How I Fail S01E10: Jean Yang (PhD’15, Computer Science)

How I Fail: Jean Yang (PhD'15, Computer Science)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Jean Yang, an assistant professor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. You can find more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter.

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

I was born in China, grew up in Pittsburgh, spent over a decade in Boston for school, and am back in Pittsburgh as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science.

  1. In a blog post about your PhD you wrote about getting papers rejected, asking your supervisors for help, then getting advice to fail more. Can you say something about how that’s changed your views on failure?

When I was younger, failure was the worst thing that could happen to a person, and was to be avoided at all costs. Having this orientation towards failure made me risk-averse when it came to most things in my life.

  1. Could you share some other failures with the readers, and why those failures were memorable to you?

One of the most trivial–and memorable–failures I had was when I did more poorly than I wanted to on an exam in college, and brought my term grade down from an A to an A-. I had been doing very well in the class and felt I knew what was going on, so I had prioritized my other finals. My performance on this final–and in the class–was a complete shock to me. After I found out, I was so upset that I couldn’t enjoy a nice dinner with my then-boyfriend. There are a couple of reasons why this failure was memorable to me. First, the actual “failure” seems so trivial now it gives me perspective on my post-failure feelings. Second, I learned an important lesson: not to be so over-confident about something that I prepare insufficiently.

  1. Do you in general keep track of your failures? Why / why not?

I don’t really keep track of my failures. When I fail, I process what happened and what I could improve upon for next time, but after that it’s important to keep moving forward.

  1. You have been quite open on your blog about failure, which might be considered unusual for an early career researcher. What have the responses been like?

It was important to me to share both the good and bad parts of my experiences, since I felt that was what would be most helpful to younger researchers. I had always appreciated it immensely when older researchers did that for me. People have seemed generally appreciative of this.

  1. Do you think that some groups of people are less likely to share their failures than others, and what the reasons for this could be? What are the consequences?

It seems very cultural. In American culture, for instance, sharing stories of failure seems to be more acceptable than in East Asian cultures. Gender-culture also plays into this. There are two competing social forces around women sharing their failures. At an early age I learned that as a woman, I’m more likeable if people view me as nonthreatening–which translates into someone who fails sometimes. But, according to Rachel Simmons in The Curse of the Good Girl, women are also socialized to seem perfect, and sharing failures is at odds with this. One hypothesis is that this translates into women being willing to privately share failure, while publicly remaining quiet about it. It doesn’t seem like it’s only women who feel pressure to seem perfect. I’ve also spoken with men who say that they are rewarded for seeming perfect.

  1. Do you think that sharing your failures makes it easier to talk about successes too?

Yes. I don’t love that we live in a culture where we need to keep reminding other people of our successes in order to do the work we want. Talking about failure is my way of doing this without seeming too obnoxious.

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

One of the most important parts of my life is the deep friendships I’ve formed over the years. Seeing my close friends actually makes me happy, as opposed to viewing arbitrary CV items.

  1. Something that is considered a success, but didn’t feel as such?

Many people have asked me whether getting a Best Paper Award was one of the exciting days of my life. I mean, it was a good day, but I think even one hour later I forgot what it felt like. External recognition is really not as viscerally exciting to me as it seems to be for some other people.

  1. And something you regret not trying, that is neither on your normal or your hypothetical “failure” CV?

I would have liked to take more art and creative writing courses in college. I also wish I hadn’t worked so hard in college. From the stories my friends tell, it seems I missed out on a fair bit of fun. I tried not to make the same mistake in graduate school.

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

Like most people, I don’t like it when I don’t get what I want, so I give myself some space to process my feelings about that. This usually involves lying on the floor and wailing “why?” for a little while. I don’t like to dwell, though, so I try to figure out the lessons I’m supposed to learn and move on.

  1. What about when something is successful? Who do you share the news with? Do you have some ways in which you reward yourself?

Having spent a lot of time in highly competitive environments, I’ve learned how sensitive people are to the successes of others. As a result, I try not to brag unnecessarily. I guess I update my CV and website and tell my parents or something. One time my parents said they don’t like hearing from me only when I am updating them on my successes, so I don’t even do that as much. Now that I have a research group, though, it’s less about personal success and more about successes for the research group, so it’s nice to be able to share that. As for rewards, I prefer to reward myself for effort rather than achievement. For instance, after paper deadlines I’ll buy myself things or do other nice things for myself.

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

Talking more openly about failure is a good start. Giving people more time is another good thing to do. Something I really like, for instance, is how the tenure clock at my university is nine years. I feel like this gives me the freedom to fail in my first couple of years, and I am grateful for this.

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

Flexibility and resilience go a lot further than perfection.

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