It is important to design projects so the most critical experiments are performed as soon as possible. That way, if you are going to fail, you fail quickly – and cheaply. All failures provide information you can use to redesign your project. Alternatively, you can drop the project and move on to other things.
I learned this early in graduate school. My first research project in graduate school was supposed to be a “starter project” that I could complete fairly quickly. However, I had major problems with it and wasn’t making any real progress. While pleased with my determination, my Ph.D. research advisor gave me another project that went much more smoothly.
Successful people see failing as the path to success. Consider your “failures” as lessons, signposts helping you find the true path to success.
Thomas Edison exemplified this. He kept excellent, well-detailed lab notebooks which we can look at many of them today. They provide clues about how his mind worked. When an idea didn’t work the first time, Edison made a note of exactly what he’d done and what materials he had used. Then he made a change in the experiment and tried again. And when that “failed” he made a note of that, made additional systematic changes and tried again. Thanks to the systematic nature of his changes and his careful notes, Edison kept learning from every experiment.
What did he learn? He learned all the ways the experiment wouldn’t work even though he was unable to discover why. As Edison proceeded, he discovered all the chemicals and elements that didn’t fit together. Each failure drew him closer to finding a way that would work. For example, it took him approximately 10,000 experiments to invent a workable design for the incandescent light bulb.
Edison saw opportunity in failure. He once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” He did not give up even in the face of disaster. In 1914 Thomas Edison’s factory in West Orange, New Jersey, was virtually destroyed by fire. Although the damage exceeded $2 million, the buildings were insured for only $238,000 because they were made of concrete and were thought to be fireproof. The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Three weeks later Edison demonstrated the first workable phonograph.
This last lesson is relevant to chemists today. When Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged New Orleans, many of Tulane University’s chemical laboratories were flooded. Many research notebooks became illegible. The researchers had to pick up the pieces and resume their research.
Many Americans love sports analogies. Babe Ruth is still considered by many to be the greatest home run hitter in baseball. However, he is the biggest failure at the plate in that he struck out more than any other player in the 154 game season. He could be considered baseball’s greatest failure as a hitter, but that did not bother him. He once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
When thinking about your career, don’t be cast down by a lack of success or failures. Learn from the mistakes and failures, redesign your career and move on. This may require you to acquire new skills, alter the way you interact with others, change your job assignment, or change jobs. The key is to learn from your experiences and apply these lessons in the future.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.