The Basic Scientist

Optimism in the Face of Failure


-You know how some books change you? You read them, and the words burn in your mouth and your throat, making you feel like you want to scream. Even after the words start to fade from memory, they still somehow stick to you. They seep into your bones and tangle themselves in your heart, permanently residing in you, changing you. Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is like that for me. I am therefore devastated by the loss of Robert Pirsig. Normally, I am not so undone by the loss of a literal stranger, but I truly believe that had it not been for his book I would not be in graduate school.

When I graduated high school, I went backpacking through Europe with some of my friends. Both of my parents gave me a book for the various planes, trains, and automobiles I would undoubtedly ride. My mom gave me Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a wonderful book, but a story for another day) and my dad gave me Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by the late Robert Pirsig.

Zen is roughly 500 pages of (semi) narrative philosophy and I was eighteen at the time. Needless to say, I was highly resistant to reading it. But when you run out of other stuff to do on your umpteenth train, you reconsider what qualifies as entertainment. That, and I idolize my parents, so I truly wanted to read the books they felt were valuable to me. Considering that now, at 26, I’m writing about it, you can guess that I am glad I eventually caved.

Zen challenged my ideas of value, beauty and quality and altered the way I look at technology, mental illness, and of course, middle America. But one line in particular has haunted and inspired me every day of the last 8 years. More recently, it has become a mantra for me in graduate school.

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”


I am a goal oriented person, particularly with regards to my education and career. I have known what I wanted to be when I grow up since I was in middle school. That goal has been refined over the years, but never altered. I have always had clear steps outlined for how to achieve that goal and so far, I have met almost every one of them. I’m insane, I know.

High school me was even more of a type A, schedule obsessing, control freak, than I am today. My entire self worth was based on achievements. I had a fucking meltdown when I failed my drivers tests because I had “never failed anything before.” (I fully said as much in between sobs at the DMV.)

This is why the quote haunted me. It made me question the way I lived my life. Which I kind of loved, to be honest.

There’s something about being 18 and without adult supervision in a foreign country that is exhilarating. I honestly think the setting in which I read the book broke down my barriers making me receptive to it in the first place. Layer on the fact that the messaging was coming from my parents who gave me the book (they were constantly telling me to simmer down). I just felt like it mattered, you know? So I listened. My group wanted to change our itinerary on a whim to stop in a tiny mountain town in Slovenia. And I accepted it. We went white water rafting and I just about got hypothermia but It. Was. Wonderful.

So I began college trying to open my mind, my attitude, and my outlook on life. And I was lucky enough to have a friend who challenged me to to do so. I was such a planner and a rule follower and he was constantly forcing me to be spontaneous and think outside the box. I don’t think he realized that every time I said “We can’t do that!” and he said “Why not?” that I was channeling Robert Pirsig in my eventual “I guess you’re right. Let’s do it!” Each and every experience reinforced the idea that embracing individual days is important. Embracing the process is important. Embracing the unplanned, the spontaneous, the unexpected is important.

Which brings me to science.

Literally none of my experiments in undergrad “worked.” I got nothing but negative data which is why I am still unpublished, despite years and years of toiling in lab. (I’m not bitter or anything.) And while it was obviously frustrating and I had my days where I wanted to cry and rip my hair out, I persevered. At my darkest hours, I reminded myself that the process was important and I moved on. This is how science happens.

So when I applied to grad school, I said as much and nearly every faculty member, I interviewed with agreed. I will never forget at my Emory interview one faculty member said “I think you will be successful in science because you are optimistic in the face of failure.” I fucking loved that. I thought I was going to kill grad school.

What no one tells you, is that graduate school is mostly failure. I think I fail a little bit every day in fact. And failure inevitably comes hand in hand with shame and crippling self-doubt. [So much so that the the Office of Health Promotion at Emory is hosting an event on Friday titled “Failure and Shame in the Course of a Graduate Career.” You can’t make that shit up.]  You are constantly questioning your self-worth. Am I good enough? Will I make it? Should I quit and play kickball? Is that embarrassing? What will my ______ think? For almost three years now, every time someones asks me “How’s school going?” my stomach drops out and I scramble in my head to try to find positive things to say. Usually I say something along the lines of “it’s a nightmare, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

What I realize now is that I have learned to love the process– it has kept me sane. Yes, I have goals. Yes, I have plans to achieve those goals. But I no longer live each day for those goals. And believe me, I do not say that lightly. It is an effort to do so and I am not always successful. But in the midst of perpetual failure and rejection, it is so necessary. I still can’t wait to get out, but I’m surviving.  Which is saying a lot because I know that had I remained as goal oriented as I had been at 18, I would have self destructed by now. Instead, whenever I fuck up an experiment, or get negative feedback on a piece of writing or get scolded by some authority figure or another, I try to find a reason to love the process. Some days I need to be reminded to do so. Some days I can’t do it at all. It’s a work in progress, but then again so am I.