Mistakes in the lab
In the molecular biology research lab, there are times when the day starts with the 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, etc., was left unprocessed.
The forlorn tube is found floating atop a serene puddle of melted ice in the lab ice bucket.
Often the lost tube isn’t a big deal, but approaching the lab bench one may realize that the lost transformation tube is a perfect metaphor for how it feels to be a scientist.
In the midst of trying to innovate, the pressure to produce results on a schedule or keep up with the latest research makes time for reflection seem impossible.
Fear of failure
A research lab example about loss 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 because failure can produce 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 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.
Take the forgotten scientific sample from earlier. When a sample is realized, 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. Energy is better used for learning. Practicing failure means understanding failure is possible.
To try in spite of failure is viewing loss as an opportunity to discover what works and what doesn't work. This does not mean minimizing all the feelings and impacts of failure but rather redirecting the focus to next steps.
When a precious sample is lost, acknowledge the loss, but don’t climb into the ice bucket and float with the tube. Instead, use the brain’s attention to start learning. 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 sample can catalyze an existential crisis.
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 evokes meaningful questions.
By changing emotions around failure from losing to learning, failure becomes an opportunity.
Embracing failure makes transformation possible.
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Julia Fletcher is founder of JEFS Storytelling Arts, a graphic design studio, where she uses her unique research skills and artistic talents to create custom visual stories that help clients’ increase engagement and promote the education of their audience.