On Dealing with Failure

When PGR life is getting me particularly down, I curl up underneath a pile of blankets and escape into old movies. This time it was Wonderboys, where Michael Douglas plays an English professor who hasn’t published anything in years and is generally messing up all areas of his life. Surprising choice, eh? In the film, the keynote speaker at a big conference argues that we can all be writers, as we all have great ideas. He asks: “But how do you get from there to here? What is the bridge from the water’s edge of inspiration to the far shore of accomplishment?” It’s certainly a question I ask myself on a near daily basis, as I try to peel myself out from underneath my blanket-and-pillow fort to face another day of PGRing. For Q, the film character, the answer is Faith. And for me, maybe much of the same. Faith that I can do it, faith that one day my experiments will work and it will all fall into place, faith that I will be able to make a difference in science. But it’s another F-word that is an integral part of keeping going during the PhD journey: Failure. It’s dispiriting, terrifying, and immobilising at times. Failure has icy hands and sharp edges. We constantly have to avoid choking on its cold embrace and getting cut. It makes the PhD journey a very personal and lonely one. Nobody likes to fail. But failure, though painful, is progress. I went on a quest to find out how we can best deal with failure, and maybe even identify some of its benefits for our PhD research.

Image    from page 107 of “The ecological relations of roots” (1919)   by Internet Archive Book Images (public domain)

Image from page 107 of “The ecological relations of roots” (1919)
by Internet Archive Book Images (public domain)

You failed. So what?

Why is failing such an issue? This seems obvious, but it’s not. Why do we hate failing so much when it happens to everyone, all the time, and simply is an inevitable part of life – and certainly research? Let me list some of the failures that are highly likely to happen to you during your PhD.

Your paper will get rejected. Your research project will get scooped. You will not win the poster prize. You will ask a dumb question. Your experiment will fail. Your supervisor will get upset with you. You will get asked a question during your presentation that you don’t know the answer to. You will not be able to reproduce a result. Your will not get that grant you wrote a proposal for. You will not achieve all the grand goals you had set for yourself at the start. Repeatedly, you will question whether starting your PhD was a mistake.

I really hope I didn’t give anyone an anxiety attack with that list. Just thinking about these makes me feel uncomfortable, but they are ubiquitous. So why does it affect us so much when we encounter a failure? Why do we get upset, demotivated, and lose confidence?

We fear failing in the eyes of others  

I think we can all agree that failing in private is easier than messing up in public. The failure itself is not pleasant (you lost the time, resources, and energy you put in), but it really starts to hurt when we fail in the eyes of others. We couldn’t live up to their expectations. Surely this damages their perception of us. Our reputation takes a hit. Suddenly, we doubt whether they still believe in us at all.

Image    from page 118 of “The ecological relations of roots” (1919)   by Internet Archive Book Images (public domain)

Image from page 118 of “The ecological relations of roots” (1919)
by Internet Archive Book Images (public domain)

But is it really so bad if someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer? If you made a mistake in your experiment and have to start over? When you consider that we are technically trainees, and are therefore still learning, this actually seems quite fine. Why not ask someone to elaborate and explain their question? Ask for help with that experiment? It makes people feel good when you ask for their help. It shows that you value their opinion and judgement, and what researcher doesn’t like to talk about their science?

Nobody thinks you are dumb for admitting you do not know something. In fact, it’s one of the things I most admire when senior academics give a talk and are asked a question they did not expect. It makes them look honest and confident, and opens a dialogue for other people to join the conversation. Bullshit answers, defensive or passive-aggressive comments, or an essay on an unrelated topic just to avoid answering the question has quite the opposite effect.

I think we react hurt and defensively to those situations by reflex rather than reason. Not knowing something or making a mistake makes us feel stupid, which we have been taught is something you should be embarrassed about. But when you try to take the emotion out of such a situation, it suddenly does not sting so badly anymore. Once you learn to deal with failure gracefully, you actually end up winning in the eyes of others.

The “99% of experiments fail”-myth

Laboratory scientists are told that this is the number one rule of science. In fact, I’ve repeated it many times, too. But after some philosophising, I realised it’s largely a myth. Let’s bust it.

No matter the scrutiny and extent of detail you put into planning a new experiment, it will never work perfectly the first time. You will have to optimise your conditions, reagents, and analysis. It may take many tries before you’ll get a clue about the thing you are studying, and many more tries before you generate strong, quality data. In non-lab research, I can imagine you face the same challenges when trying to find the right reading materials, suitable field trips, or interviewees.

I kept saying that my experiments failed. My advisor made me see that generating any outcome makes an experiment work. It might not have produced the result you wanted, but it brought you a step further. As researchers, we’ll constantly have to optimise and adjust our hypotheses and approaches. This is not failing, it’s the scientific method.

Image    from page 109 of “The ecological relations of roots” (1919)   by Internet Archive Book Images (public domain)

Image from page 109 of “The ecological relations of roots” (1919)
by Internet Archive Book Images (public domain)

Failure forces you to evolve

We’ve all heard this terrible “failure creates teachable moments” quote. Surely the person who dreamt that up never got their paper accepted without revisions at first try?! Who cares about teachable moments when you’re too busy winning at life?

Though I wish a smooth publication process on everyone, there is truth to it. When your paper gets rejected, you suddenly learn about this whole world of rebuttal and repeal letters, transfer systems, judging which journal fits your work, reshaping your manuscript to better convey your message, addressing reviewer comments, and communicating with editors (and the disappointment). Otherwise you would have “just” learned how to write the paper. It’s great when something works at first try, but it’s encountering a roadblock that forces us to try alternatives, use our creativity, reach out for help, and work harder. Flexibility, resilience, and determination are key characteristics of successful researchers and it’s failing repeatedly that builds them.

Darwin wrote in his 1850 book On the Origin of Species, “It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being.” This is very much what doing a PhD is like: an evolutionary journey from a wild, unpolished idea to a trialled and tested theory. And as in Darwin’s theory of evolution, I believe failure is the scrutinising force that drives it.

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