How I Fail S02E06 – Danielle Navarro (PhD’03, Psychology)

Danielle Navarro is a computational cognitive scientist and Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her research focuses on human concept learning and reasoning, and on statistical methods in the behavioural sciences. Other topics she has researched include data visualisation, decision making, language and cultural evolution, cognitive development, and forensic psychology. Danielle is a cofounder of R-Ladies Sydney and a member of the Board of Reviewing Editors at Science. On occasions she has been known to masquerade as a statistician and a generative artist.

Hi Danielle, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself, and what made you join this series? 

Hi Veronika, 

Well, first, thank you for inviting me! As for why I decided to join, that’s easy – it’s a fabulous series and one that I think makes a real difference to people. I’m not sure what to say about me. I’m 43, I live in Sydney, I have two children who I love dearly and am endlessly perplexed by. I spend too much time on twitter for my own good, I’m openly transgender and bisexual, and I have a bad tendency to be honest about the difficulties I’ve had in coping with severe depression and anxiety. 

What’s a memorable failure for you?

Some of my failures are the same as anyone else’s in academia. Some papers get rejected, some grants don’t get funded, some experiments don’t work, some theories don’t work, some derivations are too hard for me to solve. Others are the same as anyone else’s in life. Those have been little things like when a job prospect didn’t work out, big things like when relationships failed, or terrible things like watching helplessly as someone I love died and I could not help. Life is necessarily filled with failure for all of us. I have no special insight into those failures and I don’t think I have anything much to say about them.

I do have one failure that stands out in my mind: I have failed dismally to convince my academic colleagues in psychology to take transgender rights seriously. It’s an odd failure because it’s one that doesn’t seem like it should be so hard, but it has proven to be entirely beyond me. I persevere with it because it matters to me, but I do not believe anything I say or do will lead to success.

I hope you don’t see this as a personal failure, but one of academia (or perhaps, this specific community? 

I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, sure, I can hardly be personally blamed for the fact that my colleagues are quite obviously doing nothing useful in regards to the problems facing transgender people. They are responsible for their behaviour, not me. On the other hand, it is a task I have set myself, and for good reason. The empirical data around transgender lives is extremely grim, and psychology as a discipline is partly to blame for that. We are the exact group of academics who create the diagnostic categories that govern transgender lives, and it matters to me that we as psychologists take responsibility for that. To that end I have written various blog posts, been open on twitter about some of my most painful experiences, done workshops, given talks, and… none of it makes any difference whatsoever. Regardless of where fault lies, I have failed at something I care deeply about and that hurts.

Is the situation changing? And are there differences between different fields, countries etc (perhaps some are more open to change than others)?

I think it is changing, if you look at it on a long enough time scale and from a great distance, you can see that it is genuinely improving. But I’m reminded of John Maynard Keynes quote about economics: 

> “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again

The situation regarding transgender rights is rather like this. Here and now, trans folks find ourselves in a storm. We can see signs that some countries are taking our concerns seriously. Some academic fields are showing signs of change, others have turned our lives into an ideological battleground. Even in the time I’ve been out, I’ve seen some positive steps: journals are becoming more open to the idea of allowing transgender people to edit names on older papers so that we no longer face the risk of being outed every time our work is cited. That’s a positive step, and one I am grateful to see. In the long run, I like to hope that trend will continue. But that is the long run, and in the here and now, I have to live in a very unpleasant world. 

What do you think about the CV of failures?

I have mixed feelings. I think it is a great idea to be open about failures and the CV of failures idea is a cute way to do that. At the same time, I sometimes feel like people look at one and think the takeaway message is “See, it’s a stochastic process! Just persevere and eventually you’ll get there!” I’m more pessimistic than that. Sometimes success and failure is not random. Sometimes you fail because the dice are loaded. And the thing is, per Leonard Cohen, everybody knows. Yes it really is a noisy process, but it’s also an unfair one. Biases are baked into academic (and other) systems, and that means that “luck” is unevenly distributed.

Are there any other popular opinions about failure that you disagree with? 

The biggest one I disagree with is that there is always something to learn from failures, some way you could do better next time. Often that is true. Sometimes it is not, and you can drive yourself a little bit mad looking for something positive. When that happens, I think it is okay just to say to yourself, “yep, that failed and I have absolutely no idea how I could do it better.” 

Can you think of any examples where somebody failed and said that, that we should be learning from?

Ha! My Ph.D. advisor once said to me that it was okay to make mistakes, just try never to make the same mistake twice. Or words to that effect. In that case it was prompted by something where I’d accidentally breached confidentiality (thankfully it was a minor breach and I was able to repair the error) and it was genuinely great advice. What I took from it was it’s okay to fail but always learn from it so you can do better next time. In most cases, I absolutely think this “learn from error” approach is the right perspective, but you can take it too far. Sometimes life just doesn’t give you any useful training signal, sadly.  

Do you think the uneven distribution of luck also influences whether people share their successes?

