Getting comfortable with failure

Every time I fail at something, I think about how I really should write a post about it, but then the sting wears off, I forget about it, and I move on until the next time it happens and I think, I really should write a post about this… So here it is.

Getting comfortable with failure is one of the most important skills a scientist needs because we fail all the time. I fail to get grants. I fail to make an experiment work. I fail to have a paper accepted for publication. I fail to meet deadlines. I fail to be the perfect mentor for a student. Some of these are small failures and some feel really, really big. None of these failures necessarily mean I am a bad scientist or not doing something correctly. Failure is just a reality of the job.

When we run an experiment, the whole point of doing it is that we don’t know the outcome – if we did, we wouldn’t bother doing it in the first place. This can be very hard for research students to adjust to because all their earlier education presented science as a series of known facts. But in research, even the methods used to test a theory can be entirely new and therefore prone to failure. When you do finally get an experiment working, you can end up with negative results that contradict everything you thought you knew! Sometimes negative results provide an important piece of information, but often they are hard to interpret and therefore don’t tell you anything useful at all. As scientists, we are aware of these problems and work hard to design our experiments to minimize this risk, but it still happens and it can be frustrating and confusing.


A sample of the rejection letters received by myself and colleagues.

When we submit grants and manuscripts, we receive a LOT of rejection letters. Sometimes you did everything right and you still don’t make the cut. I recently received comments from a grant application and one of the reviews was probably the best I have ever received. In the end, I wasn’t even shortlisted. I personally think these failures are the hardest because papers are an important measure of productivity (whether it should be or not is a different discussion entirely) and grants are what allow you to be keep working as a scientist. Failure at either one can feel like a serious setback to your career.

Everyone has different ways to deal with failure and I don’t think there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it, so long as you are able to overcome that failure and move on. For what it is worth, there are two things that I think help me in particular.

The first is that whenever I fail, I remind myself that this failure is just a stepping stone to succeeding and a valuable learning experience. When a manuscript is rejected for publication, for example, the subsequent version is always better. When a grant application is rejected, again, the next grant application is better or has more pilot data included. That doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating and that it takes more time and impacts your productivity level! But by the time you have failed there isn’t much you can do about that and the only option is to keep moving forward one step at a time.

I am aware that to some it might sound a bit trite for me to say that I handle failures by looking on the bright side. For me, this works for the smaller stuff, but I acknowledge that some failure is too big or difficult to be overcome with positive thinking.

The real trick for me is that I separate my self-esteem and ideas of self-worth from my productivity or status as a scientist. When I fail, it is not because I am inherently bad, lazy or stupid; I just happened to not get something correct that particular time and I need to try again. This can be hard to remember if you have a series of difficult failures happen all once or seem to build on one another. But I remind myself that even if I had a grant and paper rejected in the same week and all my experiments are a disaster, I have other things that I do well in my life and I have hobbies/interests/family/friends where I am succeeding. I have also built a support network of friends, family and colleagues. This keeps me grounded and helps me remember that failures are only temporary, and that we all fail until we don’t. When things get really difficult, I remind myself about work-life balance. I leave early for the day and spend time with my child, I go and see a matinee (ok I have only done this once but it was really fun and I plan on doing it again if things get really hard) or I go for a walk in the woods and remember why I love studying animal behaviour so much.

I think it would be helpful if scientists discussed their failures more openly. Often we present our results as a polished package with a straight story line that makes it all seem so easy. This is done to ensure the result are presented clearly and can be easily understood. But being honest about the hard work and challenges of science when we speak to colleagues and students and in our outreach, allows others to learn from our mistakes and to be emotionally prepared for when it happens to them and not feel as though they are the only one.