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Marie Curie’s Losses and Triumphs

Self-motivation examples

Today is the 144th anniversary of the birthday of Marie Skłodowska-Curie, a woman who won two Nobel prizes in different disciplines: Physics (in 1903, with her husband Pierre and a third scientist) and Chemistry (in 1911, by herself). In and among many other accomplishments–for her family and for her native Poland, for example–she managed to simultaneously drive the dawning of a greater level of respect for women in general and to make paradigm-changing discoveries in science.

I would like to be able to comment on what drove Skłodowska-Curie, but without a lot more research, my comments would be too little observation and too much speculation. What I do know is that she seemed driven to better her understanding of science and to accomplish much else of value from an early age. Based on research on both intelligence and temperament, it seems likely she maximized some benefits she was born with in both areas: a sharp mind and emotional resilience.

I mention resilience because Skłodowska-Curie didn’t have an easy time of it in childhood. She did benefit from a highly educated and supportive family, but it was a family that suffered a series of painful losses as Marie was growing up: her eldest sister, Zofia, died of typhus when Marie was ten, and her mother died of tuberculosis when Marie was twelve.

Both sides of her family had been wealthy, but both had worked for Polish independence from the Russian empire and had been stripped of their wealth, so getting a decent university education was a significant struggle for Marie. While as a young woman, she worked as a governess to earn money to be able to attend university and to support her sister doing so in Paris. At this point she fell in love with a young and brilliant mathematician, but his family rejected her because of her poverty.

We all react differently to loss and adversity, whether it is our country being dominated by a tyrannical neighboring empire, the death of friends and families, being kept from the ones we love, or being frustrated in our attempts to accomplish our goals in life. It’s easy sometimes to retreat into self-pity, complaining, giving up, becoming hard and cynical, compromising our visions of what our lives could be, taking the next easy situation that comes along even if it’s wrong for us … but Marie did none of these, which makes her birthday more than a historical note: it can, if we like, become a day on which we’re inspired to let our setbacks, disappointments, and losses fuel our commitment to doing great things in the world.

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in reading “Do You Have Enough Talent to Become Great At It?” and “Randall Munroe and Zombie Marie Curie on Greatness.”


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