Failing better

Failing better
Rather than talk about my research directly, I’d like to use this blog post to talk about something much more personal and important: the F-word. I would put forward that to be a PhD student almost inevitably forces a confrontation with an unmistakable, devastating, and utterly confounding acquaintance with Failure. 
For everyone it will take a different form, and have its own timing, like the boogie man under a child’s bed. For me Failure loomed large over summer of 2014.  At the point when I became confident that I was ready to start generating publishable graphs – that was when I noticed things starting to get dark. One week’s work culminated in a failed experiment, then another. There were the stupid mistakes. There were the skills that I thought were good enough, and weren’t. And then there were the experiments that had to be written off to trial and error, as I adapted a common experimental approach to my particular samples.  Again and again I thought I had figured out “the problem,” and that I was finally ready, and with an increasing wariness I would start a new round of experiments. Only to find my ‘signal drowned out by the noise.’ So much for that week’s work. 
The lowest point came after one of those seemingly endless cycles. It seemed my only hitch was in the last step, and I had done that procedure fine on previous weeks. Determined to save the week’s work, I stayed on through dinner (vending machine) to re-do it, then re-do it, then re-do it again, on through the night. Finally at 7 am, I left empty handed.
After a day of physical recovery, I forced myself to come to the lab. I was not prepared to work- I was completely demoralized, and besides I had no idea what to do to move forward. I just knew I was not giving up, and that at least showing up was something. I remember literally sitting on the couch in the lab staring straight ahead, for a long time. It was so bad that my son, who had been reading next to me, could tell something was really wrong, and he reached out and held my hand.
Eventually I got up and went to the computer. I spent a long time doing google searches for quotes about perseverance. I found some that really seemed to speak to me, and I printed them out and put the little strips here and there in the lab:
"Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts".
-Arnold Bennett 
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. -Sir Winston Churchill
Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
Newt Gingrich. (I know, odd guy to be quoting...)
Patience, (or forbearing) is the state of endurance under difficult circumstances, which can mean persevering in the face of delay or provocation without acting on annoyance/anger in a negative way; or exhibiting forbearance when under strain, especially when faced with longer-term difficulties. Patience is the level of endurance one can take before negativity. It is also used to refer to the character trait of being steadfast. - Wikipedia
But my favorite, by far, was: 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -Samuel Beckett (taken grossly out of context)
More than anything, 'failing better' captured that summer. It was true that each setback ultimately told me something important that I needed to know. Even the stupid mistakes had taught me to be a more attentive, organized and meticulous experimenter. All of the steps in my experimental design and lab protocol were there because of one of those dark days. I had spent the summer failing, but failing better each time.  

I got out a blank piece of paper and tried to brainstorm possible things that could explain my latest problem, and what I might try in response. I met with my advisor Dr. Mark Rains at a coffee shop, and he, too, helped me brainstorm next steps. He described his own experience in grad school with an apparently catastrophic setback, and how his attempt at salvaging his project turned into a much more innovative – and efficient- paper than he’d originally envisioned. He shared this allegory, which I have asked him to email to me for this essay:
I always thought of it like a Nike swoosh. You start at the back and slide down the long, gentle incline as you begin coursework and learn how much you don't know, study and then get blasted but survive your qualifying exam, and move on to research and all of its deadends. At some point you hit the bottom, and all about you is darkness. However, at that point, you look up and see the light. It turns out that everything you did that left you exhausted and demoralized was preparation for that moment, so the upward incline is radically steep and you burst off into the light very quickly thereafter.

Trying to feel optimistic, I took my list of ideas to the lab and got back to work. In the coming weeks, I went through more desultory cycles, but I could see that my graph was starting to take shape, the signal was emerging from the noise. And then, quite abruptly: Swoosh! I emerged into the light. Experiments flowed. Even new types of experiments required less failure to get ‘right.’ I thoroughly enjoyed that last stretch when the end was in sight and my project started to come together. 

Rewarding as it was, that golden period was not the heart of my graduate work. When I think of earning my degree, it was that awful summer of “failing better.” I not only learned the skills and lessons required to complete my project, and honed the perseverance to see an independent project through, but I came to understand failure as intrinsic to the very process of scientific research itself. After all, the nature of original research is that you are embarking into the unknown, either without a map or - at best - with a map that could turn out to be flawed or useless. Confusion, surprises and disorientation are practically built in. 

Darkness, mistakes, and trials are the supreme teachers. Success really teaches you nothing; it just feels good. - Father Richard Rohr

Now I’ve graduated and stepped out of the lab, into something completely new to me. I have many bad days. It’s hard to feel productive when hours of work only seem to highlight my lack of comprehension and skill. It’s humbling to start at the bottom again. I know where I need to go, and I cannot yet see a path from here to there. But as much as I hate this process, my PhD is for me a symbol that I have walked this dark path before and made it through. The project is worth it, and I'm prepared to fail better until I reach my goal.

Blog post written by Hilary Flower


  1. Wow. This is beautiful, and so true.

    1. Thank you! You certainly lived through it with me!


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