Updated: Nov 27, 2019
Mistakes in the lab
In the molecular biology research lab, there are times when the day starts with a realization that a component of an experiment from the day before has been left behind. Because yesterday’s transformation experiment was done in a rush between multiple meetings, one of the numerous tubes that were needed to transform DNA samples from a boss or collaborator, for example, was left unprocessed. The forlorn tube is usually found floating atop a serene puddle of melted ice in the lab ice bucket. Often the lost tube isn’t a big deal, but sometimes, one can approach the lab bench and realize that the lost transformation tube is a perfect metaphor for how you have been feeling as a scientist. In the midst of trying to innovate, the pressure you feel to produce results on a schedule, keep up with the latest research and learn new technology make time for loss and reflection feel impossible.
Fear of failure
This research lab example may not resonate with everyone, but most people can relate to the feeling that the ever-increasing speed of communication and technology doesn’t seem to allow much freedom for failure. We crave success because we fear the opinions of others or the evaluations from managers or even fear the loss of our jobs. Even if our aim is not to fail, it is important that we place ourselves in environments that regard failure more positively. Especially, in areas where innovation is demanded, failure is a necessary part of the creative process that produces the insight required for breakthroughs.
Failure and creativity
Why is failure so important to creativity? When something is lost or fails, our attention is instantly focused. In this moment of lucidity, we are better at critical evaluation of a situation and are more open to learn what steps need to be taken to move forward. Viewing failure as a learning point instead of a stopping point starts the journey to a solution. Let's take the forgotten component tube from the earlier lab example. Right when the tube is spotted, a whole replay of events scrolls through the mind to appraise the damage. Is it the most important sample? What else could have been missed? Can I repeat the reaction? As the mind goes through this recap, it also starts to think about how to improve the situation for next time. How do I rearrange my time? Could I automate this process? Do I like working at the bench? A loss incentivizes the mind to think critically about possibilities.
When critical thinking kicks in after failure, a lot of the thoughts can focus on blame. We blame ourselves. We blame others. We blame our environment. We blame the machines. Blame is a trap because it takes away energy that instead could be used for learning after a failure. Practicing failure means understanding failure is possible, trying anyway, and viewing a loss as an opportunity to discover what worked and what didn't work. This does not mean minimizing all the feelings and impacts of failure but rather redirecting the focus of thoughts to next steps. When the tube is lost, acknowledge the loss, but don’t climb in the ice bucket with the tube and float with it. Instead, now that you have your brain’s attention, make it learn. Don’t let your mind undermine everything with blame.
Found in transformation
No one likes loss or failure. Even small failures like losing a lab component can catalyze an existential crisis of wondering at the meaning of everything. If we remain afraid of failure, we don’t try, we don’t take risks and we don’t innovate. We fear the outcomes from failure, but failure is important because it makes questions of meaning come forward. By changing thoughts about failure as a loss and viewing failure as an opportunity, one may find themselves in transformation instead of being trapped behind in fear.