dream jobs. When speaking with candidates, I often see a hesitancy – at all career levels – to take the important steps needed to achieve their goals.

Because I am a mentor, candidates will ask me questions like: Can I ask for a recommendation letter from a professor I haven’t seen in 10 years? Can I ask for more funding from the school I was accepted to? Am I qualified to apply for a fellowship like this?

These are all really good questions, but the problem is that they’re often not being directly asked of the people who have the answers: the Admissions representatives, your boss, your university Department, the selection committee and others with direct knowledge of the answer.

I know this stems from a fear of a negative answer, but holding back from asking hard questions holds you back from success. 

After a fulfilling 20-year career in industries spanning from government to academia to entrepreneurship, I’ve learned a lot about both success and failure. I’m about to let you in my #1 key to success in getting what you want out of your career:

Have the courage to ask hard questions and the resilience to often be told “no” – at first! 

Ultimately, success is earned by those who ask hard questions and try over and over again. 

Why Asking Questions Should Be a Weekly Practice

In the span of our careers, we can avoid going after big goals because we don’t know the answer to some of our burning questions about our eligibility, competence, or readiness for the task at hand. We’re afraid that if we ask those questions, the response will be “no”. 

However, you might be surprised to learn that you can build an entire career and professional network by training yourself to ask hard questions regularly. It’s actually a skill to ask good questions, and like other skills, you have to practice to become good at getting positive responses. 

To start asking hard questions regularly, worry less about the response and concern yourself only with being informedBecause if you ask a lot of hard questions – and become skilled at how you ask those questions – you’ll start to hear the word “yes” more often than not. And those positive responses will take you one step closer to achieving your goals.

My father always marveled over my penchant to ask questions, especially since I have been told NO many times, including: No, you are not our pick for this job (application rejection); No, we can’t increase your salary right now (internal promotion rejection); No, your idea is not the one we are going to pursue this year (idea rejection). 

But I have asked other questions that received a different response. Questions I asked, like: Can I receive extra funding from the fellowship for ongoing language study while in Germany? Can I travel for work to Kentucky to meet with an association member and write a paper? Can I complete the last year of my PhD dissertation in San Francisco? 

The answer to all of these questions was YES, with some negotiation and a little extra work. I wouldn’t have known that unless I had asked!

The Best That Can Happen When You Ask Hard Questions

Let’s take one of those questions candidates often ask me, such as: Can I negotiate for more funding from my university? I can certainly provide you with some advice on how to do this (including an email template!).

However, the only people who will know the actual answer to this question are the very people who are holding the purse strings. You can ask a mentor, a colleague, a friend, or a family member questions like these for advice, but you won’t really know the answer until you have the courage to reach out to the selection committee and make the ask directly to the people who hold your future in their hands. 

You might be afraid to ask this question because the answer might be “no”. The answer might be “we don’t have extra funding to offer or the funding offer is not negotiable”.

But the fact of the matter is, a “no” is the very worst that can happen, and this simple response has no real consequence for you. Let’s consider the best that can happen.

If you ask that question, the answer might be an immediate “yes!”. Or the answer might be, “maybe – let’s see what we can do”. The answer also might be, “we don’t have more funding to offer you, but maybe we can figure out some other ways to provide you support so that you can enter our program.” All those answers are better than “no”. 

Never make assumptions about what can and can’t be done, and especially not based on the opinions of people who are not directly involved.

I learned early in my career, after experiencing gatekeeping, that other people’s opinions really don’t matter. While it is certainly useful to speak to mentors and successful people for advice, always take opinions with a grain of salt. Ask questions directly to the people who know the answer.

When it comes to competitive fellowships and graduate programs, the only people that know the answer are the selection committees themselves. If you don’t apply, or ask the hard questions, you’ll never know if you could have succeeded.

It can be scary to face the possibility that someone will say no. But the more you hear the word “no”, the less scary it becomes, and you’ll be more confident about asking hard questions because sometimes you’ll hear the word YES.

Just one last note about asking hard questions. Leaders notice when someone is asking hard questions with courage and humility. The very act of asking questions builds other people’s confidence in you! So keep in mind that even when faced with a no, your bravery is appreciated by others and will open doors when you least expect it.

Seeking expert advice to achieve success as you are applying to graduate school and competitive fellowships? Learn more about my Fully Funded Course & Mentorship Program.

Dr. Vicki Johnson Headshot

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, her signature online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding. 

© Victoria Johnson / ProFellow, LLC 2021, all rights reserved