I'm going to start this post off by stating that I am a New England Patriots fan who is currently suffering from a devastating loss to the New York Giants. Needless to say after the 2008 debacle where we went 18-1 I was hoping for greatness. Regardless of the fact that I'm horribly crushed by the lost, I've learned a valuable lesson from grad school on how to find joy in failure.
Graduate school entails taking a lot of criticism. Now, for the most part this is constructive, meant to build us into the colleagues our professors want us to be. However, it sometimes feels like we are constantly under negative scrutiny, our advisors nitpicking our every action and tearing us apart for their own pleasure. Sometimes when you take leaps you fail miserably, often in front of your peers. Failure is difficult to deal with, especially when the risks can be high, such as fighting for a fellowship or grant money. Failure is also fairly common in grad school. With thousands of grad students in your discipline and economic depression leading to reduced funding, failure is something you need to learn to deal with.
As they say, you need to get back on the horse. Its important to learn how to embrace those times when you do fail and are critiqued. Last year I was involved in Michigan State University's Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative as one of their fellows. Part of this involved creating a digital project for heritage purposes. My initial project was going to be a wikipedia for bioarchaeology, but I received such a negative reaction to it that I was forced to change my project mid-way through the fellowship . However, it taught me a few important lessons about finding joy in failure.
1. Recognize what you did accomplish: If you truly put your heart and soul into a project and it fails, it is often difficult not to be crushed. Try to focus on what you did accomplish. My wikipedia project failed, but I still learned how to use the wikimiedia platform, I successfully installed and operated a number of new programs and platforms in the process, therefore gaining a tangible skill regardless of whether the reason for that skill succeeded or not. I'm sad about the Patriots losing, but I do need to remember that it was a great season and they really fought for it in the end.
2. Use the criticism to grow: As Andrea stated, we need to learn how to embrace criticism . For the most part, your professors and advisors want you to succeed and will critique your work in order to make you into a better professional. If you do fail, find out why and use it as a stepping stone towards success. We don't learn by doing everything right the first time, we learn by making mistakes and correcting them.
3. Remember that failure is a state of mind: Whether we view ourselves as successful or not is really just a state of mind. If you dwell on the positive aspects of a failure or life in general you are more likely to overall see yourself as a success. If you don't get a fellowship or get denied from a journal, remember all the positives you have had and all that you have achieved to get to the point you are. Just because the Patriots lost the Super Bowl doesn't mean I had a bad night, in fact I had a wonderful night because of my friends.
The last advice I can give on the topic of failing is to find happiness in the small joys, the compliments in between the critiques or the criticism from the grant denial which helps your argument grow. So even though I won't get to wear my Wes Welker Patriots jersey until next August, and it will make me a little sad to look at it, I hold onto the little moments of the night that made me happy and look to next year with great optimism.
[Image by Flickr user Hans Gerwitz  and used under Creative Commons]