I landed in Marrakech last Tuesday an hour late due to delays in Manchester, and even though I was a bit tired, I was excited to start exploring a new city. After an interesting taxi ride through narrow streets full of vendors, donkeys, and an endless flow of mopeds, I made it to my Airbnb riad (the term for a traditional Moroccan house). I was given a map and some instructions about the best way to get to the city center, just 15 minutes away. I set out into the warm Moroccan evening and soon ended up going the completely wrong way, not even sure which street was mine when I tried to retrace my steps. After accidentally running into the friend of my host who’d helped me get to the riad from the taxi drop-off in the first place, we walked together to the city center, with my enthusiasm for exploring soon turning into embarrassment at getting lost.
With my friends arriving in the morning, I wondered how the rest of the trip would go from here. Would I keep getting lost, and this time run into someone less friendly than the friend of our host? How would the rest of the trip go if we couldn’t even find our way around town? After that initial bump in the road that left me feeling anxious for the rest of the trip, I’m glad that the rest of my time in Marrakech was amazing. I soon found that the best way to get around wasn’t to have a precise plan as to what cross-streets you were going to take, but it was simply to wander through souks and side streets with a vague impression of the cardinal direction you wanted to get to. This approach led to more than a few wrong turns, but it also led to less crowded streets and shops, beautiful street art and wall decorations, and the feeling like you were really getting to see the heart of the city.
The trip to Marrakech was a great experience for many reasons, not because everything went to plan, but because it was an adventure in itself: a chance to try new foods and experience new smells, to be a bit unsure of what exactly you were walking into, a time to wander and find things you never expected, and even at times a chance to fail. Whether it was museums that were closed due to Ramadan or dead ends or a store owner rather aggressively trying to sell you a henna tattoos, there were certainly things on the trip that didn’t go all the way according to plan. In the end, we found out things that work and things that don’t and kept going past the small missteps as they came.
Throughout our time studying, from primary school to our undergraduate careers, we are taught how to achieve and how to succeed, and we are encouraged to do so. We get rewards for performing above the mark, we get grades and rankings based on our achievements in classes and on exams, and we’re measured on a regular basis in terms of how we succeed and how much we know. Then when you get to graduate school and find yourself in a research-oriented career, the game changes. There are no more exams, grades, or rewards of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Grad school and life as a researcher is more about producing reliable data, generating results related to a question, and making sense of new information and putting abstract concepts together. It requires a different mindset from the one that gets you success in school: a mindset that includes being ready to fail.
If you’re a PI in the US, the success rate for applications on research grants hovers around 20%, and here in the UK it’s closer to 30%. That means on average you’ve got a higher percentage chance of failing for every grant you apply for-and if you’ve never applied for a grant, it’s definitely not a small endeavor. In addition to the task of securing research funds, as scientists we’re also met with experiments that fail, manuscripts that get rejected, uncertainty in terms of a job market or a long-term contract, and criticism everywhere from your PI to people who come to your conference presentations. It’s a really difficult transition, especially for those of you for whom primary school and/or undergrad came easy, who might be naturally good at memorizing facts or taking tests but who find research more of a challenge than initially expected.
But this post isn’t meant to paint research as a life of doom and gloom, of spending your days steeped in failure. I’ve met lots of colleagues who’ve been turned down for grants, but because they knew the idea was a good one and believed in the value of the project, they learned from the first round reviews and had a revised application accepted in a second or third submission. I’ve seen friends struggle in the lab for weeks or months on end, then followed by strings of incredible results that just keep rolling in. I’ve read about the hurdles that world-famous scientists had to go through or the challenges they faced in their ideas or in their careers, only to come back from a challenge with more vigor and an even better understanding of the problem than before.
In one of our previous posts from last year we talked about the importance of not being afraid to fail, a post inspired from my time spent in martial arts. But it’s one thing to say ‘don’t be afraid to fail’ and another to actually follow through with putting yourself at risk for failure. How can we become better at taking that first step, knowing that after a few more steps we might easily fail at our task?
As a child and through my studies as an undergraduate, I seemed to be good at all the things I participated in. But it wasn’t because I was good at everything; in fact, I was very bad at trying new things, because I was afraid of failing. I was good at the things I did because I avoided things I was bad at, whether it be team sports, dating, socializing, or getting lost. In graduate school, I learned how to fail the hard way: I took failed experiments and rejected papers really hard, but at the same time grad school became one of the most enlightening times in my life. While I was learning how to fail the hard way, I also figured out how to be braver at venturing out into unknown territories of research and of life, and I learned how to fail in a way that didn’t make me feel like I had done something wrong. But how exactly does one become good at failing?
