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07/20/2012

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Tuomas Tahko

Wise words there Marcus. Sorry to hear about your fly-out experience, but: you must be doing something right, as you at least got a fly-out!

As it happens, my own approach to failure is very similar to yours -- or at least that's what I strive for. I know those rude and unhelpful comments that you mention, the same goes for funding applications. I tend to wait until my initial disappointment, or anger, is gone. That's mainly because I don't want to be blinded by it when I, say, revise a paper. But the next day is probably good.

As you say, this is something that one has to learn to live with anyway, so we might as well develop a good method for dealing with failure. What you suggest and do is exactly on the right lines.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for the kind words, Tuomas. Yeah, I usually find that it takes me half a day to a day to get my emotions in order, but after that, the nose goes back to the grindstone...

Trevor Hedberg

I think there's a distinction worth making here. There are at least two kinds of failures. One is primarily self-created; the other is mostly a case of bad luck. In my days of college tennis, I had many matches I lost to superior players. These were failures of the first kind: I just wasn't good enough. My opponents had superior ground strokes, more powerful serves, superior quickness, better on-court strategies, etc. But there were also many matches I lost to players I should have beaten due to unforeseeable injury or sickness. These were the second kind of failures, ones that really were clearly more attributable to luck than a failure of practice or preparation.

We can extend this to philosophy easily enough. Some papers that we try to write fall into the first category: they just aren't very good, and we know it. Others, however, fall into the second category. Sometimes you write a stellar paper that gets rejected from a journal. It doesn't mean the paper was unworthy or deficient; it just means that this particular roll of the dice at a certain journal didn't fall in your favor. (This doesn't mean the review process is subjective; it just means there are a lot of variables involved. A journal's pool of submissions will vary heavily every quarter, for instance.)

I think the best one can hope for in anything where there's even a hint of competition is to reach a point where your failures are mostly of the second kind. If your failures are more of your own personal doings, then an attitude of changing routines, getting back to work, etc., seems appropriate (perhaps even necessary). But if luck's the only thing working against you, then if you persevere, luck will fall in your favor eventually. At that point, I think making any serious adjustments to your routine is a matter of overreacting.

So I think in assessing how to respond to the interview, it's important to assess whether it was primarily inadequacy in your delivery, preparation, traveling plans, or something else; or an almost inevitable result of traveling 25 hours prior to the presentation and teaching demo. Perhaps its a mixture of these and hard to classify, but I think it'd be hard for anyone to be fully functional after that kind of travel. So maybe cut yourself some slack with this one.

Marcus Arvan

Trevor: thanks for the very thoughtful comments. I guess I don't think the one kind of failure (bad luck) is worth thinking about. It's (almost) never *only* bad luck. There's just about always something one can do better -- and I guess I think the best routine is to always conclude that it's not bad luck. After all, even if it is bad luck, you'll probably do more to improve yourself if you assume the opposite, no? Also, I think we all have an unfortunate tendency to chalk things up to bad luck (this totally includes me, by the way) even when it's not. Again, there's almost always *something* one could have done better. Usually, it's something you're not even thinking about. For instance, I have this one paper I've mentioned on the blog before that has been rejected all over the place. This puzzled me, and I thought it was just bad luck, because every time I presented or asked someone to read the darn thing I was told it's good work. Then, finally, after presenting it one final time this summer, I went out of my way to approach someone who told me it was good and asked them what they would do if it was their paper. They gave me invaluable advice. If I had chalked it up to bad luck, I would not have sought the help I needed. While I think there can genuinely be bad luck sometimes, isn't it better to assume that it's not?

Trevor Hedberg

@Marcus -- You make some good points, and I mostly agree with you. In particular, I agree that we don't want to become too generous in making excuses for our shortcomings. However, I also think it's generally unproductive to be overly self-critical. Reflective self-criticism is vital to one's self-improvement, but too much of it (particularly when it's unwarranted) can lead to discouragement and even despair. These beliefs could manifest as the thought that one's presentation skills, teaching abilities, writing skills, etc., will never be good enough or that one will never get a job in the current market.

It could be that you are simply numb to this outcome: you may not be at risk of slipping from reflective self-criticism to one of these less desirable states because of previous experiences, your personality, or some other reason. But I think many of those I have met (and myself at times) have generated too much negative energy mulling over past mistakes and current imperfections. I think there's a balance to be struck between being too lax and too strict in one's self-appraisal, and my suggestion in the previous comment was an attempt to strike that balance. Of course, since I doubt there's some magical balance that would fit every single person, a more rigorous standard might be appropriate for some (especially if that person knows he or she is prone to chalk up failures to bad luck when they probably aren't).

I should also add that the more frequently things turn out unfavorably, the more likely it is that these outcomes aren't just bad luck. So as those experiences with your paper continued to repeat themselves, you were definitely right to think that something with it wasn't quite right and investigate. I suspect that our considered views on this topic (at least in practice) are actually quite similar.

Marcus Arvan

Trevor: I too think we agree more than we disagree. I've seen many people run into the problem you raise, viz. becoming so overly self-critical that it becomes debilitating. But I wasn't really talking about self-criticism. I meant to say that one's primary aim -- one's routine -- should always be to be a little bit better today than one was yesterday. And this is, I think, an optimistic and healthy way to go -- not to mention the most productive. My point, in other words, is not to blame oneself *or* blame others for one's failures. Either sort of blame seems to me mostly pointless. As my father once told me, all you can really do is control what you can now. The past is the past. It doesn't really matter what went wrong, as long as you
learn from it and focus on improving what you can improve. Anyway, I expect we probably agree on all this. :)

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