Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Failure

I was thinking this morning about failure and what it means. I think science is an especially trying field to be in because failure is ubiquitous. I fail at most things every day and that's normal. Hard to believe, right? It's hard enough to work with some samples (usually 20 or so) for several days, carefully labeling them and making sure you treat each sample the same and then to find out a week later that something went wrong and your experiment did not work. Usually, things just don't work and there's nothing to can glean from them - occasionally things will partially work and you can get some bit of information from the experiment. It's those glorious, few and far-between experiments that work beautifully that are the cornerstone for working in science. If that good result every few weeks or so cannot sustain you, you are in the wrong business. I often think about other jobs I've had over the years. There was never this much failure involved. Sure, there was a learning curve: everyone fails early on; but once you get the hang of the job, there's not too much you can't do, right? In science, failure is so pervasive that things you do on a routine basis can easily fail. Sometimes it's unbelievable. Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes it makes you cry or bang your head against the wall or want to kill your boss. And sometimes you get so angry you can't see straight because you can't imagine ever being able to get the laundry list of experiments you have planned out accomplished with good results. I've seen people graduate, and I know it can be done, but I just can't picture myself there yet. I know I'll get there, it just takes time. So, when people ask why on earth it takes so long to finish a doctorate in biology or medical sciences, the truth is this: you have to learn how to fail. You have to learn how to fail beautifully and elegantly and to keep working and have faith that you will eventually find the answers you for which you are looking. Grad school is all about failure and learning to deal with it and learning to get over it and learning to move on. Essentially, it's a lesson in life.

No comments: