I love proverbs. Pithy, punchy, and bite sized — they are the most effective way to disseminate life hacks. However, I could never wrap my head around one — until recently.
Failure is the pillar to success.
This one always confused me.I remember hearing it first as a competitive 7 year old; thinking this is exactly what losers say. Assigning value to failure seemed defeatist. After all why dwell on painful failure, when you know what success is, and everyone is telling you how to be successful.
Obviously my 7 year old self was wrong; wrong for far too long. What changed my attitude was grad school.
Unlike school, neither life nor life science comes with a predefinition of success or an instruction manual.
School and society keep selling us the romantic notion of one kind of success and a straight path leading to it. While in reality, success is undefined. All of us are just fumbling around in the dark, using our predecessor’s experiences as our flashlights.
And grad school is a humbling experience in this. Most of my days in grad school are spent troubleshooting. So naturally I fail a lot. What keeps me going is an often overlooked thought and a very basic philosophy of science. The fact that negative information is also information.
Research in life science was the first place where I had to critically analyze and reflect upon my failures. Failure is still painful and frustrating but reflecting transforms every failure into an informative data point where success was not achieved — an opportunity to understand what not to do, where not to look. Learning from failure reduces my prediction errors.
And more importantly it gives me the strength that I need — the strength to persevere.
Reflecting upon failure gives you a meaning to strive for, and meaning makes it easier. Paraphrasing Nietzsche: when you have the ‘why’ you can bear any ‘how’.
It is hard to become a completely new person overnight. It takes a lot of training to grow from someone who loathed failing; to grow into a person who views success as the end result of failing iteratively — a little less each time.
In case you are curious , the effort is worth it.
I was always driven — but — driven by fear. I left home at 17, with a stern resolve to be as independent as I could . But my resolve did not stem from a desire for freedom but rather from the fear of being dependent.
Fear drives you hard, but eats you up inside. I found myself assimilating new insecurities with every new achievement. Every scholarship became less of an achievement and more of a trophy that could be stripped away when people discovered my lie.
What was my lie? Maybe I wasn’t as smart as they thought I would be.
I ended up damaging myself so much that I remember a time when I just couldn’t remain happy.
In 2015, I was awarded a prestigious scholarship coveted by lacs of Indian students. I was in Bordeaux airport when I received the news and was obviously overjoyed. By the time I boarded my flight, I had lost all traces of my happiness. I was numb and depressed again.
It was scary to realize that I couldn’t stay happy even for small amounts of time. I used to stay sad and irritable always, and usually blame it on stress, while I knew, it was fear all along.Operating from fear was stripping away my ability to feel anything else.Operating from fear was destroying me.
I had to work hard on myself and thankfully I could.
I’m kind of at a rock bottom now and the irony is — I am not afraid anymore. It might be rock bottom but at least it is stable ground.
I recently got a major setback in my career. While I was trying to cope, a senior mentor complimented me on my confidence. I was taken aback by this compliment.
Confident? Me? I’m so unsure of myself right now…this is all I could think of. It took me a while to realize that she had mistaken my grit and resilience as confidence. I could be resilient because my setback was giving me a much needed feedback on the course of my academic career.
In some ways it was freeing to fail, because it cleared up certain decisions for me. I could finally discern what won’t work. Failing could be the indication you need to give up on dead-ends and pursuing fresh opportunities. Sometimes you need to fail in order to know.
It hurts — but trust me — it is better that way.
Perhaps my mentor was correct. I am, kind of, confident; it’s just that I don’t know where I will go. Surprisingly, it is more exciting than scary today.
Aditi is a graduate student at NCBS, Bangalore. She loves understanding how insects make decisions in their tiny yet efficient brains. Contemplating about life and laughing on it is a fond hobby of her. She writes, she illustrates and more importantly she concentrates – on her PhD. Find her on Twitter with the handle @alien_nxt_door