The Day Was Getting More Embarrassing by the Hour …
I couldn’t believe what I had just done. There was shattered glass and sulfuric acid everywhere.
I was 19 years old, working in the lab of a Chemistry Nobel Laureate.
My mentor, a postdoctoral fellow, had trained me for months on this experimental setup. I thought I had everything under control, but my mind was somewhere else that day.
The day before I received an embarrassingly low score on a final exam, and my mind immediately jumped to the conclusion that I would never be accepted to graduate school.
On top of that, I realized that I didn’t have enough money left in my bank account to pay the deposit for my summer housing. If I didn’t pay the deposit by the end of the week, I would lose my spot and would need to find a room for three times the rent in Cambridge.
After a sleepless night of worrying about my grades and summer housing, I showed up to work with a pounding headache. I was working on the final steps of an experiment that we had been running for three weeks, but my hands were shaky and I dropped the vial of (extremely corrosive) sulfuric acid.
I knew I would get a severe burn if I merely touched the mess I made. I had to get help.
I immediately went to the office of the postdoctoral fellow and told him that I had spilled sulfuric acid and ruined three week’s worth of work.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I am so sorry about the mess I made,” I said.
While he was not angry with me, he knew the lab’s reputation would be compromised if someone got injured. We taped off the area and called the university’s safety office. A whole crew showed up to clean my mess and fill out paperwork about the “incident.”
The safety crew also asked questions from my boss, the Nobel Laureate, who was not even around when I caused the mess (I told you this day was getting more embarrassing by the hour…).
I no longer worried about my grades or the deposit for my housing. The one thing going through my mind, was what I would do if my boss fired me? That would look really bad.
I didn’t get fired. The postdoctoral fellow told me he appreciated my honesty, and we reviewed the safety precautions in more detail. He said: “I know that after this accident you will be more careful and not make this mistake again.”
I went home that day feeling deep gratitude for the postdoc’s trust in me.
I made a commitment to not only take extra safety precautions, but to work extra hard to get results for the paper we were working on.
Four months later I had collected enough data to put together a figure for our publication. Wow, the work I had done was being published!
My boss, the Nobel Laureate, wrote me a great recommendation letter, which led to multiple successes, such as a fellowship from my university and an internship in the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
Perhaps I would have won the grant and the internship anyways, but the life lessons I learned after I “failed” by ruining an experiment, made a lasting impression on me for the rest of my research career.
Not only was I extra cautious in graduate school when I handled chemicals that were even more hazardous than sulfuric acid (such as carcinogens and radioactive materials), but I was also able to mentor to younger scientists, who had to overcome “failures” in order to produce publishable results.
5 Ways to Turn Your Failures into Success Stories
There are few things that will sap your motivation like failures and embarrassing situations. This is especially true in graduate school, where you may not have a mentor to guide you through these obstacles.
You need to be your own cheerleader, to not only overcome failures, but to turn the lessons you learned into lifelong habits.
Here are five ways to turn failures, mistakes, rejections, and embarrassing situations into success stories:
1. Follow the strategies that helped you succeed in the past
The first time I took the SAT I got such a low score that my guidance counselor told me to forget about applying to MIT. “It is time to think about other schools that will be easier to get into,” she said in a not-so-kind voice.
Initially, I was angry at her for not believing in me, and I was also angry at myself for performing so poorly.
Then I realized that I had to take a test similar to the SAT to get into my high school, because it was a math and science school that only took about 10% of the applicants.
I had only been in the United States for one year when I took the test (I am from Hungary originally), and half of the score was based on the English part, so how did I pass ?
The answer was quite simple: I made studying a priority. For two months before the test, I gave up TV, video games, and turned down invitations to go to the movies with my friends. (The day after the test, I was back to being a normal eighth grader)
As a junior in high school it was time to make the SAT a priority. Once again, I “purged” everything from my life that was not related to my school work or preparation for the SAT.
The “recipe” I followed to get into my high school, also worked to help me get a high enough score on the SAT to get into MIT.
Ironically, performing poorly the first time, pushed me to study so hard, that I got a better score than I expected the second time I took the SAT.
2. Think about the lessons you would have missed out on if you had not failed
My poor performance on the SAT taught me a lesson even more valuable lesson than making studying a priority.
My guidance counselor’s comment hit me hard. After all, she had been counseling students for twenty years, so she probably knew that I didn’t have a chance of getting into a good college.
Nevertheless, I decided to spend every free hour I had studying, and when I got a high score on the SAT (and got into MIT), I realized one of the most important life lessons:
“Don’t let other people’s lack of belief in you hold you back from anything you want to achieve.”
