How I Fail S01E09: Ian Street (PhD’07, Biology)

How I Fail: Ian Street (PhD'07, Biology)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Ian Street, a plant scientist and science writer who tweets at @IHStreet and blogs at PostdocStreet.

1. Hi Ian, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a plant scientist, science writer, and editor. I am currently freelancing as an editor and writer (Get in touch if you have a potential assignment, @IHStreet on Twitter). You can find out more about me and see my writing at my science writing site The Quiet Branches. I am also involved in some things addressing the social/cultural side of careers in science as a co-moderator of The Diversity Journal Club (#DiversityJC) and as a co-host of The Recovering Academic Podcast dedicated to inclusion in STEM and transitioning to careers beyond the ivory tower, respectively.

2. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

The failures that hurt most for me are the ones where it feels like I haven’t done enough or regret not even trying in the first place because I know ahead of time I’ll likely fail.  It’s a failure to have a growth mindset when I need it. I’ve been working to get away from it, however, it’s hard, especially as I’m not exactly a young person anymore.

The big failure that overarches all the others is a failure of never feeling like I’m enough to be worthy of anything. This hard to shake belief has led to periods of clinical depression, putting others (who are of course always more worthy/talented) ahead of myself has limited my own growth, especially as a scientist. Failures for years were catastrophic setbacks, almost no matter how small, but certainly bigger failures of not realizing what I’d done wrong or pursuing fruitless paths, felt like dead ends, and not platforms for new insights as many scientists are able to transform seeming failure into success.

I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s all failure. I’ve been pretty resilient in many ways and even had some good insights, but they are hard to appreciate. Part of depression is magnifying the negative and dismissing successes as flukes or luck. And that feels like a failure of imagination on my part to not be able to take well positive things.

3. In general, do you keep track of your failures? Why / why not?

In the sense that I can ruminate about a failure an unhealthy amount, yes. I do journal semi-regularly. I’d like to make it more of a habit. But I don’t keep a running list. After a setback, I reflect on and try to figure out what I might do better and work to improve the next time around, even if it is just by a little bit. I might be reminded of a past failure or something that bothered me, especially in my writing when I go back and think about what I’d do differently, so in that sense I track my failures.

4. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure?

First, I generally expect rejection to happen. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m immune from things hurting, but it does set expectations low, and I find that that helps.

A healthier version of this is to work to not be so attached to outcomes even though that’s hard to achieve. I haven’t worked out a good post-failure mechanism other than to look to figure out what I might be doing wrong and improve upon it the next time I do something similar.

5. You recently posted on Twitter about holding “rejection olympiad”. Could you say a bit more about your motivation for this?

Part of it is feeding into the idea of ‘The rejection game’, which is a series of cards someone invented to overcome social anxiety. Each card has a request to make to someone and the goal is to get rejected that day. The surprising thing can be that it’s not easy to get rejected, and even if you are, it’s not the end of the world. The game is designed to make you ask, take chances, etc. The idea is, by building a habit of rejection, it makes you more likely to keep applying, keep going.

6. What are your thoughts about people being more open about sharing failures online? Is it a good trend or are there also some caveats?

I do think it’s good that people share that they are human. Imperfect, vulnerable, and most of the time doing the best we can to get by in what can be a harsh and cruel world. In many ways, science is the history of failure. What’s left is the stuff that stood up to scrutiny after repeated failures to take down the idea. Gravity, Evolution, cell theory, etc. Our understanding and interpretations might shift, ideally toward giving us a richer picture of the natural world that includes all it’s diversity.

The art of doing science may be in being productively stupid, or productively failing. So I generally think it’s good, but perhaps not natural to share our failures more openly. None of us succeeds on our own and most of the time we have a long string of things not working that well before hitting upon something that works. If you’ve put in the time to learn and attempt to master something, failures are inevitable. It’s not incompetency, it’s learning.

The caveat might be, and I do worry about this, is falling into the failure narrative too much, believing we’re failures, internalizing that. And then others might pick up on that as well. I worry that talking about not having a perfect CV or talking about depression and mental health so much hurts my chances on the job market.

7. You also mentioned “pre-rejection”, which as I understand it, is not taking an opportunity because you expect rejection. Could you elaborate on this?

It is generally about fear. And even a sense of resignation. I’ve tried for years to get jobs like X without success, why will the next time be any different? Those two things may be related.

There are a lot of jobs I just don’t apply to because I simply think there is no way. I’m not _____ enough. There are a lot of things I don’t go for for that reason. Sometimes these fears are rational and justified. Other times, I’m just not going for it because I want it, but I’m afraid to go for it, or more that I’ll flub the attempt and then that makes me look bad forever or something like that.

8. In a recent Recovering Academic episode you talked about fear of failure. Would you say that giving in to the fear, is a sort of failure in itself? Do you have any ideas of how to combat this?

It may well be, though fear is trying to tell you something. It’s not an un–useful response. After all, you want your brain to alert you when things are actually threatening– socially or physically. It tends to be set to highly favor false positives over false negatives. Again, for survival, that makes sense. Calibrating the sensor well for our modern world is hard. In science and other creative fields, the map isn’t always clear. We have to choose to put our brains into fear and uncertainty time after time and be willing to stand up again. So being stubborn/persistent can help. Trying to frame things as exciting rather than fearful might help too; they are two sides of the same coin.

Then there’s preparation. Chris Hadfield, in his TED Talk talked about this idea in going to space which is extraordinarily dangerous and fear inducing. But you train. And train. And train. Work every problem as it comes up, know as well as possible what you’ll face. Be prepared and fall back on your training (perhaps after taking a deep breath). I think there’s a scene in ‘The Martian’ that strikes a similar chord. This kind of thinking is also likely common in the military, I’m guessing. But again, being in a creative field of work, unfamiliar situations will come up and matching training to circumstances may not always work. The goal is to survive, learn, and be ready to go into the situation next time better prepared.

9. Can you think of something that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

The thing that comes to mind is much more successful management of depression the past few years. I’ve gotten back to a place where I can actually function well, put my work out into the world, and learned a quiet persistence. It’s still a work in progress, but the progress I’ve made from where I was is impressive. Being able to tell the story is a success to me, at least.

There’s also the fact that I listen to a lot of friends who are anxious or depressed. It’s not something I can or will do for everyone, but if you’re a friend of mine, or a colleague I’ve gotten to know, I will listen, and it will all stay between us. I do think that that can be valuable, but not something I put on my CV.

10. When something is successful, do you have a similar ritual as for dealing with failures?

Sadly, I don’t really. I may go out every so often to celebrate something, but mostly, I’m just onto the next thing. Sometimes, I’ll link something specific to a success, but I haven’t worked out a particular reward scheme that really works for me. Part of this is building up my muscle of enjoying things again after years of being too depressed to really enjoy anything (see above answer). So for me to take real pleasure in something is a high bar. A lot of times, it’s just me going out to the coffee shop on a weekend with a book and not feeling guilty about it.

11. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

I think just to realize that it’s the medium we all exist in. We’re working to map the unknown and failure is a part of that. Some people with equally prepared minds get lucky, others don’t (even if they all have the four traits so-called ‘lucky’ people have).

Being willing to listen and be compassionate would help too. It’s not quite a set feature of academia. Being there to pick someone up when they’re down could go a long way, I think.

And of course, training can help. Give us all a course in growth and fixed mindsets, in resilience, and of course, in the discipline itself. Being trained in management of people as well as the work of academia would have helped me immensely.

12. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Adopt the growth mindset and don’t be so perfectionist about things.

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