Monday, June 14, 2010

Epic Fail

Today, for what feels like the billionth time, I sent my advisors a redraft of a manuscript I'm working on. This process is so absolutely soul-crushing, it's difficult for me to justify why I keep doing it.

First, I spend weeks (months) working out the perfect data analysis plan, only to find that as soon as I run it past someone else, it's got about as many theoretical imperfections as Branch Dividianism for Dummies by David Koresh. I rework the plan, now it is less heinous, but only slightly, like Jabba the Hut when he's asleep. I go back to the drawing board, which is actually my highly unromantic desk, only made tolerable by the random pictures I've put up and a little piece of paper that says 'Beer is for Champions (aka Sarah)' made for me by my husband.  I sit and stare at the gross blue cubie dividers, wondering whether they're made out of the same material as the carpet on the floor, and if I were to rip the material off, drape it over myself and curl in a ball on the floor if perhaps I'd be camouflaged enough to have somebody else do my PhD. Then right at the end, I could pop up and say- "Oh wow! This looks really great! Nice work! I'm back though- I was here the whole time! You look exhausted, why don't you just crawl under this nice blue carpet and rest for a while. I'll take it from here."

Anyway, eventually my advisers feel enough pity for me that they allow me to move on from Analysis. Perhaps they can tell that I am having statistics nightmares (which actually scare me more than mass murderer nightmares. NOTHING and I mean NOTHING is as scary as a statistics nightmare. Not only are there all these greek letters, odd symbols and assumptions you've inadvertently violated, but the fact is that, if you're dreaming about them, statistics has invaded your subconscious. Is nothing sacred?!) or maybe they think that if I go down this path, I will see the err of my ways and then realize that I should just start all over. With Psychology 101.  Or maybe take up basket weaving.

After the Analysis is complete, the next step is to figure out What The Data Mean... the academic question is always "What story does it tell?" I think this is a really nice way to think about it. The problem is, even though I've been doing research as a living for 6 years now, I still can't always answer this question. My advisers or a fellow researcher will ask and I imagine myself to be a beautiful but dark criminal ingenue, who has finally been caught and is sitting in a small room in the heart of France, with a single 20 watt bulb hanging from the ceiling. 'I am not sure,' I say evocatively. 'What story do you think it tells?' Then I realize, I am quietly drooling on my cigarette, which has been transformed back into a ballpoint pen, and I actually haven't said anything at all. I might've grunted.

After putting together a story McGuyver-style (duct tape, potting soil, and a pig valve), then comes the writing-up. I tend to spend 2-3 days thinking about a particular paper. I write the easy part first, the method and the results (because goodness gracious, if I can't write that after all the previous hoo-ha, then it's back to the 'drawing board'- NOOOO!) Then I write why each one of the results is interesting. I actually ask myself 'why is this interesting? why should anyone, other than my mom and husband (xoxo) care about this?' Most of the time, the list that I come up with gets whittled down to a couple of key points, the rest are thrown away. I was heartened to learn that writers for The Onion actually come up with 600 headlines per week, for only 17 or 18 to be chosen. That's 583 throw aways, and those guys are geniuses.

Then I send the manuscript draft off to my advisors. This is the particularly ego-damaging point. Here is where completely valid, obvious, supremely helpful comments are made. Comments that basically make you hang your head in school-girl shame, mumble something about not knowing that Wikipedia isn't a reliable source, and go back and rewrite most of what you've done so far. I always have this moment where I am just shaking my head in disbelief... how in the world did I not think of that? Seriously, a 7 year old boy with a Buzz Lightyear t-shirt and an imaginary friend named Bucket could've thought of that.

So, today, I sent the manuscript off to my advisors. I now have between 24 hours and 1 week to build myself a strong foundation (mainly made of pinot grigio, After Eights and brownies) prior to impact.

The whole reason I started this particular entry was because I have been thinking a lot about failure lately. That sounds harsh... I've been thinking about the condition or act of not achieving a desired end or ends which I (and the princeton dictionary) define as a failure. How it feels to me to not do something to the standard that I know I can do it. And, more importantly, how awesome it feels to get it right, after seriously hard work. But how risky it is to actually try at something... I mean, to try, you are giving yourself the option to fail. As long as you don't try, you're safe. Or if you do try, but don't try as hard as you can, then you can write it off- 'I didn't try that hard. It's ok.' I've always believed that if I work hard enough, and seriously give things my all, that I will be successful. What I've realized, through these paper writing... exercizes... through running, through moving to a foreign country, and many other things, is that failure, really and truly, isn't that bad. When I feel that I've failed, I can't look at myself. I can't look myself in the eyes. But gradually, I begin to take the little failure lessons and gather them like pickup sticks. (Currently I have so many pickup sticks that I am going to soon begin work on a George Washington-esque log cabin.) I am becoming less and less afraid of dismal, never ending, failure. Because failure hasn't been like that for me. In my experience, it does end. And people who love you will continue to love you in spite or even because of it. In fact, I am beginning to think failure is, in some respects, imperative.

Enough waxing philosophical. I am going to go get Bucket and crawl under a piece of carpet with a brownie or two.


  1. Everyone in the coffee shop is staring at me now b/c I've been laughing in front of my comp for 6&1/2 minutes because of YOU.