Failure Fetish and Research

There is  a pernicious evil that takes over at night. It gnaws at the brains of innocent people innocently filling up the witching hours. It is the infomercial. Most annoyingly, the hours now spread out so that at almost any time an infomercial can be found seeking to sell the latest hair removal  product to the nearly hairless.

The version I hate the most is the one peddling a self-help solution. The one with a scripted interview between someone who was almost a journalist at some point and a set of teeth speaking on behalf of a haircut attached to a person. The one where they stitch together various insights gleaned from the fortune cookies at a particularly lavish yum cha and package them into a motivational “life rejuvenation handbook”.

A Confession

Embarrassingly I caught one of these briefly the other night where the interviewer was asking the teeth about failure. The glib lines started spilling forth – “Failure is your greatest opportunity!” “The only failure is in not failing enough!” [Insert appropriate Sideshow Bob grumble-mutter right here].

I’ve seen this a bit when reading around tips and insights for research. Not the really extreme version, but still a healthy amount of “embracing failure” self-help infested advice. My problem is that occasionally this extends to the point where failure is celebrated as the key achievement one can aspire to.  There is a world of difference between accepting that failure is this thing that happens sometimes and teaches a lesson or two and making a fetish of it. And lest it be forgotten, there are occasions where it’s not that clear if the big fail has really driven a key life lesson home.

Not so visible to the wearer that they'd actually get it, of course. [Picked up via Buzzfeed]

Not so visible to the wearer that they’d actually get it, of course. [Picked up via Buzzfeed]

Too often this nuance is lost although this spot gets it, if not the header, around the mark.

Shiny New Failure

The other thing that brought on this failure thinking was my latest personal fail. This time it is on the grant front. I’ve just been through the immense joy of providing responses to some foundation grant reviewers. I’m not necessarily calling the grant response a fail but the tenor of the comments from the reviewers of the original project was not encouraging.

Were I to paraphrase the responses they would look like:

Reviewer 1: This is quite a big project. Do you really think you’re the person for the job?

Reviewer 2: This is an interesting project that should be contemplated, but in that contemplation I would do every single element of it differently.

(Sidenote: I’ve heard the word “interesting” used way too much in hospitals to disguise genuine thoughts to take it at face value – like when prospective parents indicate the name of their child will be “Abserdee” spelt “A-B-C-D-E” and the midwife responds by describing this as “Interesting”.)

At that point, there was a part of me thinking any rebuttal was likely to be a waste of time. Then I sat down and wrote a response. That response then went to my co-investigators. Some of those co-investigators have had serious grant success before, and have the sort of background that makes me wonder why they speak to me at all instead of getting on with revolutionary stuff. Those guys then gave me a 3 day masterclass in actually writing a proper reply. So I might have kept just this side of making failure useful.

At the end of this, I still feel a little like this guy …

This aardvark invites open scrutiny of their latest project [via flickr]

This critter invites open scrutiny of a current project [via flickr]

but I guess I’m hoping that I’ve learnt lessons that will help me out when I get to the national competitive grants and get to take on the formidable odds against success with the NHMRC cycle (see an earlier bit on this here). Or I guess I could get some dental work and hit an infomercial channel.


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