CV of Failure: Things I didn’t dare to try

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What counts as failure?

A recent #withAPhD conversation on Twitter prompted me to write a bit more about my CV of failures.

So far, I have been tracking the “quantifiable” failures, such as paper or grant rejections in my CV of failures, or shadow CV. However, there are a lot of other things that contribute to my experience of failure (and learning to deal with it) which are more difficult to quantify – because I have not tried them at all.

Most of these things can be summarized with the words “impostor syndrome.” I was convinced I would fail, or perhaps even worse, I was convinced “they” would laugh at me for even trying. But time and time again, evidence showed that I probably did have a chance. And even if I had failed, “they” would have thought it was good that I tried. It probably would have been better than always regretting not trying in the first place. So, what do I regret that I didn’t try?

Things I didn’t try

Although originally I thought only about purely academic things, I realized this pattern of not trying goes back much further. A few examples:

  • Talent show in high school. I’ve played piano for 7 years, but don’t consider it “talent show” quality, so I don’t sign up. At the talent show, somebody else is playing piano, but with many hiccups along the way.
  • First year of computer science at university. The student organization has sign up lists for different committees. The committee to organize parties seems fun, but I’m afraid it will have too many people, and I won’t be chosen, so I don’t sign up. Later I become friends with several guys who did join the committee, and realize they would have loved to have me.
  • Internships during my BSc and MSc. Several people are going abroad for internships. I’m afraid to get delayed with getting my diplomas. The projects I do in the Netherlands are all great and I get my diplomas on time, but the gap between the international experience I have, and the international experience that I could have, starts widening.
  • I’m writing papers during my PhD. The most competitive conferences such as NIPS seem to be way out of my league. I submit to good, but less competitive conferences and workshops. My first three papers all get accepted and I have a great time at the conferences. Later, I get evaluated on the quality of my publications – the places I’ve published do not really “count”. I read more papers from NIPS, and realize that maybe, I could have published there, too.
  • I’m finishing my PhD, and read all the regulations for graduating. A part of the regulations describe the requirements for cum laude. This involves a recommendation from the PhD advisors and several external reviewers. I ponder about asking my advisors, but decide against it. After all, even a graduate from our department who wrote several highly cited papers, didn’t graduate cum laude. “They” would find it ridiculous that I even brought the subject up. My defense is a success and the committee members are very positive. Later I confess to one of my advisors about my doubts, and he reassures me it would have made sense to at least try.

I learn from these events by recognizing the patterns and doing things differently the next time around. I did go on to participate in many committees, and even lead the student organization. The internship abroad was possible during my PhD. Although I still haven’t tried submitting to NIPS, I am now getting rejected often (and occasionally accepted) at MICCAI. I approach senior academics and ask for recommendations for fellowships and jobs. I am still scared every time, but past experiences tell me that it’s really much better if I try, than if I don’t.

Or, to quote Susan Jeffers*,

You’re not a failure if you don’t make it. You’re a success because you tried.

* Author of Feel the Fear… and Do it Anyway. The title alone is great advice.

My relationship with blogging

I have a love-hate relationship with blogging. I have always enjoyed having some sort of website. When I was 10 or so, my dad showed me how to build websites in HTML, and I made a website about the Spice Girls. There was no original content on the website, but the fact that I had a website and could update it if I wanted, that’s what counted for me. Of course, when I got a bit older and became embarrassed by my choice of music, the website stopped existing. In high-school, I got a bit more interested in webdesign. Blogs were becoming popular, and since I didn’t have any particular hobbies, I made a website with a blog about what was happening in my life. You can already probably guess what happened… I got older, decided my problems from a year or two before were very silly, and that website disappeared as well. Which is too bad, because now I would find it interesting to see how I thought about things in 2004.

In university I had a break from websites and blogging, probably because my desire to “do something with websites” was satisfied by my part-time job. But when I started working on my MSc thesis, something started nagging at me again. I was learning more about doing experiments, reading and writing papers, and wanted to share my thoughts. Perhaps that was the first time I felt that I had content worth sharing, so I started a blog again. In the end, I often felt obliged to post “something”, which resulted in rather uninteresting posts. This also happened during my PhD – I got inspired by website such as PhDTalk, but my attempts were never really quite successful, because I didn’t spend enough time on them. Again, my earlier posts just seemed silly to me, especially after some major changes in my life. My website was offline once again.

As a postdoc, I’ve started reading more and more academic blogs, and since a few months, I even have a Twitter account. So again, I want to have a blog, and I regret not doing a good job with the other ones. But a difference between regretting getting rid of your website in 2004, and getting rid of your website in 2014, is that I’ve been with the same host for the past 5 years or so, and could recover any content that I posted. So, I have decided to resurrect my blog a little bit, including posts from earlier editions. I’m not making any promises about how often I will post this time, but I will try to keep myself from going through the whole delete-regret cycle. Stay tuned!

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