The Nature of Failure

I had the pleasure of attending a talk today by Dashun Wang, Associate Professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. While one of our lab groups is currently studying the ‘science of success,’ Wang – a former member of that lab, is studying the nature of failure.

Failure, Wang argued, is much more ubiquitous than success. Indeed, it is a “topic of the people.”

It is certainly a topic those of us in academia can relate to. While people in all fields experience failure, it can perhaps more properly be considered as a way of life in academia. The chances of an average doctoral student navigating the long and winding road to success in academia are smaller than anyone wants to think about. There aren’t enough jobs, there’s not enough funding, and the work is really, really hard. More than that, it’s ineffable: how do you know when you’re ‘generating knowledge’? What does that look like on an average day?

Mostly it looks like failure.

It looks like not knowing things, not understanding things, and not getting funding for the things about which you care most. It looks like debugging for hours and it looks like banging your head against the wall.

It looks like a lot of rejections and a lot of revise & resubmits.

Those successful in academia – subject, as they are to the fallacy of survival bias – often advise becoming comfortable with the feeling of failure. With every paper, with every grant, simply assume failure. It is even becoming common for faculty to share their personal CV of Failures as a way to normalize the ubiquity of failure in academia.

But, Wang argues, failure is the key to success.

I suppose that’s a good thing, since, as he also points out, “in life you don’t fail once, you fail repeatedly.”

Failure is a thinning process, no doubt – many people who experience significant failure never come back from it. But a series of failures is no guarantee of future failure, either.

People who stick with it, who use failures as an opportunity to improve, and who learn – not just from their most immediate failure but from their history of failure – can, with time, luck, and probably more failures, eventually succeed.

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