Failure is hard, but keep trying, says John Tregoning (who should follow his own advice occasionally).
Guest contributor John Tregoning
Advice: easier to give than to follow
This time last year, I wrote ten strategies to improve mental health in academic life. I think they’re worth reading, if you haven’t already. You’d think that having given all this advice, I would have followed it, and maintained a Zen-like calm. Not so.
In the last year I have allowed failure (and the prospect of failure) to define my mood, compared my progress with researchers several leagues above me and found myself wanting, got too obsessed with work to appreciate anything else, taken on more than I can manage, unsuccessfully disguised my jealousy about colleagues’ success, taken criticism as a personal attack, and not spoken to anyone about what was going on in my head.
Whilst reflecting on my inability to follow my own advice, this year I wanted to come up with something that I could follow to improve my own mental health. Then I had (another) grant bounce and realised that, for me, the major contributor to mental health issues in academia is failure. Yes, failure is relative and, yes, there are clearly bigger problems in the world. But in that bitter moment of rejection it’s hard to step back and see that.
Do take it personally
Failure is distressing. The process of grant writing is long and hard; the time it takes to get over grant rejection is long and hard. Even the most thorough, fair and supportive reviewer will not spend as long destroying your hard work as you’ve spent creating it. Failure is stressful. Sadly we are judged on our inputs and outputs, if we are not bringing in money or putting out papers, we feel exposed. And failure is personal. Not only because it is your ideas that are being rejected but also because grants are judged in part on your CV – it is you who is being rejected.
All of which is to say failure sucks. If you are anywhere in an academic environment, you don’t need me to tell you that. But based on the success of the CV of failures, it can help to know that other people are having a bad time too. So if it helps you, I am, currently, having a bad time.
The 24 hour rule
I hope to be having a better time soon. Normally, I allow myself 24 hours to wallow in failure (I’m writing this at hour four). I warn my students that I have a grant decision coming up to give them time to avoid me. I go and find other things to be cross or sad about. I have a drawer of failed applications that I stare at; I contemplate quitting; I swear more and sometimes kick things. Then, at the end of the cycle, I start again with the next application.
So where does that leave me? Essentially, I need to reduce the impact of failure on my mental state. The first approach would be to fail less – either by applying less (a very short term strategy, with a guaranteed result of no job) or by being more successful (essentially impossible – funding rates and paper acceptance rates are both in decline).
The second, more realistic, approach is to find real ways to cope better with failure when it, inevitably, happens. Some of the tools I’ve suggested before – mindset, perseverance, not taking it personally, getting support, taking a step back, getting some perspective (it is only one grant after all) and not acting like a spoilt child – should all help. But sometimes they don’t. Maybe it’s because there are no quick fixes.
Ready player one
However, I have had a moment of clarity. I am (in the gap between work, childcare, running, gardening and husbanding) a gamer. Not a lock-yourself-in-a-darkened-room-for-a-week-to-be-the-first-to-finish-gamer; nor an online gamer, because my reflexes are too slow and I don’t like losing. But a reasonable amount of my spare time is spent killing dragons, fighting aliens and losing to my son at FIFA.
Currently, the game I’m playing most is Dark Souls 2. It’s designed to be hard; and it is really, really, really hard. I repeatedly fail and have to start again; and again, and again, and again. Despite this much failure, I don’t throw my controller down in disgust and quit (that often), in fact, I pay money for the opportunity to fail. So what’s the difference between gaming and grants?
The major difference is that gaming is more enjoyable. Setting aside the personal nature of rejection, failed grants hurt because they feel like time wasted. Admittedly the stakes are lower – I am not going to lose my job if I don’t save the Kingdom of Drangleic from King Vendrick (a gaming reference so nerdy, I am embarrassed even typing it).
Next time, I’m going to try something new: I’m going to try to enjoy the grant writing process. Instead of seeing it as time lost, I will use it as a springboard to do thought experiments, create new ideas, read the literature more widely and improve my writing. Then, when it is rejected, it won’t hurt so much. Probably.
Having written what I believed to be an uplifting end to this, my games console broke, leaving me unable to ever finish the game, which feels like a metaphor for something.
John Tregoning is an immunologist studying the immune response to respiratory viral infections. He has been a PI since 2008 and is a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London. You can read more of his writing here.