Embracing Failure

By Pavitra Makarla, Peer Research AmbassadorEmbracing Failure. By PRA Pavitra.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

– Thomas A. Edison

If there’s any quote that wholly represents what research is, it has to be this one.

To the budding scientist, failure might seem like the worst possible outcome in the research process. Maybe you’ve attempted to run some code that continually gives back an error, or maybe you’ve hypothesized something that turned out to be the complete opposite of what you thought. Theoretically, failure is something you’d want to avoid, right?

I think it’s the opposite — you should embrace the concept of failure. Failing shows you what doesn’t work, and you can use that information to find out what actually does work. While the specific challenges you will encounter in research can vary from lab to lab, there are ways to deal with and overcome failures.

First and foremost, your failures don’t define your progress, so remember to think positively. It’s important to internalize this thought while you’re conducting research. Yes, maybe part of the path ahead includes rejection of proposals, but push past all that. The reason your proposal was rejected was that someone thought it could be better — they’re showing you what went wrong, and how you can improve upon it. Twist your roadblocks into something positive and you’ll find that you become more productive and progress faster.

Second, take the time to understand why you failed. Something I came to learn as a researcher is that failing is only as useful as what you learn from it. Many people that I talk to, including myself, forget to dissect the reason that they failed. This can hinder your progress, because chances are, you’ll keep repeating your mistakes again and again if you don’t understand what went wrong. Learning from your failures and mistakes can help you eliminate wrong paths and focus on the right ones. Take time after you make a mistake to figure out why, and adjust your point of focus in a new direction.

Third, don’t take failure personally. Failure is very common throughout the research process, and thinking that you failed because you weren’t good enough couldn’t be farther from the truth! Take failure at its face value: a goal or objective wasn’t met. That doesn’t mean that you, yourself, are to blame– you just didn’t reach your goal yet, and that’s okay! It can take researchers years and years to achieve their goals. Refocus, breathe, and keep going.

Last, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your mentors, the graduate students in the lab, and your PIs are there to help you! They understand what it’s like to not get something right the first, the second, or even the third time, and can give you detailed advice on what to fix. While they can’t amend the failure for you, they can show you where you went wrong and give you tips on how to work around it, especially since they’ve probably encountered the same issues in their academic careers as well.

Research is almost like solving a maze — You start out with one entry point, but you soon find that there are a multitude of twists and turns you can take. You try one path, and maybe it leads to a dead-end. So, you retrace your steps, make a different turn, and you repeat until you find your way to the exit — until you find the solution. Just like that, you haven’t failed; you’ve just found numerous ways that won’t work, and adjusted your routes to find the way that does work.

Pavitra is a senior majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Neuroscience and Psychological Sciences. Click here to learn more about Pavitra.