What Scientists Can Teach Us About Rebounding From Failure

You didn’t get the job. You missed the deadline. You didn’t ask for help and made a critical error because of it. You made a bad hire. You said yes to too many things. You flubbed a presentation. Who doesn’t love the feeling of winning, of being proven right and being outwardly successful? Who doesn’t enjoy the “high” that you get from others’ validation of your talents and skills? Failing, on the other hand, is painful. There’s no sugar coating it-failing feels awful.

A recent Google search on “fear of failure” yielded more than 50 million results, compelling evidence that the topic is on the minds of many people. The truth is that your interpretation of a “failure” can mean the difference between moving forward or getting stuck in self-blame. What scientists know is that without failure there is no learning. When an experiment doesn’t yield the outcome they expected, they ask themselves why and course correct.

A resume of failures

When molecular biologist Melanie Stefan, published “A CV of Failures” in the journal Nature, she wanted to make the point that scientists (substitute every industry) often develop success narratives that hide their setbacks. Stephan publicized the programs she didn’t get into, the papers that journals rejected, and the fellowships that went to someone else. By being candid about her failures, she hoped to shine a light on how frequently failure precedes success, noting that people who apply for an academic fellowship have only a 15 percent chance of being accepted.

Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant characterized the situation this way, “every resume and bio that you put together is just stringing one success or accomplishment next to another, and we erase all the failures in between. We should all be more open about the challenges we faced.”

I asked Praveen Tiperneni, CEO of Morphic Therapeutic for his perspective on failure. This is what he had to say. “For scientists, failure is the default setting. Even when an experiment is a success, it moves you into a new unexplored area which inevitably leads you to more failure. I became more resilient over time by focusing on the process and realizing that each failure is data that leads you eventually to success. I also became an obsessive planner with backup plans and everything in between so I would be ready for the inevitable setbacks.” Joanne Kamens, Executive Director at Addgene, put it this way, “The scientific process lends itself to learning about failure. Experiments routinely fail (probably more than they work). It is the troubleshooting for experiments that yield useful data that defines the experience of an experimental scientist. You always have to give it one more shot or learn how to modify the study to succeed.”

To get used to accepting your your setbacks, try the exercise below.

Write a failure letter

Research has shown that writing about a traumatic event helps people find meaning in their distress and feel more determined to move forward. The writing process makes the emotional reaction to a significant setback more manageable and helps curtail rumination. While your professional situation might not qualify as a full-fledged trauma, you still might benefit from taking a similar approach. Try crafting a failure letter as follows:

For three days in a row, write about a failure that you experienced in your professional career. Choose something that deeply affected you; it can be an event that happened recently or a past event that still bothers you. Each session when you sit down to write, take the time to explore your deepest emotions and thoughts about the situation. You can write about the same issue each day, or about several different experiences.

When should you write? Write whenever you notice that you are thinking or worrying about something too much. Set a length of time that you feel comfortable with-10 to 20 minutes is a good benchmark. Continue putting your thoughts on the page until the time you’ve decided upon is up, and try not to censor your emotions.

If it feels difficult to write about these experiences, here are some suggestions on how to keep your thoughts flowing:

  1. Remind yourself that you need not share your writing with anyone. You can always throw away your notes (or delete the computer file) when you complete the exercise.
  2. Don’t worry about spelling, sentence structure, or grammar-just write down what comes to you.
  3. Remind yourself that by going through the journaling process, you’ll be helping to process your feelings about what happened and gain clarity on the incidents of failure.

Accept failure for what it is — a path to resilience

The reality is that scientists, and for that matter, few business leaders make it through their careers without having some disappointments — often spectacular ones. In the end, it’s about how you bounce back that counts. In the end, that’s what separates the winners from the losers.

This post is written by Susan Peppercorn, career coach, speaker, and author of the soon to be published Ditch Your Inner Critic at Work: Evidence-Based Strategies to Thrive in Your Career. To receive a free copy of her 25 Tips for Making a Successful Career Transition, click HERE.

Career Management Coach/ Personal Branding Strategist/ Career Transition Consultant/ Blogger

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on October 8, 2017.

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