Meaning of Success: Donna Rose Addis

Last week I had the opportunity to talk with Donna Rose Addis, an Associate Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Auckland.  Coming from the low decile Aorere College, and with no family members with tertiary education, going to university was not the “done” thing.  Yet Addis now leads her own team at the University of Auckland Memory Lab, has done research at the University of Toronto and Harvard and won countless awards.

So from someone who has undoubtedly achieved success, what does success actually mean?

Addis explained that “success can be defined in many different ways… it’s what you make it to be.”  For her, it has been reaching the top of the world in her field, but it could simply be moving up the ranks at the local supermarket to manager.  However, this does not mean it will simply fall into your lap.  So what has contributed to Addis’ success?

De Bono (1985) commented that passion combined with good timing, is one source of success, and it is true, Addis is passionate about her research, and self-professes has had some good luck; however, I believe that ultimately, goals, resilience and hard work have been key to her accomplishments.

success smart art

Amazingly, the idea of goal setting, can actually be viewed through the lens of Addis’ research.  She focuses on memory, and has found that an individual’s ability to imagine their future, is based on memories of past experiences and exposures.  We are all “limited by experience, and expanded by our views.”  For Addis, leaving high school, she did not have a clear idea of where her life would take her, she thought maybe a history teacher.  Yet, as she became passionate about psychology, and inspired by her research supervisor, Lynette Tippett, she started to imagine a future she had never previously considered.

An example of this view expansion is when Addis was given a “vote of confidence” after finishing high school with a scholarship for being the highest achieving Pacific Island student. So she set the ambitious goal of finishing her degree without a student loan. This may seem like a fairly daunting task for many; however, Robson (2010) comments that people are hard wired to reach for goals and success far beyond the commonly perceived limits of possibility. Covey (2002) explains that having goals and direction is what is necessary to be highly effective, and Addis allowed her expanded horizon to build these ambitions.

Imagining future comic

Consequently, Addis, who “loves a challenge” got stuck in to applying for every scholarship she could find. This led to failure and rejection. Lots of it.  “For every 20 or 30 [scholarships] I applied for, I would get a small one.”  Despite the constant let-downs, Addis remained resilient, and did eventually graduate without a student loan.  Looking back she is not entirely sure how she dealt with it, but believes it was due to “locus of control,” meaning her perceived level of control over the rejections, and ability to separate herself as a person from outside factors. Robson (2010) supports this, explaining you have to evaluate much you actually contributed to the failure.  If it is out of your control, you simply must let go and move on.  Robson (2010) comments that resilience and deciding to create our own reality, are the seeds of success and this certainly applies to Addis.

Failure locus of control comic

Alongside goals and resilience, Addis says she always wants to “push myself and extend myself as much as I can.” This has meant a lot of hard work to get her where she is today.  Just as Gladwell (2008) explains 10,000 hours of effort are required to master a pursuit, Addis comments her success is, “all about hard work in the end.”  In particular, what we can learn from Addis is that hard work does not simply precipitate out of thin air, Addis is driven by her passion. We too should be driven by passion in the things with which we wish to succeed, as hardwork, although still hard, comes more easily.

Hardwork comic

Despite her considerable research success, Addis says the “best part” is returning to her roots.  She inspires students from low socioeconomic backgrounds in South Auckland, through talks on aspiring to personal success and getting excited about science.  Given her history there is no better person to connect with the students and show the heights that really can be achieved with goals, resilience and hard work. Although she commented that being “seen as super successful” can sometimes make her appear unattainable, talking with her I found her down to earth and incredibly genuine, so I can see why she succeeds in this pursuit also.  Ultimately, her research and work in the community really resonates with what Robson (2010) says, that doing something which has value for you, and with the motivation to help others, is to be successful.  This is Addis in a nutshell.

Find out more about Addis

Memory Lab

Brain Breaking Blog interview


Addis, D 2012, Inspiring islanders – Samoan scientist Donna-Rose Addis, online video, viewed 15 May 2015,

Covey, R 2002, The 7 habits of highly effective people, Franklin Covey, Salt Lake City.

De Bono, E 1985, Tactics: the art and science of success, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd, Great Britain.

Gladwell, M 2008, Outliers: the story of success, Penguin Group, Australia.

Robson, T 2010, Failure is an option: how setbacks breed success, HarperCollinsPublishers, Sydney