Remember that failure is part of the process. Research is difficult because you are working on the cutting edge that divides what’s known and what’s yet to be discovered. You’re not repeating the same thing that any one person has done before, so because you’re in uncharted territory there will inevitably be wrinkles to sort out and things that don’t pan out the first or fifth time around. The famous scientists that came before us also made mistakes, sometimes even a lot of mistakes, but they also know that it’s all a part of the scientific method: you have an idea, you test it, and then you figure out whether it’s right or wrong. Science isn’t about always being right, it’s about figuring out the answer, whatever that answer might be.
Work on achieving a balance of optimism and pessimism. Being too much of an optimist can leave you feeling like you’ve taken a hard hit when something doesn’t work, because you’ll have gotten yourself excited about an idea or an experiment. In contrast, being too much of a pessimist and thinking that every upcoming experiment will fail can leave you feeling too unmotivated to even try. A good scientist is a balance between the two: you recognize that not everything will be sunshine and roses the first time around, but you also are inspired and hopeful for good results to come down the line. As with other times in our career when we need to achieve a balance between two sides of a coin, you can also work on achieving this balance by surrounding yourself with colleagues who might lean more towards one side of the optimism/pessimism spectrum than you do.
Lower your expectations. This sounds like a terrible piece of advice, but especially if you’ve achieved a good balance between optimism and pessimism, having lowered expectations can come in handy. If you over-exert yourself by trying to get everything to work all at once or are relying on one success to raise you to another, one failure can knock you over. Take your research one step at a time and leave a buffer in terms of time and energy by taking into account that some things might not succeed. Don’t expect that something will work the first time around, and if instead you expect that you won’t get perfect results right away then you’ll know to leave some time to repeat things as needed. On the other side of the coin, lowering your expectations also means you have an excuse to celebrate the small successes. In grad school especially, it’s these small victories that can help keep you going. Had a PCR reaction work? Drinks with your lab! Got a paper that wasn’t rejected outright? Drinks with your lab! Celebrating these smaller, perhaps ‘lesser’ victories will make the bigger ones seem even more incredible and will keep you going until things start to go your way more consistently.
Come at a problem with confidence, even if you don’t feel confident. This week in tae kwon do, a few other students are getting ready for testing. Our instructor was giving all of us a pep talk after one prospective red tag to red belt was clearly uncertain and nervous during practice, saying that we needed to be confident and ready even when we didn’t know everything 100%. Even the most veteran black belt will get nervous when faced with a belt testing, and it’s easy to believe we’re not doing everything perfectly, that we’ll make a mistake, or that we’ll forget something.
In a recent seminar I gave on the five easy steps for a perfect presentation strategy, I asked the participants what they were afraid of the most while giving a talk, and most said they were afraid of doing something wrong. I thought back to those replies during tae kwon do class this week, and realized again just how much martial arts can teach us about being a scientist: it inspires us to live a life of confidence even in the face of punches and stern instructors (or professors) grading our every move. When faced with fear, you meet it with ferocity. When afraid of failure, you hold yourself with the confidence of a person who knows everything like the back of your hand. It’s about being ready to face a potential for failure in the same way you face the potential to succeed. Envisioning success is half of the battle, and by facing potential failures with confidence you can increase your chances of success.
Don’t let a failure (or two) define you. I still get nervous for talks, tae kwon do testings, even conference calls. Before anything that makes me feel nervous, I always end up giving myself the same pep talk. I tell myself that no matter what the results are, it doesn’t change who I am. Just like the two failed black belt pre-testings that didn’t keep me from getting a black belt later on, or the many failed experiments or rejected papers that didn’t keep me from getting great data or publishing my results. What’s more important than not failing is to learn something from the moments when we fail, to celebrate when we succeed, and to not be afraid to let a couple of mistakes hold us back from getting where we want to be. Whether that’s a government lab researcher, a university professor, or the CEO of a company, the failures we have along the way won’t define how we get to the end result, and won’t solidify our fate or who we are as people.
Failure is an option in science-and more than that, it’s a way that we make progress. It doesn’t have to feel like banging your head against a wall if you look at failure as part of the process instead of blaming your own faults. By approaching problems with confidence, holding back from becoming too over-zealous when it comes to thinking what might work or not, and by not letting each wrong turns define who we are and where we go, we can learn how to use failure to our advantage, and to become better scientists and people in the process.