Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We All Fall

Once a year, my advisor holds one-on-one "strengths-weaknesses" meetings for everyone in the lab.  We are supposed to come prepared with a list of our individual perceived strengths and weaknesses, those of the lab, and those of our advisor.  It's a meeting that I think most of us dread going in (candid discussions can be really awkward) but are pleasantly surprised by coming out (it's not actually as bad as we envision it will be). 

Well, my first year of this, I sat down nervously, heart pounding (as usual), with my list in front of me.  I recited what I had prepared (mostly trying to avoid eye contact) and then waited for my advisor to respond with his thoughts.  He told me

My strength is that I fail.  Gracefully.

He said it a little bit nicer than that, but the gist was that I had several projects go wrong and somehow I hadn't quit and my morale wasn't demolished.  (Oh, to be a young, enthusiastic grad student.)  Perseverance. 

That comment has really stuck with me.  I didn't quite make it through the 5 stages of grief-- there was no denial; after all, I had definitely failed multiple times-- but my internal response to this comment has come in stages.  At first, I was kind of disheartened (I've been here for over a year, and my most notable strength is that I fail?) but as that feeling dissolved, it was replaced by acceptance and understanding.  Not everyone fails gracefully.  

Now to be honest, I hate failure.  There are few things I hate more.  I think this is part of the reason that I don't see myself as a full-time researcher for a career-- too much failure.  With as many self-help, business management books I've read and TED Talks I've watched, I "know" that failure is the key to success and growth.  But still, my knee-jerk reaction to failure is to cry.  Of course, I tend to learn something from my failures, but in the moment, it sucks.  I'm working on improving that.  

Ironically, this was a strength of mine in gymnastics as well.  Only, literally.  Our coach used to tell us that if we fell, we had to make it pretty.  Act like you mean it.  Pose.  Pose.  Pose.  Smile.  I took that to heart.  

My strength was that I fell.  Gracefully.  

Oh, and did I fall.  On beam, on floor, on bars.  Pose.

The first time I went skiing with my friends in high school, they ditched me to hit the slopes, and I was left on the bunny hills with my friend's dad.  When I was finally ready to move to a green circle, I was so terrified of falling.  It was such a stressful experience.  Stressful because I didn't want to fall.  It wasn't so much that I was afraid of getting hurt, but more the fact that a fall meant that I failed.  Of course, inevitably, I fell.  My friend's dad told me it was the most graceful fall he had ever seen on a ski slope- a kind of one-legged twirl in an arabesque with an arm in the air, gently settling on the ground.  Skiing.  Pose.

And then in 8th grade I tripped over my own feet doing the shuttle run for the Presidential fitness test.  Shuttle run.  Pose.  In front of my entire class.  Epitome of an awkward middle-schooler?  I think so.  One leg propped, hand in the air with pretty fingers.  Yes, that was me.

Oh, those dirty four-letter F-words.


We all fall.  We all fail.  But the story doesn't end there.  That's only where the story begins!  Too often we focus on that fall.  On that failure.  Really, the climax to the story is how you pick yourself back up.  How you pose.  How you cope.  What you do next.  That's where your true strength is.  If you never fail, you'll never know how strong you really are.  I'm grateful to have an advisor recognize that strength.  

Check out this video that's been shared on Facebook by a few of my gymnastics friends.

Do you fail gracefully?

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