I just celebrated (kind of) my 32nd birthday, so I thought of writing something that is very personal and close to my heart. Science and engineering have always fascinated me — being born in a family of medical doctors and being married to one, obviously played a role! Fundamentally what attracted me to science and engineering is their impact on people’s lives — one can see it now more than ever in our fight against COVID-19. But this attraction to science meant I also loved movies about science and/or engineering.
Back in 2004, I was scrolling through channels on a Saturday evening while having my dinner. I stumbled across a “science” movie — The Core. A lot has been said about the “bad” science in the movie (I wasn’t aware of that at the time), but one dialogue from the movie has stuck with me since then: Commander Bob (Bruce Greenwood) says to Major Beck Childs (Hilary Swank) –
“You are not really a leader until you have lost.”
As a fifteen-year-old, growing up in a middle-class family in India, this statement came as a huge shock and a surprise to me. Back home, and as a society, we had always looked down upon failures (and still continue to). This was ingrained in us, but it also motivated us to push harder and harder. It was not until 10 years later while working in the German auto industry at FEV GmbH in Aachen that I realised that experiencing failures is the best thing that can happen to me. I owe a lot to my FEV colleagues (and my time in Aachen), but the most important thing is, they taught me a way of life. One of my ex-colleagues once said to me: “sometimes you need to let it burn (fail), so that people (and you) feel the heat (learn the lessons)”.
The famous Apollo 13 movie and Gene Kranz’s (Apollo 13 Flight Director’s) subsequent book publicised the cult phrase — “Failure is not an option”. I humbly beg to differ. In the real-world, Failure is THE ONLY option.
Most of my learnings have come from my failures. I have had some very bad failures, some expected and some unexpected. Looking back, I am grateful I had them because it is only from my failures that I have learned what not to do or how to do it better, thus winning half the battle.
At IIT Kharagpur (KGP), in my UG third year, I founded and led the Formula Student (FS) team with a goal to have the first car built within 12 months. We had a super motivated team, all inspired by doing something that had never been done at IIT KGP — a student-led project making a full-size racing car. But like any engineering project, as we got to the nuts and bolts level, we experienced more and more challenges (technical and administrative). Deadlines came and went. We moved the target dates and moved them again. We registered for an event but couldn’t make it as the car just wasn’t ready. We finally got it ready almost 24 months after the project start. For most of my KGP friends and for me personally, the FS project defines my time at KGP.
I failed and we succeeded at the same time. I failed as what was supposed to be a 12-month project ended being 24 months long. We succeeded as we did get IIT KGP’s first-ever FS car running on campus, first of many in the following years.
On a personal level, the failure and the success of the project taught me to be optimistic, but to be realistically optimistic. Too often in our passion for the project, we agreed to impossible deadlines (sometimes I forced upon ourselves). Adrenaline is great, but adrenaline can’t create time or defy the laws of physics and engineering principles.
The PhD journey
In my first ever blog, I said — “Failures are an essential part of a PhD”. I have lived every word of this statement and the emotion associated with it. I was chuffed that my first three papers (of my PhD) were accepted, only for the next five to be rejected. To top it all, the results of my first experiments (second year of PhD) were just pathetic! I concluded that the experiment was a failure. It was then, my PhD supervisor (Professor Paul Jennings) said to me — “don’t worry if the experiment is not successful. At least you know what doesn’t work. Even that is a contribution to knowledge.” This has stayed with me ever since. It made me realise that every failed attempt meant I was wiser for the next one. The more we fail, the more intelligent we become in framing our next hypothesis and having the correct intuition.
Life as a researcher
Being in academia can be interesting but also very frustrating. The lack of long-term thinking means we are always writing grant proposals to develop ideas. The mathematics of the funding process means that majority will have unsuccessful bids. I personally have had many grant proposal rejections! The first thing I do when I receive an unsuccessful bid notification is asking for feedback (if not already provided). Many times, funding organisations have gone beyond their standard processes and shared reviewer feedback with me. This feedback is absolutely key. I accept the fact that not every grant proposal I submit will be successful. But I don’t want to carry the mistakes that led to one rejection into the next proposal.
The chess grandmaster — Gary Kasparov once said: “find out the nature of your mistakes… be very honest. Brutally honest.”
In the life of a researcher, everyone has a role to play to help researchers succeed — from funding organisations to line managers. Feedback is key. Sometimes I have applied for grants where the funders have mentioned that they can’t provide feedback due to the number of proposals. To such funders I say — “if you can’t provide individual feedback, then please don’t run funding calls.” By not providing feedback we are preventing a person from improving on their shortcomings and growing professionally, and possibly even affecting their mental health negatively, as they keep guessing the reason for their rejections.
A Harvard Business Review article summed it up nicely for me — “to be successful, you need to understand the vital difference between believing you will succeed, and believing you will succeed easily”. And on that journey to success there will be innumerable failures, the big question to answer is — whether you choose to continue. So, let’s celebrate failure, because only when we fail, can we succeed.
Science and engineering have been and will remain a big part of my life. For scientists and researchers to impact people’s lives, we need to allow them to fail. Rarely do we see geniuses who get everything right for the first time. For the mere mortals (like me), the more I fail, the more I succeed. I will end by sharing my motto for life:
“It’s never over, depends on where you put the full stop.”
Don’t stop after a failure, take the next step. It will always be the first step towards success…
As always, a big thank you to my biggest critics — Dr Poonam Goyal (my wife), Professor Paul Jennings, and Dr David Bott, for the inspiration and feedback on earlier versions of this blog.