We're a little crazy, about science!

The taboo of failure

We celebrate a lot of exciting things. You get into your dream school? Let’s party! Getting married? Time to celebrate! Win the big game? Well you get the point. As a culture, here in the US anyway, we celebrate victories and make fun of people who try to include the people who lose. If you’ve never seen the “participation trophy” discourse then it’s probably better to live in ignorance, trust me on that. In short, we celebrate the winners because they accomplished something and if you failed then clearly you did not.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate the wins, we should. Even the little ones. Life’s too short, celebrate everything. Hell, celebrate getting out of bed in the morning or sleeping in late because both of those things are worth celebrating and those are wins enough for me. Celebrate the big things too, you work hard to get into your dream school and you do it? Of course you should celebrate that! With all the work that went into something like that, you should ALWAYS celebrate it.

But what if you don’t get into your dream school? Does that mean you didn’t work hard enough? Does it mean that you did nothing? That your efforts don’t count? Does not accomplishing a thing suddenly erase the blood, sweat, tears, and possible years of effort? I would argue that it does not. That failure hurts, but we learn more from failure than our successes. That success is just a pitstop on a very long journey. Afterall, you get into your dream school and what, the work is done?

In a letter penned to Jean-Baptiste by Benjamin Franklin, he said that, “but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I would amend that list to include failure. Failure is a certainty, because there’s no success without failure. Show me a person who has not failed and I will show you a person who has not lived.

The road to failure, and there are many, is often long. We put time and effort into something, nurture it like a child, and try to grow something from nothing. Anything, from getting that dream job to beating cancer, takes effort, time, luck, and hope. Yes, even hope, because we shouldn’t accept failure as the inevitable outcome no matter how low the odds of success are. Also because live in a world built on impossible things, from flying to cell phones to walking on the moon. We do the impossible all the time and we forget that because when it’s finally done it becomes the possible.

We should celebrate our failures. We should congratulate people on the failures. We should throw parties for them. Failures mean you did something that was hard. You tried something that wasn’t a sure thing. That alone is worth celebrating, not just the case where someone succeeds. But there’s something even more important here.

We shouldn’t be afraid to fail.

Failure, like death and taxes, is so common. We shouldn’t be scared to fail because that’s how we get stuck. That’s how we don’t get into our dream school, set foot on the moon, I mean the FUCKING MOON?!?! Come on, how cool is that? And how many failures did we have before we got there? There’s literally video showing rockets going everywhere, but up. In fact, for awhile it seemed that was all they could do, the “best and the brightest” and they couldn’t get a rocket to go up. Now, it’s easy to gloss over it because it’s so commonplace. The impossible suddenly becomes the possible and it loses that science fiction or unobtainable luster, which is both beautiful and a bit sad in my opinion.

The world was built on failure, so we should celebrate it. We should be proud that people took the risk. It’s called a moonshot for a reason. So my plea, my dear readers, is simply to try the impossible. Do the thing, do all the things, and fail. Fail big, fail small, and fail even when it hurts. It’s not the failure that matters, it’s the path you’ve taken, the things you’ve done along the way, and the lessons you’ve learned. So fail and you don’t even have to fail with grace. Fail however you need to fail, just try to do the thing regardless.

Which brings me to my own story.

For almost four years exactly, I have poured my heart and soul into my research, into my “super secret technique” or SST for short. I have struggled and fought. I’ve spent countless hours writing grants and funding proposals. I’ve given presentation after presentation on the proposed work. I’ve made SST the cornerstone of my PhD, it’s literally the thing I’m doing my dissertation on and I’ve had no delusions about the likelihood of success.

I was told it wouldn’t work, flat out. That it was impossible. I’ve had PI’s tell others that they felt guilty they didn’t make it even more explicit to me so that I would stop. But I’ve pushed ahead anyway because you’ll never find elephants if you don’t bother to look for them (that’s a reference to this article, which hospital-PI and I use as shorthand for doing the impossible). It was doomed to fail from the beginning and I knew that going into it. It was high risk and high reward, but the real risk was only failure. My whole life has been failure, so what’s one more?

