Fail Early, Fail Often

Anyone who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry is familiar with the title saying.  The idea behind “fail early” is that if your product is going to fail, you’d rather it fail early in the development process, before you have invested huge amounts of time and money.  “Fail often” refers to the huge number of compounds that must be tested and discarded, in order to find the one that will make it all the way through clinical trials and approvals to become a marketed drug.

This strategy of trying many things and discarding some works in a lot of ways.  If a project is going to fail (or even just have problems), you want to know as early as possible so you can develop contingency plans to mitigate the damages.  So too with your career.  If you are going to fail at a task – whether because you can’t do it, or because you don’t like to do it – it is much better to find out early in your career, and on a low profile project.

Many things seem like they will be easy, fun, or both – until you actually start doing them and figure out what is really involved.  If you are thinking about moving your career in a more business-oriented direction, for example, you may know it will require you to create and manage a budget.  If that is not part of your current responsibilities, wouldn’t it be great to be able to get some experience in a low-risk way?  If you are proactively managing your career, you will find a way to do this as a volunteer.  For example, serve as treasurer for your local ACS section, or for a large event.

Perhaps the next logical step in your career path would be a more supervisory role, where you would be responsible for managing several other chemists.  You can make a list of all the additional skills this type of work will require (setting a vision, clearly communicating expectations, setting deadlines, monitoring progress, providing constructive feedback, …), and then look for ways to get practical experience in doing those types of tasks.  Again, volunteer work is a great way to test the waters – offer to coordinate an event big enough to require a committee, and see if you can get them to successfully execute your vision.  You may find it is harder than you think to get other people to do something just because you tell (or ask) them to – and in many cases it won’t make a difference if they are being paid or not.

If you don’t get to do a lot of public speaking in your current position, offer to give a presentation on your research at a local university, or to give a presentation on a current topic in science at a local science museum.  Presenting technical information to scientific colleagues is a much different skill than presenting it to members of the general public, and you may find you’re not as good with at one.

If your current job doesn’t require you to do a lot of writing, start a blog on a topic you’re interested in, and try to keep a regular publication schedule.  If you find you aren’t good at it, or don’t enjoy it, you can just stop.

In addition to seeing out opportunities to practice skills that you will need in the near future, you should try to get as much hands-on experience as possible in all sorts of professional skills (technical and nontechnical) – to improve your existing abilities, and to try out new abilities that you may enjoy.  At the very least you will have learned what you don’t like, and can make sure to steer your career in a direction that will not require a significant amount of that particular skill.

Eventually, you will fail at failing, and find something you’re really good at – and that’s what we call success.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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