Failure. Eep!

It sucks, but everyone successful has failed at some point, so it’s useful to talk about how to “fail well”. I was recently asked to share my thoughts on failure with a mentee, and how to avoid/overcome it. This is what I mean by “failing well”. To “fail well”, I mean to fail at something a minimal number of times and with minimal severity such that you learn enough to succeed (or at least break even) in the future.
Learning to fail well is going to be really important, because when/if you go into academia, it is one of the disciplines with the most opportunities for criticism and rejection. Every paper and grant proposal—and even you in yearly reports and all presentations– will be judged in some way. It can SUCK. It can get into your head and lead to impostor syndrome feelings ( if you don’t watch out. So, even though dealing with rejection gets easier over time, you can do yourself some favors to buffer yourself from some of the effects now.
Here are my top 5 tips for failing well and keeping your sanity:
  • First: You may put all of yourself into your work, but you are not your work. When a grant isn’t funded or a paper rejected, they aren’t criticizing you, just the work. You are still the same worthwhile person before and after review.
  • Second: Learn what people are trying to tell you. When you fail, it’s feedback, and reflecting on the feedback can improve your work in the future. If you don’t understand what someone means, ask for clarification. If they are needlessly cruel (which sadly happens too often in in many disciplines), try to read through the negativity and see the message. I tell myself (excuse the language): “Ok, this reviewer’s an a**hole. But does the a**hole have a point?” The feedback will improve your work, and as a side-effect reduce the amount of further rejections and the negative emotions that come with them.
  • Third: Learn the difference between big comments and little comments, and pet peeves vs. legitimate issues. If you get multiple reviews, look for patterns, and if you don’t, show the work and reviews to straight-shooting colleagues, and they can help you focus on what needs to happen. Over time, this step will get easier, and you’ll notice patterns (ex. From what I’ve seen, pet peeve comments tend to come from people who have worked in that one small thing and they will suggest their own work for you to review. This typically comes in a giant paragraph or two response much longer than for any other point. However, the comment won’t appear in other reviews at all and won’t show up later in the review, but will show up if they summarize the review).
  • Fourth: Nothing is perfect. Even if you did well, there is likely feedback you can ask for to improve things. Don’t be afraid to ask for additional feedback, even if it is what someone liked best. You may be misattributing successes, and feedback helps you understand which factors are helpful, harmful, or neutral with respect to reviewers.
  • Fifth: Proactively avoid failure, if you can. Form friendly peer review groups, or have a partner who you trust well to tell you straight when things suck (and you do the same in return). It can help you spot errors before you are on the chopping block. Consider, too, asking for successful past grants or assistance from the people running the program. This can be as simple as following examples or asking if your pitch sounds like it aligns with the goals of the group to which you’re submitting. This can save you a ton of time and really improve your work, without having to go through the step of not succeeding beforehand.
I’ve tried to summarize above what has worked for me from advice I’ve been given. I’m failing less often now, but not avoiding it totally. And that’s ok. I am not my work. So in that spirit, I ask, what do you think?

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