“A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions – as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.” Friedrich Nietzsche
How do you explain failure in a way that doesn’t suggest you don’t know what you’re doing? It’s a question that preoccupies many scientists, particularly those in the early stages of their career who have as much to prove outside of the lab as they do within it.
Experimentation comes at an increasing cost in a precarious funding climate that arguably places more value on outputs than it does on the scientific process that is, by its very nature, propelled by risk, creativity and uncertainty. And yet for ideas to grow, and for genuine innovation, time and space is needed for those who might eventually become the next “big thinkers” to work through that process.
Working with scientists at the University of Bristol, the question of how to portray science in a way that captures the highs as well as the lows is an on-going concern – for the two are inextricably linked and in science in particular, accuracy is everything. Just like the most intriguing science, there are no absolutes, no answers and no agreements.
That said, the more scientists I speak to, and the more who offer their frank reflections, the clearer it becomes that the internal struggle to embrace failure is less loaded than the pressure to succeed as exerted by the expectations of others:
“You’re dealing with the unknown so you have to be creative. You have to be a little bit brave as well because if you have, what might first seem like a crazy idea, you have to defend it. Along the way you encounter a lot of problems and you have to work around them, you have to be prepared to maybe even change your opinion or reject your idea because that’s what science is about, you never know where it will take you.” Dr Sandra Arndt, climate modeller
“How else are you going to discover new things unless you stumble upon them? Failures are actually the best part because you can start asking questions about why something has not worked and often you can learn more from it.” Dr Carmen Galan, Organic Geochemist
“There’s a lot banging your head against a brick wall. Problems can happen – things go off course, instruments break, but you just have to figure out how to carry on despite all that. It’s all part of the challenge.” Dr Nick Teanby, Earth Scientist
The age-old approach of documenting the great discoveries as grand Eureka moments has played its part in the conspiracy of success. The focus has traditionally been on the end result, rather than the necessarily tangled and complex route it took to get there. As the more hushed version of history would testify, it’s the mistakes and the unexpected outcomes that often yield the most interesting results – Alexander Fleming’s inadvertent discovery of penicillin for instance, or the discovery that nuclear power was not the clean energy it was initially heralded to be. As for great thinkers, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were dismissed as failures before they proved otherwise.
Failure is not the sole preserve of science. Any creative endeavour pursued by us fallible mortals is wrought with the anxiety that comes with the almost obsessive pursuit of an idea, particularly one that rests on passion – the desire to discover a fundamental truth, to define an era and to make a contribution that will be applauded rather than critiqued.
For writers, failure can be a crippling curse, but as with science, the way out of abandon is to accept it rather than wrestle with it – the admission of soul-crushing defeat is not the only option.
The author Anne Enright put it particularly well in a recent article in The Guardian: “Failure is what writers do. It is built in. Your immeasurable ambition is eked out through the many thousand individual words of your novel, each one of them written and rewritten several times, and this requires you to hold your nerve for a very long period of time – or forget about holding your nerve, forget about the wide world and all that anxiety and just do it, one word after the other. And then redo it, so it reads better.”
One of the most utterly despairing definitions from Collins English Dictionary of failure is “a person or thing that is unsuccessful or disappointing”, closely followed by “an insufficiency or shortage”, then “a decline or loss”. And this from the Free Online Dictionary; “a cessation of proper functioning or performance”.
Perhaps our vocabulary needs extending, if the words on which we rely have only meanings that suggest we chastise ourselves from the pit we should presumably dive into when we err. Nor should the mistakes we make be discarded as waste matter. For if there’s any level of consensus to be drawn from a history of humans wrangling with the desire for perfection and the reality of its unattainable nature, it’s that failure is not synonymous with self-destruction.
Siri Hustvedt – a writer whose books are as scientifically enlightening as they are profoundly literary – talks about this in 'The History of the Shaking Woman', noting that “knowledge does not always accumulate. Valuable insights are thrown out with patently false ones”.
She goes on to reflect on the importance of imagination to science, but her comments could equally apply to any creative pursuit in which the tangents and the flaws form a necessary part: “Science has to control and restrict its windows or it will discover nothing. At the same time, it needs guiding thoughts and interpretation or its findings will be meaningless. But when researchers are trapped in preordained frames that allow little air in or out, imaginative science is smothered.”