Appreciation of Failure

After being numbed by the happiness of finally getting positive results in my nanotube synthesis experiments, I was dealt a blow when I repeated the experiment and my tubes refused to exist. Strangely, I felt a similar numbing feeling. Instead of being tinged with the disbelief of success, this numbing feeling was one that threatened to overwhelm me with disappointment.

When learning the scientific method, there is an intrinsic code of beliefs that one is expected to follow and perhaps the most fundamental belief is that one must recognize failure as a stepping stone. Imagine presenting a failed experiment but then giving no discussion or analysis of what may have caused it. Or imagine having one failed experiment and then abandoning the research because of it. Neither scenario is really acceptable in the scientific doctrine and exceptional scientists are applauded for their insight into the value of failure for progress. There are always anecdotes of someone repeating and tweaking an experiment many,many times before finally accomplishing the desired goal. These stories simply propagate the message that science is a process, and one that is not for the feeble.

So that is why I chose my words carefully by saying that the numbing feeling only threatened to overwhelm me with disappointment, because in truth, I am so indoctrinated in the scientific philosophy that I have a mental fort that wards off total disappointment invasion. Instead, the failure becomes motivational because there is now an obstacle to overcome and the prize should be sweeter. In the face of this failed experiment, I didn’t shed a single tear. My automatic response didn’t trigger that part of my brain- it triggered the fighting mode and maybe a little bit of flight mode, but not enough to make me leave the ground. In fact, I only shed a tear when I first saw my nanotubes- it was a tear of joy… seriously.

So I am grateful for the understood code of beliefs that form the modus operandi of the scientific community, as I cannot attribute my determination solely to personal qualities. But facing failure is certainly not easy and I sometimes need reminding that my null results do not mean I am a fool nor that I am stupid. Emotional strength is needed. The scientific philosophy demands emotional strength. The scientific doctrine shows the path to cope with failure, but emotional input is necessitated to follow that path. It whispers,’ you cannot give up’, but then your emotional strength is needed to amplify that signal.This post has also been inspired by the book Failure: Why Science is so successful by Stuart Firestein.

I highly recommend it for a deeper exploration of the value of failure to the scientific process. I want to leave a quote here from the book that touches on the purpose of this blog, which is to expose the emotional experience of a scientist and to bring transparency of the humanity of science to the public.

‘We need dedicated experts to make progress. What is dangerous is when those experts, who know the importance of failure and of doubting and who regard uncertainty and ignorance as opportunities, either hide those facets of the process or simply fail to make them explicit. That is when they become, purposely, or by accident, elitists.’- Stuart Firestein.

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  1. Well said. ‘the failure becomes motivational because there is now an obstacle to overcome and the prize should be sweeter.’ – this can be applied to so many different areas of life! Very inspirational piece Ruth. Also, thanks for highlighting that scientists should not keep these obstacles hidden, transparency and honesty will lead to even greater success.

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