Then I got awarded a grant for the work, which was fine although I do recall several posts concerning my fear that they were funding a project that would never work. Still, I made peace with that and the second I did, DARPA took interest and things felt a little more real.

Failing spectacularly in the confines of the school lab is one thing, to do it in front of what amounts to a celebration of successes is an entirely different ballgame. It would be akin to me competing in the olympics, in anything, because I would fail horribly even if I put all my effort into it. While the same competition at a local level wouldn’t feel quite as intimidating.

Maybe that’s just my view, but there’s a difference between failure and the spectacle of failure. Then again, imposter syndrome is a real thing and maybe I’m an olympic athlete in my own rights. I don’t think so, but if you do then that’s comfort enough.

The deadline for DARPA is coming and for several days (here and here for example) I’ve been working at what feels like lightspeed to get my data processed and to find out if I’ve spent the last four years wasting my time. I know what others thought and they were certainly not afraid to let me know! The question was not what they thought, but it was what we found. That was the point. We can say something won’t work, but until you prove something doesn’t work, you’re just relying on your own biases. Maybe it doesn’t work, but there’s no harm in checking and I prefer to imagine the possibilities that exist if the thing does work instead.

Late last night, which is why I didn’t post, I finally got my answer. But I wasn’t thrilled about it. Now, I will preface this with a lot of qualifiers. Which include, but are not limited to, there’s still a lot of data to dig through, there’s still other things to check, there’s still other things to try, and I’ve only “built the foundation.” Even then, it’s not 100% built, there’s still three or four more participants worth of data I need to look at. AND ON TOP OF ALL OF THAT there’s even more qualifiers about the data itself, the limitations of what I tried, etc.

Now that I’ve clarified that, and I frankly feel like I should just write a whole post with all the qualifiers, all of them. I will say that I’m 80% convinced that it works, it’s noisy, there’s no way to 100% prove it’s real (at least for now), but if it’s useful that’s all that matters, and will take some effort to figure out what it all means. But, for now at least, we did the impossible. I suspect you may be confused, my dear readers, as to why the build up about failure and the fact that I’m not thrilled with the result. Let’s address that in order.

Failure was always the result. I wasn’t planning on succeeding and while I wanted to, while I dared to dream, I was perfectly fine proving the null hypothesis (for those who don’t know, the null hypothesis is that whatever your testing is garbage). The point was to have some fun with the failure, try something new, and dare to dream I guess.

Despite wanting all the awards (who doesn’t) I’m also not thrilled with being noticed. I would draw your attention back to my olympics analogy for why that’s the case. I don’t feel like I’m at that level, maybe no one does, but ironically I wasn’t afraid to fail, I was more afraid of the chance of success. I just wanted to try something I thought would be fun to try and get a PhD for thinking outside the box a bit. I don’t exactly feel like my work is good enough to be scrutinized relentlessly like that.

Not that I didn’t do good work or that I didn’t do sound work. I know what I’m doing (for the most part) and I know how to write good code (in my opinion). But I also know that I (like all of us… for now) am only human and there’s bound to be an error somewhere. Was it an error that nulls the result or was it just something dumb that gets cancelled out by a second error somewhere else? That’s the question. So I’ve checked and I will keep checking, but so far things look sound enough.

Now why am I not thrilled with this result? Well aside from the stuff above, it means that I have to deal with a lot of people now telling me that I did it wrong without actually looking at my work. I can handle it, we should be sceptical, I’m sceptical, I’m 90% sure that I’ve screwed something up somewhere despite being 80% sure I have something useful. To say I’m conflicted is an understatement. It would’ve been nicer to have a clear no, than an “impossible” (what I would call shaky) yes.