I think it does. It’s easier to talk about failure when you feel secure, I think, and it’s hard to feel secure when you are living in a low-reward environment. I find it easy to talk about rejected papers and grants because I’ve had quite a bit of success there. Oddly, I find it harder to talk about the successes I’ve had in that area because I’m acutely aware that not everyone has had my good fortune, and not everyone has been afforded the opportunities I’ve been given

Omg yes! It took me until the end of my tenure track to just properly introduce myself as an assistant professor 


But why is that, are we not biasing things in a different way somehow by “hiding” successes? Because you know the demographic vocal about theirs

Well, yes, in a sense this is true. Members of some demographics seem to be … less shy than others, shall we say? … about broadcasting their success to the world. That has the effect of biasing the observable data of who is seen to be succeeding. Perhaps those people could be quieter? 

But I think there is also a serious point to be made about the reasons why we choose not to disclose. I’ll use myself as an example, and I’ll use “cisgender white men” as an example of a demographic that is, on average, not so shy about talking up their successes. Suppose I were to “act like a man”, be bold and assertive and unabashedly proud of my success the way that (some, not all) men tend to. What are the political and social consequences for me – a transgender woman – for acting like a man? I hope I don’t need to spell it out in a lot of detail, but the fact of the matter is that this is simply not a viable life strategy for me given the world that we live in.

What can we [everybody, individually] do more structurally to change things?   

Little things come to mind. An easy one is to learn the art of not treating other people’s lives as interesting intellectual exercises. Do you as an academic really need to have a public discussion about the metaphysics of gender – does it actually matter whether I am “really” a woman, for example? Does it serve a useful scientific purpose to speculate about the “causes of transsexuality” as so many psychologists have done? What possible reason do you have to care about this, and why does your personal interest in the subject override the preferences of the people whose lives you are interfering with? Asking yourself these questions before deciding what studies to run, thinking about them when reviewing papers on sensitive subjects, and thinking about the real world consequences for other people when making editorial decisions seems like a good idea. Yes, good science requires open discussion, this is true. It also requires prudent discussion because science takes place in the real world. 

Hm, I’m not sure that’s exactly answering the question! I guess what I’m trying to say is that when other people’s lives and wellbeing are at stake – as is the case when talking about transgender subjects – maybe show a little care and kindness when deciding which particular hill you want to die on?

Have you shared things about failures online before? You mentioned sharing painful experiences, without any effect? 

I’ve written about painful experiences. Writing helps me get through hard times, and it can be valuable to look back at what I have written. My favourite example is 52 pickup. It’s not uncommon for me to feel badly about myself as an academic, because I am not as productive as I’d like to be, and I struggle to stay on an emotionally even keel. My first instinct is always to blame myself for this, but every time I re-read that piece, it reminds me that there genuinely is something bizarre about trying to survive in academia as a trans woman, and that the strangeness of it all isn’t entirely in my head – a lot of it comes from the structure of the environment. Keeping that in mind helps me be a little kinder to myself when I inevitably fail to meet my own expectations.  

Do you keep track of failures in other ways, as you would for a CV? Do you keep track of other things (habits for example), and what is the difference?

To be honest, I don’t even keep a CV of successes. I probably ought not say this but I cannot stand academic CVs, whether they be a list of successes or failures. All my friends in industry find it hilarious that we keep these massive documents exhaustively listing ALL THE THINGS. It’s kind of absurd. My CV is, quite deliberately, only two pages long. I am trying to make myself take the same approach to failures: there are some big ones I want to remember, but honestly if I kept an exhaustive list I’d probably just keep reading it over and over and ruminating on them. 

As for other things, I obsessively track the number of days I have been sober (currently 523), I track my running, I track my artwork, and a whole lot of other things besides. I seem to get a lot more value out of that kind of tracking than I do with tracking work related things. I’m not sure why that is.  

Tell me one recent success, and one thing you are “successfully failing” at 😀 

My favourite recent success is art-related. Over the last year I’ve gotten really interested in making generative art in R, and I’ve posted a lot of my art online. An example that always makes me smile is the “heartbleed” series, consisting of images like this

Besides the intrinsic reward I get from making art, I’ve become a much better programmer because of it. I’ve taught myself the basics of C++ so that I can call compiled code from R, I’ve spent time thinking about API design for packages, I have ended up writing my own blog themes that integrate nicely with R packages like blogdown and hugodown, and so on. It’s a personal success that has given me some professional benefits. As for “successfully failing”, I am doing a spectacular job at failing to get over my fear of sending my R packages to CRAN. It’s becoming quite silly.

Are there any art things, books, resources etc. you would recommend to the readers?

You’d think I would be able to think of some, but weirdly nothing is coming to mind. I don’t read art books, and I’ve never really gotten much value from motivational books etc. But I am a big fan of reading tidyverse documentation, any of Hadley Wickham’s books about R, and I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s art and try to figure out how they created it. I find anything by Kate Manne super helpful in making sense of some of the inequalities I see in the world. But more often than not I prefer to just re-read Terry Pratchett novels. 🙂

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

Greg Wilson’s quote: “Be kind, everything else is detail.” 

What would a ten year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

HA! He might be a little shocked. I think I might have to spend a bit of time calming the poor boy down and explaining some of the facts of life to him. Mostly I’d suggest that it’s okay to be honest about your fears, your hopes, and that you’ll find a way through what is about to be a very strange decade for you. 

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