How I Fail S01E15: Olga Degtyareva (PhD’03, Physics)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Olga Degtyareva, a physicist turned productivity mentor for scientists! You can find her website, blog and free productivity resources on, join her Productivity for Scientists Facebook group, or follow her on Twitter.

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

I have been a scientist in the area of high-pressure physics and crystallography for about 15 years, and during my research career I went through Masters degree, PhD, and two consecutive postdocs and also held a personal Fellowship from the Royal Society. It has been a productive and even a successful career, full of interesting findings, collaborations, papers, conferences and talks! I am an author and co-author of 38 research papers and a recipient of an international prize for my contributions into the area of my research. It was not without the challenges, and at some point I got into the self-help books and seminars to figure out a way through those challenges.

At the pinnacle of my career – in 2010 – I started my blog sharing the approaches I used to stay productive at work and also balanced and fulfilled in my personal life. The interest shown to the blog by other researchers led me to starting my own coaching practice and the Productivity for Scientists company. I’ve soon transitioned from doing research to being fully immersed in coaching. 7 years later and I’ve coached 100’s of scientists around the world, and 1000’s benefited from my free resources.

2. You have two viewpoints on rejection: one from your career as a physicist, and one from your career as a productivity coach. Can you share with us what rejection as a scientist was like for you, any particular ones you remember well?

Rejections of my submitted papers come to mind first of all. During my first postdoc I collaborated with a colleague who pushed for publications in the highest profile journals. Often I was the one who wrote the first draft, so I remember well writing numerous drafts specifically for Nature and Science for several of our projects. And although we did not get any of those into Nature or Science, I’ve learned not to get discouraged: we re-wrote those paper for the next best journal, and then if it would be rejected again we’d re-write it for the next best. As the result I got papers in Nature Materials, Nature Physics, and Physical Review Letters, all considered very high profile journals in my area of research. What I’ve learned from it is to aim high, not to get discouraged if rejected, improve and re-submit to the next best place.

3. Now as a coach, do you see rejection differently? If yes, who or what has helped you change your viewpoint?

Not differently, just deepened my understanding of it. I’ve studied and now know the dynamics of the rejection process and use it to my advantage. So here is what I teach my clients: when you receive the news with a rejection, it hurts, and it’s ok, it’s natural!… But don’t let it consume you for too long, maybe for a day or three, then you need to move on, and here is something that can help you to do this. Rejection is (often) not personal, and yet we take it so personally. So the best thing you can do is to remind yourself that is it NOT personal, and your work still has value, you just need to present it differently, improve your communication or try a different place.

After the initial period of grieving, it is now time to lift your head up and start looking around for new opportunities. Often rejection means that there are other (as good or even better) opportunities around, and if we continue to mourn and beat ourselves up, we would miss those opportunities too. So it is important to work on your mindset in that moment, and view the rejection as a pointer to something even better. We’d talk with my clients about using the rejection as a springboard to greater achievements. Instead of getting frustrated, complaining and feeling like a victim, use your energy to create better work and reach out to other places.

4. Is it difficult to advice people about dealing with rejection, while sometimes struggling with your own? How do you overcome that?

In my work as a coach, it is important to stay strong and confidence as so many other people lean on me and look up to me for support. So if I am in the middle of something upsetting, I would continue to show up strong for my clients and continue to give them advice from a confident place that I know has worked for me and for many others. I would sometimes simply mention that I can relate to their pain about rejection, as I also get it and I know that very successful people whom we admire also experience it.

On the other hand it is also important to show my vulnerable side and share my failures and rejections, and how I deal with them. So, I’d usually wait until I go through grieving and then frame it into a strategy video so the followers can see my own struggles and also benefit from the steps that I’ve applied myself to bounce of the rejection. Here is how this blog post was born.

5. How do you think this fear of failure, fear of rejection develops – is it something universal, or maybe more specific to some careers like science? Are there also cultural differences here?

My personal view on it is that a lot of the fear of failure and fear of rejection that we experience as grown ups comes from our child hood experiences. In particular, the school system is designed to give bad marks for wrong answers and to praise the right answers, basically punishing any “wrong” attempts and condemning mistakes and failure. In addition, the traditional parenting advice that prevails on our planet at the moment teaches parents to show rejection to their children to discipline them.

Many scientists I’ve talked to have shared with me those negative memories of their childhood. One client for example remembered being punished by parents for every bad mark from school so that now as an adult she freezes in inaction being afraid to get it wrong or make a mistake.

As my two older children have been high needs, I ended up studying a lot of books and going to a lot of seminars on parenting and on how children learn, and what I’ve learned confirms the above view. This was one of the reasons why my husband and I decided not to enlist our children into the school system, among other 100,000 families here in the UK, and all three of our children are happily unschooled at the moment.

