Thursday, June 19, 2008

To the Limit

I have wanted to fail for as long as I can remember.

That’s a really strange thing to say. What sane person would want to fail?

Perhaps an explanation is in order here. Of all the things I love to do, learning might be my favorite. It explains a lot: why I went to a liberal arts college, why I love to read, why I am infatuated with a man who writes to me using unfamiliar words that I have to look up. I am a virtual sponge for knowledge, soaking up anything and everything that comes my way. And, as it turns out, I’m just as eager to understand myself as I am anything out there.

I have a pretty flexible mind. I’m as comfortable in a math class as in a philosophy class, and I thrived at my tiny liberal arts college, dabbling in chemistry, neuroscience, and philosophy. I loved the emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and the enthusiasm my professors had for teaching and learning. They seemed like such a happy bunch, and their contentment in life hinted to me that I, too, could be a happy college professor.

The problem with my flexible mind is that it’s also easily bored. It always wants something new and exciting to ponder. My current day job (grad student in biology, for any inquisitive readers out there) doesn’t always provide that excitement, and to make matters worse, it often requires long hours in the lab, which leaves less time for exploring life outside the lab.

So you see, I have a Catch-22 on my hands: research is the very definition of novelty. Researchers are creating new knowledge, which is a pretty awe-inspiring thing if you think about it. But the creation of that knowledge requires a huge amount of sacrifice and dedication on the part of the researchers. Curiosity may have driven me into the lab, but only intense focus will get me out of the lab. Or at least out with a PhD attached to my name.

Failure offers a different kind of learning experience. When we fail, we learn what doesn’t work. We learn the ways in which our methods and strategies fall short of our goals. For me, failure has always offered the chance to do something else, to be something other than a scientist, which is something I’ve been preparing to do since I was sixteen years old. At my tender young age of twenty-six, ten years is a long time to spend in preparation for something. And because I’m still in school, I still feel like I’m preparing for my grown-up life. That thought drives me slightly bonkers.

Failure is a very real possibility for me right now, given the precarious position of my first-author manuscript. What would I do if I failed? If the journal rejects my paper, then I suppose the fate of my research career is in my advisor’s hands. We would probably start preparing to submit the paper to another journal. If my advisor were too disgusted with my poor performance to continue with me, I would probably quit graduate school. I’d take a month off from work completely. And quite frankly, the idea of doing that now, in summer’s warm embrace, sounds heavenly. Until reality crashes in on me and I have to start looking for a new job. What would I do? For so long, science has been my career path. I don’t know what I would do. But I think I’d figure it out.

Failure, or rather the possibility of failure, tests our limits. If we succeed, then we have not found our limit. If we fail, then we have found our limit, and our limit is whatever lies between our efforts and success. I crave that knowledge, even as I am scared witless to actually discover it. It’s painful to feel that success is within my reach when I know it will take everything I have to reach that success. Sometimes, when I think about it too much, I just feel so tired that I can’t go on. But inevitably I do. One day, one hour, one task at a time. I just keep going.

* * *

“Anxiety is the essential condition of intellectual and artistic creation.” Charles Frankel

How flattering is it that Nick has passed along the Arte y Pico Award to me! This award is bestowed upon creative people with a penchant for art. My art is of the wordy variety, and somehow it makes my anxiety seem less pathological and more useful.

Nick also tagged me to reveal some random tidbits about myself, and since I tagged him to talk about cookbooks, it only seems fair that I dish some dirt.

What Were You Doing Ten Years Ago?

Ten years ago, I was sixteen and a junior in high school. I was doing normal high-school stuff. A boatload of advanced classes. Baton-twirling with my high school squad. Coaching the junior high baton-twirling squad. Working a crappy job. Playing with fire and contact explosives. Seriously: my baton squad twirled fire batons every year for a spectacular outdoor performance at a football game. It was too much fun. And in advanced chem class, we made contact explosives, which got all over our shoes and drove the other teachers batty with POP-POP-POP tiny explosions for the rest of the day. God, I love chemistry.

What Are Five (Non-Work) Things on Your To-Do List for Today?

Grocery-store pitstop
Make Avocado Corn Salad for dinner (yum!)
Work out—if I’m not too exhausted this evening
Finish answering these questions
Sort my laundry

Five Snacks You Enjoy?

I’m a snacking pro. Straight from the recipe files of Life, Love, and Food, I love nibbling on these treats.

Pretzels and Peanut Butter-Cream Cheese Dip
Nutty Energy Bars
Mocha Ricotta Muffins
Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies

Five Things You Would Do If You Were a Billionaire?

Get a haircut
Set up a trust fund for my niece, Lydia
Fly myself straight to Matt’s secret hiding place, where he is working on his top-secret project (he’d probably send me straight back to Chicago so he can work. ALONE.)
Buy my own home
Throw a party!

Places You Have Lived?

Redford, MI (a suburb of Detroit)
Albion, MI
Pittsburg, PA
Evanston, IL (just north of Chicago, home to Northwestern University)

Jobs You Have Had?

Newspaper deliverer
Sunday newspaper-prepper
Home cleaner
One-hour-photo-shop attendant
Laboratory teaching assistant
Phone-a-thon caller
Coffee-stand attendant
And currently, graduate student in neuroscience! Hurray for a salaried position!

Who Else Deserves the Arte y Pico Award?

Art is in the eye of the beholder. If you think you deserve the Arte y Pico Award, go ahead and snatch it for yourself—and answer these questions, too!


JD said...

I think you eloquently deal with that gray area between success and failure. In other words success really means that we need to try harder and fail in the future. I think this is especially acute in athletics and especially running. If you run a 5K in 28 minutes and you are not broken and dead at the end, well then of course you can go faster.

It is disappointing to get to that point, but usually "failure" is what spurs me on to be better. Without failure we would all be some over confident jerks who succeed without any effort. what fun would that be??? So here is to failure...and all the future successes that will come out of it.

Rosiecat said...

My dear JD,
Yes! I love your example of running to illustrate the challenge of striving for that which we don't KNOW from experience that we can do. Running is a very concise example; I think graduate school or other professional challenges are harder to grasp unless you have experienced them yourself.

I do believe we learn a great deal from our failures. That has certainly been true for me this year--success in the lab has been rare and small. But I want to remain optimistic that success is still within my reach, so I keep trying. I'm still learning--that's why it's called grad SCHOOL. I need to remember that.

I love your optimism, JD. It's one of my favorite things about you. That and your absolutely infectious laugh. You are awesome.