I would not have learned this lesson if I had achieved a high score on the SAT the first time I took the test. (Or I would have learned it a lot later)
In retrospect, I am even grateful to my guidance counselor for not believing in me because it taught me that what others believe about me, has nothing to do with what I can actually achieve.
3. Use the lessons you learned to become a better mentor
I had several undergraduates work for me when I was a graduate student.
They were bright and diligent, but for most of them it was the first time that they worked in a “real” laboratory (versus lab classes where the staff sets up everything for you.)
As I had made so many mistakes already, I knew exactly what to watch out for: making sure they kept good records, labeled all the bottles correctly, organized their data well, and (most importantly) took all the necessary safety precautions.
Ironically, having failed so many times in the lab (not to mention the embarrassing sulfuric acid incident when I was 19 years old),helped me to mentor undergraduates so they would have the necessary experience to get into graduate school.
I made sure that they learned valuable lessons from every mistake and knew how to correct it so it would not happen again.
4. Turn the lessons from your mistakes into a lifelong habits
Without a doubt, my biggest challenge in graduate school was having to write my thesis while struggling with an inflammatory condition in my arms.
This condition was brought on by stress, but it was exacerbated by my poor habits: not taking breaks while typing, working 12-15 hour days, and not exercising enough.
In order to recover from this condition, I had to change my lifestyle and develop new habits, such as taking a break from work every hour and taking walks to stretch my body.
Before my injury I didn’t take breaks – I just worked until my back hurt from sitting all day, and I wondered at the end of the day why I made so little progress.
I turned regular typing breaks and daily walks into lifelong habits. I know that whenever I am faced with a dilemma, going on a walk will help me to gain a new insight to come to a resolution.
5. Move outside of your comfort zone
In fact, life would be quite dull if you never took a risk, even at the expense of making mistakes or embarrassing yourself.
When it was time for me to find a PhD-level job, I was shocked that all of the positions required “industry experience” and a long list of skills that I didn’t have.
I felt like I was not qualified for any PhD-level jobs and I applied to positions that only required Masters degrees. Unfortunately that strategy backfired as well.
After applying to over 30 positions, I finally got one interview at a small start-up whose research was close to my the topic of my PhD thesis.
The interview went quite well, as I was able to answer most of the questions that the research staff asked me. Then, the CEO came in and I got a cruel reality check.
He took one look at my resume and asked:
“With a PhD from MIT, why would you apply to a position that only requires a Masters degree? I really don’t think this will be a good fit for you.”
I felt defeated, with no idea of what to do next. I didn’t have the qualifications for PhD level positions, and companies didn’t want to hire me for Masters level jobs.
I decided to take a risk, and apply for PhD-level jobs that I was “not qualified” for – I only had about 50% of the skills and no industry experience.
By then I had enough networking experience to get several phone interviews, and a few in-person interviews.
I knew that the jobs were “above my level” and I wouldn’t be able to answer all of the interview questions. But I had nothing to lose, even if I had to admit to the interviewers that I didn’t have all of the qualifications for the job.
As I expected, the interviews for PhD-level jobs were challenging. They reminded me of my qualifying exams, where the interviewers tried to feel out my weaknesses and then probed me further.
I was sure no one would offer me a job, but I decided to do one more thing that was outside of my comfort zone: I wrote a follow-up email to all of my interviewers to show that I was interested in the position and to thank them for their time.
The follow-up email was outside of my comfort zone for two reasons:
1) I didn’t like writing follow-up emails because I had no idea what to write, and
2) Subconsciously I was afraid that I would actually get an offer for a job that I was not qualified for. (By the way, most people learn the skills they need on the job)
When I did get an offer for a PhD-level job as a Senior Scientist, I learned something quite valuable from my colleagues: I was the only candidate who wrote a follow-up email after the interview.
Who knew that making such a tiny move outside of my comfort zone would lead to a job offer?
I bet that most of your successes were due pushing the limits of your comfort zone just a little bit – maybe you spoke up at a meeting even though you were nervous or you took on a project even though you didn’t have all the necessary experience, but you knew you would pick up the skills you needed.
You can continue pushing the limits the comfort zone every day – not only will you feel liberated because you had the courage to take a chance, but you will also empower the people around you who look to you for guidance to make changes in their own lives.
What is your favorite success story, and what obstacle did you have to overcome? Please leave your comments below and Dora will respond to you directly.
For more tips to help you get your thesis DONE and be more productive in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”