So what can we do as adults when we have already a deeply ingrained fear of failure and fear of rejection in us? It IS possible to rewire our brain by purposefully working on our mindset and confidence, and to change our relationship with failure and rejection. It is important to start to understand that both of them are part of the journey to success, and start practicing reaching out and getting No answers on a small scale on a regular basis without taking it personally.

Regarding to whether the fear of failure is more specific to science… I’d say it is fairly universal. However while in business and entrepreneurship there are open talks about how it is important to make mistakes and fail, there is less of this going on in academia. As the result there is a stigma that exists in academia that the rejection and a failed project are somehow “bad”, and this is up to us to start breaking this stigma.

Regarding the cultural differences… again I think the fear of failure and fear of rejection are fairly universal, as I’ve now had 100’s of scientists from various countries and continents sharing with me these fears. Some of them shared stronger negative memories from childhood than the others, but at this point I’d be cautious to generalise.

6. One of your favorite quotes is “If you want to be more successful, double the amount of your failures”. Can you tell us a little bit more about the history behind this quote? What kind of opportunities has it helped you to take, which you would not have otherwise?

I came across this quote when I was starting my coaching business and reading a lot of books on productivity, mindset, business and success, and attending lots of seminars and courses on those topics. I have been a scientist my whole life and had zero experience with business or starting a business, I needed to learn it from scratch and was excited to do this! When I came across this quote, which is attributed to the CEO of IBM Thomas J. Watson, it downed on me that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and to start doing things differently.

Instead of holding back and waiting until everything feels perfect, I started to put myself out there with weekly blog posts, online lectures, newsletter, online courses and soon after coaching programs. Some things did not work, some were slow to grow, some needed to be abandoned… The epic failures or rejections included not getting a prize I applied for after being shortlisted, failed collaborations with other websites that focus on helping academics and scientists, failed branding project (as the result I still don’t have a logo!), failed presentation at a women in science conference etc etc…

However some things I did worked and the end result was that I was helping more and more scientists around the world through my business. One of the successes that is dear to my heart was the invitation to speak on productivity and mindset at a scientific conference, with my talk being the only non-scientific talk at the conference. It was certainly scary and exciting at the same time! Since then I’ve been invited to two more conferences and it seems this is something I’ll do often from now on.

7. Are there also caveats in this advice?

I’d imagine a negative side could be that a person can possibly get stuck in failures, not allowing themselves to succeed… I’ve observed this in some of my clients, and we have addressed the fear of success with them. Yes, there is such a fear, the fear of success! We can be fearful of this because once we succeed we can’t be a victim anymore, we can’t go around complaining and saying “poor me, see, nothing ever works for me”. Once you’ve succeeded you will need to change the story you tell and to change how you show up in your work and life and this can be difficult to change. Sometimes it is much easier to stay in the “failures” mode.

You say “doubling the amount of failures could mean producing lower quality work, but doubling the quantity”… It is a possibility I guess, but I have not observed this in any of my clients. Rather it helped them to publish their first ever paper, publish in a higher profile journal for the first time, give the first contributed talk instead of always presenting a poster, secure an invited talk, be a chair of a symposium at a conference, create new collaboration with a renowned scientist, publish an invited review article in a prestigious journal, get a new better job, apply for a promotion and also do new exciting things in their personal life too.

8. Is there a difference between what “rejection” and “failure” mean to you? Should we / should we not be using these interchangeably and why?

Negative response to the paper submission, grant submission, job application, book proposal, submission for a promotion and similar things can be referred to as rejection or failure. Negative outcomes such as bad performance when you nerves did not co-operate or the technology failed, or you were too late or did not meet the deadlines, or other circumstances did not align is more like a “failure”, as technically there was no rejection by anyone.

At this point I wanted to add my other favourite quote about failures: “There is no failure, there is only feedback”. So as long as we learn from our mistakes, change how we do things, keep reaching out and moving forward we are all set up for success!

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

Take time to really get clear on what do you want to create in your work and life in 2, 3, 5 years and even 10 years. Create that vision, even better create a vision board (this is something I teach now in my coaching), revisit it often, pay positive attention to you goals and vision, create time for taking small consistent steps, try different things, do it imperfectly, and you’ll get there or create something even better than your vision.

2 thoughts on “How I Fail S01E15: Olga Degtyareva (PhD’03, Physics)”

  1. Thanks for the great interview. I think the best take away message was “there is no failure, only feedback”. If the idea of ‘failure’ or ‘rejection’ is taken off the table, it’s easier to get started in the first place. There are many ideas here that I will reflect upon…..

    • Thanks Rebecca! I agree – it’s in the end more useful to try and get feedback on how you are doing, then to not try and always wonder what could have happened


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