For Scientists, Failure Is a Motivating Force

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Failure is a part of who we are.  This is how we survived and evolved. Learning though trial and error, that is how we build resilience. Einstein said that genius is 1 percent talent and 99 percent hard work, which in itself is another way of describing failing and moving forward. Without failure, there is no journey forward.

This essay is based on comments from fellow Arab scientists who served with me on a panel that discussed the question, “As Scientists, How Can We Learn From Our Failures?” The panel was part of Arab Science Week, a virtual gathering held in August 2020.

Barham Abu Dayyeh, professor of medicine, Mayo Clinic

Not being accepted in a program may be considered failure, but that experience guided Abu Dayyeh to go another path that ended with success.

“Figuring out how to solve a problem by imagining the path is like driving a car in the dark from New York to Richmond with only headlights.”

Every day we face failure. You can’t control circumstances, but you can control your reactions. Failure is an opportunity to grow when you are passionate in your field.

“Everyone is a genius,” Einstein said, “but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.”

Real failure is when you are not doing what you like. If that happens, that is an alarm to remind us to find what we like, what we are passionate about.

When you don’t like what you do and you fail and you are not incentivized, that is real failure.

Omar Yaghi, professor of chemistry, University of California, Berkeley

Yaghi developed a whole new class of materials and is still figuring out the chemistry behind these materials. More than 100 countries are working on employing these materials to create a better life in areas such as capturing carbon and water in water scarce areas.

“There is no blueprint for success,” Yaghi observed. “We are all explorers. There is no map. We take a lot of risks, which means we will fail.”

Yaghi defines failure as an increment towards success. His outlook on how to deal with failure is framing it as a challenge in the journey of discovery.

“There is no blueprint for success, we are all explorers. There is no map. We take a lot of risks, which means we will fail.”

Omar Yaghi  
Professor of chemistry, University of California, Berkeley

The word “failure” does not exist in Yaghi’s vocabulary. Failure is a challenge. Solving a challenge is a great learning experience.

In the words of Muhammad Ali, nothing is impossible: “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare.”

Failure is part of the scientific method, stumbling upon something, learning by doing, failing but not repeating the same mistake twice. This is part of economic modeling. Providing a safe space to fail in terms of providing an environment that is supportive. Caregivers and teachers should support failing and not blame individuals for failing. People fail and make mistakes not because they are bad.

Mohamad Bydon, professor of neurosurgery, Mayo Clinic

“Good judgment comes from bad judgment,” said Bydon, who pioneers in stem cell therapy in spinal cord injuries. That is why we need to share where we make mistakes so we can help in building better judgment in others.

He added: “Publishing negative results, not only positive results, will save time and effort for other labs not to go down those paths for lack of knowledge.”

“In the intensive care unit, where good judgment is critical in life-or-death situations, there are protocols, but we need to digress. The scientific method is built into it; trial and error.”

If failure does not exist as a concept, then there is no experiment.

One dedicates 55 minutes to understanding the problem and five minutes to the solution, Bydon said.

He described two areas of his own clinical experience where trial and error succeeded. One was in starting and leading a robotic spinal surgery program.

“Others gave up because the process was frustrating,” he said. “But we persisted and did not give up. We were able to go from hours to 58 minutes, from days in the hospital to 24 hours.  Grit is about making an effort and learning from failure.”

His other example came from the stem cell biology lab at the Mayo Clinic. “Stem cell research runs into challenges such as not enough cells, and experiments that succeed in mice but not in humans. Human trials are numerous and require continuous refinement.

“The only way to success is to embrace and accept and expect failing so that we can move forward, and not to be afraid to fail and therefore stop the train of advancement.”

Rana Dajani, professor of molecular cell biology, Jordan

I love my work as a molecular biologist, and I try to find better alternatives when things don’t work all the time. So failure becomes an incentive.

“The only way to success is to embrace and accept and expect failing so that we can move forward, and not to be afraid to fail and therefore stop the train of advancement.”

Mohamad Bydon  
Professor of neurosurgery, Mayo Clinic

Not failing means there is something wrong. With no failure there is no enjoyment. Failure holds in it the promise of reveling in success.  Failure is an integral part of life.

Nature is so rich and vast that even with all failure there is still a good chance for success. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Many of life’s failures are people did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

It is our decision on how to approach life. Being optimistic I see an ocean in a drop of water.

Who defines what is failure or success? Who has the right? It is relative.  Failure is in the eye of the beholder.

My advice: Fail faster. The more we fail, the stronger we become because we realize that it is OK to fail and not everyone gets it right all the time.  Failure is a chance to learn. This attitude makes us positive.

“Neurosurgery training,” says Mohamad Bydon, “is seven years of training to learn from experience because there is no textbook for the training. You need to encounter as many unexpected scenarios as possible to learn as you go. A good surgeon plans for everything that may go wrong and mitigates.”

We need to create ecosystems that enable failure as a normal part of life. This starts from the home, the school and the workplace.  It starts by being role models ourselves.

There is huge human talent around the world. However, it is not allowed to flourish and find a path forward.  Those who don’t succeed should change their mind-set to become the change themselves.

There is huge human talent around the world. However, it is not allowed to flourish and find a path forward. Those who don’t succeed should change their mind-set to become the change themselves.

Rana Dajani  
Professor of molecular cell biology, Jordan

Faten Al Jabsheh,  Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research

Al Jabsheh, an expert in industrial policy and economic development, added this:

“Embracing failure—if you choose to call it ‘failure’—is your key to success. In fact, it is evidence that you are learning and developing because by default you know what to exclude next time.

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“In economic research, ‘failure,’ or when ‘it doesn’t fit,’ has been my mainstay, especially when providing decision support to policy making where ‘what if’ scenarios and analysis play the role of probable failure playgrounds.

“Expediting and facilitating ‘failure’ and trial and error has been a relaxing mental framework for me throughout my journey because it has given me room and confidence to imagine and try without inhibition, knowing that it’s not the last call. Even if this space is not yet integral in each of our learning and or working systems, I think that it is so important to create it for ourselves.

“The word ‘failure’ is often poor nomenclature that is misused and misplaced.  In my journey in science, technology and Innovation, failure was a synonym for ‘keep going, you’re getting closer.’”

Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular cell biology at the Hashemite University, in Jordan, and a visiting professor at the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond, in the United States. She is also president of the Society for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the Arab World.

Her fellow panel members were Barham K. Abu Dayyeh, gastroenterologist and professor of medicine, Mayo Clinic, United States;  Faten Al Jabsheh, director of scientific and technical support, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research; Mohamad Bydon, neurosurgeon and assistant dean of education, Mayo Clinic; and Omar Yaghi,  professor of chemistry, University of California, Berkeley.


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