How to Make Your Failures into Success
One of the most frustrating moments in research is when you spend a ton of time on some project and it just doesn’t work. Even if you prepare yourself mentally ahead of time, that feeling of failure can be overwhelming when you get the final result. A very natural tendency when this occurs is to let it completely bum you out. A single failure can ruin an entire today and it can have an effect in other areas of your life, not just research. So what can be done to change this failure? How can the positive be found in a situation which is just screaming failure?
This post comes from a few recent failures that I’ve had in lab myself. I was testing a hypothesis and I spent almost 2 months preparing materials and conducting the experiments only to find out that my hypothesis was completely wrong and I’m back to square one. These results came at the end of the day and were really a big threat to my mood. I didn’t want to go home in a foul mood, but at the same time I was kind of pissed that my latest research just got a failing grade. I decided I couldn’t go home in a foul mood, so I took the time to find the success in this failure.
My first step was to take a deep breath and to say to myself out loud,”It is okay.” I made the decision to not let this affect my mood beyond what it had already claimed. There is a time to think about the failure, but that time has to occur when you’re not feeling the full effects of non-success. Deep breaths and a focus on calmness helps to put the mind at ease so you can think clearer.
After I calmed down a bit I began to think about the negatives of the situation. What did I believe was going to happen because of this result? I began testing my assumptions by asking myself a few questions:
Will my advisor be upset with me, personally, because the experiment didn’t work?
Was all this a waste of my time?
Will I not graduate because of this failure?
The answer to all of these, of course, is no. Analyzing the situation and putting it into a larger context forced me to recognize that this is not as big a deal as I had originally thought. No, my advisor won’t be upset with me: I did the experiments correctly and tested a hypothesis. No it wasn’t a waste of time: this information can definitely be used. And I will eventually graduate because there is still plenty of time to figure out what’s going on. Once I faced the negatives of the situation and really tested what I was believing, I came to realize that the negatives weren’t as strong as I had thought.
Following this same logic, I began to test my initial conclusions that there wasn’t anything positive in this situation. Once I began this process, I again discovered that it simply wasn’t true that there was nothing positive to be found. I thought about the original reason why I had done these experiments. What was the hypothesis that I was originally testing? Then I asked myself whether the hypothesis was well formed and did the results answer the question. It turns out that the question was indeed answered, but it just wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. I made a realization at that moment that the main reason I was bummed about the situation was that I had an expectation of the outcome. Sure I had a reasonably well-formed hypothesis, but I still had some hope and expectations about the potential results that caused my feelings of frustration.
This is an important point. It can be a dangerous thing to close yourself off to all possibilities in research. There is a greater possibility of creating significant prejudice when certain expectations about results are made. This situation really reinforced in my mind the importance of having minimal bias when it comes to gathering data. The data are what they are, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. A well thought out hypothesis and set of experiments will give results, and those results should be interpreted without influence from the researchers desires.
Now that I had tested my assumptions about the situation it became easier to see how these results may actually have been a success. I began to write out what the data was actually telling me. I thought about where I could go in my research with this information and I began to prepare for the discussion that I was going to have with my advisor. I found new avenues for exploration and new points to think about. Sure, they were different than what I was originally expecting, but that’s the exciting thing about research: you never really know what you’re going to get. Because of this process, I began to see my results not as a failure, but as a small success in a slightly new direction. This wasn’t necessarily the direction I was originally anticipating, but it’s exciting because now I know I’m headed in the correct direction.
The biggest take away, I believe, from this experience is this: Make sure your hypothesis is well-formed. Be rigorous about your experimentation and make sure what you’re doing is worth the time and effort. If it is, then even a failure will still be very useful. Also, remember to think through your situation when a failure occurs. Take a few moments to breath and collect your thoughts. Put the results in perspective. Test the negative assumptions about the situation and really search for the positives. Learn what you can from the results and apply them to your future work. Take these steps and you will be able to find some small success even in what seems to be the biggest of failures.
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