Fraternizing with Failure
The PhD/Postdoc blog series features two scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Lydia Morris and Divya Shiroor will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month for new posts.
Current position: Ph.D. student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Program start date: August 2015
Institution: Cornell University
As I write this blog, I’m starting my last week as a first-year graduate student. I have learned many lessons this past year, but the one I consider most valuable is dealing with failure. At the end of this semester, everyone in my year had to give a talk about a laboratory rotation that we did. Just 5 minutes explaining the research, the problem we chose to tackle and the relevance of this problem. I was excited to talk about my project, I had an interesting result to share and was confident I could rattle off my spiel smoothly. I stepped up on stage, looked into the audience and for the first time ever, completely drew a blank. I tried to find my focus, somehow stumbled through my speech, leaving a big part of it out and walked off stage, completely mortified. This had never happened to me before. I enjoy talking about my work, I’m in love with the project I was going to talk about and stage fright has never been an issue. I simply couldn’t understand what went wrong and why I let myself down that day. For a brief period after getting off that stage, I felt like a complete failure.
I assume we’ve all felt like that at one time or another. Failing gets especially hard when it has consequences. In the scientific world, failure often translates into things like not getting a job or losing out on a fellowship. There has been buzz lately about a Princeton professor publishing his CV of failures. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. Here is an assistant professor at an ivy league school. I was fairly certain that failure was not something he encountered regularly. Curiosity, however, got the better of me, and I snuck a peek. Reading his CV of failures was inspiring. It showed that he got to where he is despite what many would consider significant failures. If he had thrown in the towel when he didn’t get an academic position at Harvard or MIT or when he failed to get the Fulbright scholarship, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
Overcoming failure and learning how to deal with the feeling of humiliation that follows is hard. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how failure is such a big part of academia. When I first started graduate school I was extremely positive about the academic field. One year into grad school, that feeling has completely changed. When I think about a career in academia, all I can focus on are the difficulties associated with it. How post-docs are so grueling and how it’s so hard to get a tenure track position. I’m beginning to wonder if my questioning my motives behind pursuing an academic career has a little something to do with the fear of failing. I’ve let statistics talk me into a corner of pessimism and I feel like I’m slowly forgetting why I fell in love with the field in the first place. When it comes to pursuing a career in academia perhaps the best thing to do is decide if it’s the field for you, and if it is, make up your mind to succeed. Accept that failure (a lot of failure) is a part of the game and push past it. Having reached this conclusion, I’ve formulated a strategy to deal with failure:
- Write up a CV of failures: There is no better motivation than seeing everything you have had to overcome to get to where you are. We tend to push our failures to the farthest recesses of our brain. Forgetting about it, however, may not be the best thing. Every failure is testament to having had the courage to try something and deserves an applause. It is only by acknowledging our failures that we prevent them from defining us. We are so much more than a botched up talk, a rejected grant or a disregarded publication.
- Take time to process failures: Overcoming failure means realizing that it’s ok to be miserable about it, for a finite period of time. The time shortly after having failed at something is not the time to make momentous decisions. Never make an important decision in the haze of disappointment and humiliation that shadow failure. The haze is temporary and will most definitely pass. The consequences of the decision you make in that moment might however stick. The period immediately following failure is purely for wallowing with a bucket of ice cream and a sappy movie. Get the disappointment out of your system, re-strategize, and get back on the horse.
- Realize that it’s often necessary to rely on others for a pick-me-up: When I completely bungled my talk, I had friends who were extremely kind. They knew how hard I’d be on myself and promptly sent me messages reminding me of how little it mattered and how there were parts of the talk that I managed to salvage. While I can’t say I believe the last part, I am extremely grateful for their kindness and support. I’ve already written about the importance of a support system and times like this is where it comes into play.
It’s imperative to remember that in the face of determination, failure is temporary. Keep at it and you always give success a chance. I leave you with the final paragraph of my favorite poem. It’s titled “Don’t Quit” and the author is unknown.
“Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint in the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It might be near, when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit-
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”