January 25, 2020

Not Afraid to Fail

By Crystal Mendoza

By: Catherine Knier

The other day, I had a conversation with a friend about the idea of success and failure. We all know a loved one who has the capacity to succeed at something academically or professionally but who quits early. Though it’s impossible to fully know what is going on in the mind of another, sometimes our loved ones seem to leave after short-term success because of a belief that they have proven themselves and continuing to challenge themselves may lead to failure.

Personally, I’ve been a high achiever for most of my life in and outside of school. While motivation is complex, one key feature I have had up to this point is a belief that if I tried hard enough, I would succeed. For a long time, I chased the thrill of success and reveled in perfection. I recall one late evening in the fifth grade when I stayed up 2 hours past my bed time working on an art assignment because I drew every blade of grass in a landscape, and I refused to simply color broad strokes of green to finish it (much to my own frustration). This trivial example reflects the dogged persistence and commitment to excellence that has been a part of my nature for most of my life. 

As I reflect on the radically different experiences of myself and my loved one, I believe we were both driven by perfectionism. In my case, the perfectionist attitude was associated with the belief that if I worked hard enough I would succeed; for my loved one, the perfectionist attitude was associated with fear that even if they worked as hard as they could, they might fail. Despite how different our two approaches may sound, I do not believe that my way or their way is better. In fact, I think there is a middle path that is not only healthier, but necessary for long term success, especially in the setting of graduate education and research. In research it is a guarantee that you will fail, over and over and over again. The failure I experienced in graduate school was more frequent and more difficult to overcome than anything I had experienced before. I could not simply apply more time and effort to achieve success. Sometimes it takes weeks or months for something to work out; sometimes, things simply don’t work out in the current setting (which is what led me to switch my project after my first year of PhD work). My self-esteem and view that if I only worked hard enough, I had the capacity to succeed, was seriously challenged. But out of the suffering and with the support of mentors and friends around me I was able to shape a new view of myself and my work. Simply stated this new approach is the not afraid to fail mindset.

The not afraid to fail mindset overcomes the limitations of both extremes of perfectionism. For me, it means acknowledging that not everything I try will work out. No matter how hard I work at it. This mindset grants me the freedom to try new approaches to solve stubborn problems.  It gives me the flexibility to change paths if one is not possible to follow at this time. Perhaps most importantly, it gives me permission to recognize that failure is not exclusively a personal fault. The not afraid to fail mindset absolves me of feelings of shame surrounding failure that may drive someone to quit by recognizing failure is normal, expected, and informative. With this new mindset I realized that I learn something (almost) every time I fail or things don’t work out as I’d like.

I suspect that many people in the MD and MD-PhD pathway have had or will have similar experiences to mine at some point. The competitive training programs select for high achieving individuals, and while in graduate programs it can feel like failure is not an option. I am here to tell you that failure is normal. Accepting failure allows it to become a learning tool instead of a feared experience and makes us better students, better scientists, and better friends. If you have already developed your own not afraid to fail mindset, I am so happy for you. If this is new to you, I challenge you to take time to reflect and challenge the way you currently think about success and failure. I challenge every reader to initiate open and honest conversations with trusted mentors, mentees, or peers to validate our experiences of failure alongside our outward successes.

About the Author: Catherine Knier Srivastava is currently enrolled in Mayo Clinic’s Medical Scientist Training Program working towards M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. She earned her B.S. in Biomedical Science at Marquette University in 2016. In her free time she enjoys baking, exploring new places through hiking and food with her spouse, and meeting new people. Outside of science, she enjoys reading about bioethics, psychology, and diverse experiences of the human journey. Catherine is passionate about meeting up-and-coming trainees and helping them on their path to identify and achieve their goals.

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