Paying It Forward

On the importance of honors and awards

A napkin drawing labeled "pay it forward" conveys the idea of a few people impacting many (single nodes connecting to many more)

We’re approaching conference season and with it, the awards that honor the best in our professions. It’s thrilling to be recognized by one’s peers for notable accomplishments or a stellar career. But I’ve found it can be just as rewarding to nominate someone for such an honor.

It’s both personally and professionally gratifying to me to identify people whose high-caliber work is worthy of public recognition. I enjoy helping colleagues or peers experience the glow that comes with knowing that others value and appreciate their efforts. I take pride in nominating those who give so much to their work, toiling, at times, in relative obscurity. I like to shine a light on their accomplishments and contributions, recognizing their efforts and even more so their impact. Finally, by nominating others, I am paying it forward, acknowledging the debt I owe to those who’ve watched over my career (thank you, Margaret Grier!) and perhaps inspiring those I nominate to nominate others.

Sometimes, those being nominated see it as an expression of gratitude for their professional contributions. And certainly, nominations can be that. But just as often, I nominate others out of a deep sense of awe at what they’ve accomplished in the face of challenges and setbacks. I respect their commitment and their resilience, and I marvel at their tenacity, and yes, even their genius. In nominating them, I not only get to dive deeply into their work—deepening my appreciation for it along the way—but I also learn about its origins and its significance, the service it provides or the problem it solves.

Service also underpins another side effect of awards, particularly those that convey membership in an honorary society. Such honors can be invitations to serve at a higher level—to join fellow members in working together to benefit society.

I’ve often thought of my own memberships in the American Academy of Nursing, the American College of Medical Informatics, and the National Academy of Medicine as both acknowledgements of my work and opportunities to give that work broader impact. It’s like getting a new Rolodex—or for the younger folks, an expanded contacts list—of colleagues with whom I can partner to advance key issues in support of health and health care. And for someone committed to service, I can think of no better gift than to have access to such a Dream Team.

Aside from these individual perks, being nominated or winning an award brings collateral benefits to the awardee’s home institution, to the organization making the award, and to society as a whole.

The home institution gets a boost because an award to one of its staff inevitably highlights the work of the group. Each time I nominate an NLM staffer for an award or fellowship, I get another chance to tell the Library’s story, a fresh opportunity to communicate what we do, how important it is, and how well we do it. And should a staff member win an award? Then the spotlight gets even bigger, shining brightly on what she or he has done as part of the NLM mission.

Professional societies and other organizations also benefit from the awards process. The adage “being known by the company you keep” applies here, as the reputations and contributions of those honored burnishes the public’s perception of the awarding institutions.

And though they might seem removed from the process, the public benefits from professional awards as well. The recognition an award brings can deepen the reach of the work behind it, and that extended reach can, in turn, translate to real lives impacted. The attention an award attracts can also inspire young professionals, pushing them to do more, to develop new skills or take on grander challenges. Their subsequent accomplishments have the potential to profit us all.

It might be too late to nominate a colleague for this year’s round of awards but give some thought to those in your sphere who are deserving and consider nominating them next time. I bet you’ll feel uplifted and encouraged by the process and amazed, as I so often am, by the innovation, brilliance, and grit we are privileged to witness every day. Isn’t it time it got recognized?

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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