So in this particular case success wasn’t all that great anyway, plus success could quickly turn to failure if something comes up, but so far I’ve got enough data together to say that we have something that contains useful information (can be used to do something, not just a novel measurement for the sake of being novel, it is actually useful). Again, very conflicted. But I will go into the DARPA conference with all the confidence I can muster and make the case for my work. Because really at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it works or not, the point wasn’t the success/fail metric, it was the journey.

I’m hoping that’s why DARPA (and my funders) took interest, the journey was interesting, if not unconventional. Which reminds me to thank each and every one of you, be it the first time you’ve read something I’ve written or if you’ve been following for years. Your support on this journey means more to me than I could put to words. It’s been physically exhausting, painful, and it’s not over just yet, but I couldn’t do it without the support I’ve gotten from this little blog of mine. What I’ve done over the years has lead to all this support, and how could I ever call that a failure?

Even if SST had failed (or ends up failing after further scrutiny), all of you, you made my journey a success. Thank you.


4 responses

  1. Alex. Good job, congratulations.

    I think I feel better about you having a fuzzy “yes” than a firm “no.” Maybe because, apart from what it means for you and your dissertation, this was tantalizing and I wanted it to work for practical reasons. The fuzzy result leaves open the chance that there’s an underlying error, but also leaves open the chance for improvement via optimization, with your proof-of-concept result serving as a motivator for people to attempt that. I don’t suppose I have a great grasp on how it’s going to feel to explain it to its detractors, though, so maybe I’m throwing you into the meat grinder for science.

    But surely you can’t do worse than those people in the OPERA group who thought they saw particles moving faster than light because of a bad cable connection and a clock error. Even if further scrutiny of your work turns up something embarrassing, I don’t think it can top that for severity or publicity. And I’m not mad at those people for publicizing their preliminary result (even though it was something I was particularly excited about and the end of it was a letdown). They never claimed it was certain – they basically said “this is a strange outcome, everyone, see if you can find our mistake” – and if nothing else it serves as a good case study in how things aren’t always what they seem. Most people probably wouldn’t know the story if they hadn’t put the results out and found the errors later.

    Anyway, your final conclusion is quite correct; however it ultimately turns out, you learned things, you put in meaningful effort trying an experiment that really ought to have been tried by somebody, you got a result.

    And you know what’s really important to me, right (oh goodness I’m going to be sappy again) is that you are Alex who is my friend. You can’t fail at being Alex.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 19, 2022 at 2:04 am

    • Thank you Jenny! Well when compared to the OPERA incident, which I was excited about too to be honest, I guess I have it easier. Haha I’m also trying to remain skeptical about the result and not suggest that I have something firm, but more like I found something interesting and even if it’s not what I think it is, it could still very well turn out to be useful.

      I am excited about it for sure, I just also know what it means in terms of the uphill battle to get people to even attempt it since they will have a bias about the technique. Overall though I’m working on building a case and the work I’ve done today will help with that. I only have a few days before my DARPA meeting (pre conference meeting that is) so I need to get some stuff done.

      And thank you Jenny, I’m lucky to have a friend like you! It reaffirms that I must be doing something right 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      October 19, 2022 at 9:33 pm

  2. Karre

    Congratulations, you are doing great things. You like a good fight, this is probably better for you than a clear answer. I know it now means you may not be the one to have the breakthrough from your big idea, and there is still some doubt. That’s kind of a tough pill to swallow, but has always been the deal. Maybe I am wrong, I am kind of the eternal optimist, but honestly I think you are in a sweet spot. I hope this make sense, I wish you all the success in the world, just not all at once. Be easy on yourself. These things take time and you are pushing yourself pretty hard.

    Liked by 2 people

    October 19, 2022 at 4:19 am

    • Thanks Karre, you’ve been incredibly supportive and I really appreciate you. You’re right these things do take time and I’m trying to keep that in mind as I continue my work.


      October 19, 2022 at 9:34 pm

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