To get a PhD you need to do novel work of high quality. During that journey you will have numerous ideas and try many new things.
“Innovation distinguished between a leader and a follower” Steve Jobs
Generally, 90% of your new ideas will be too difficult execute successfully. You’ll fail miserably many times and feel destroyed. I felt like that on many occasions during my PhD. When I got a new idea I was excited and couldn’t wait to get to the lab to get started. I was on a quest to get novel results. I asked myself everyday, “What can I do today that nobody has ever done before?” Even with the best planning and design most of my ideas failed. The disappointment was overwhelming.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope” Martin Luther King
How do you keep going when the chances of success appear to be slim and probability of failure being very high? You have to be careful not to get into a vicious cycle of failure.
Negative experiences develop a paralysing fear of failure. For example, a salesman who knocks on doors cold calling will get rejected most of the time. If feels the pain of rejection then he will be reluctant to try hard. He expects to fail when he knocks on the next door. Poor expectation cause him poor effort so the chances of him failing again increase. He may even stop trying and his ability to sell decreases and he’ll get poor results. His manager criticises him and he feels even worse and soon he is into the vicious cycle of failure. The fear will get worse with time until he does something different.
The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics and against all odds put the first manned aircraft into the air on 17 December 1903 and changed the world of travel forever. They didn’t have a university degree or large amount of money and were virtually unknown in the field of aviation. No one expected them to be the first to get a manned aircraft to fly. Now everyone knows them and their names have been etched into history for ever.
An accomplished scientist, engineer and thinker named Dr Samuel P. Langley and a Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy was expected to be the first person to succeed in manned aircrafts. He was very successful in the 1890s with extensive research with unmanned planes. Langley got lots of funding by the U.S War Department to design and build an aeroplane capable of carrying a man. When he recruited an engineer Charles Manley who made powerful lightweight engines everyone expected Langley to succeed in October 1903. The Great Aerodrome was perched on a catapult especially designed to put the aircraft in flight. During the launch however part of the aircraft got caught and it was flung into the water only fifty yards from the boat. The public and newspapers slammed the attempt.
Langley appeared at first appeared to be undaunted by his failure and making numerous modification he tried again in early December 1903. Lanley climbed into the cockpit and disaster struck again. The cables supports of the wings got caught as the plane was launched. Lanley almost died in the attempt and the papers criticised him fiercely and accused him of wasting public funds. He quit and about 2 years later died of stroke.
The Wright brothers kept trying despite numerous failures and a mere 2 weeks after Lanley’s last attempt they succeeded. However, they didn’t rest on the laurels and continued working and experimenting and got public praise. No one remembers Langley but even little school children have heard of brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright.
“Aviation is proof that given, the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible” Edward Vernon Rickenbacker
When you do your PhD don’t focus too much on the criticism and failure. Think about criticism only for a brief time to learn your lessons and then focus on the next thing you are going to do. Focus 10% of your time on the problem and 90% of the solution. The best way to deal with failure and criticism is not to take it personally. Just because you failed doesn’t mean that you are a failure.
Don’t let fear of failure stop you taking action and doing things. The fear cycle manifests itself as paralysis preventing you from doing things. The worst thing we face is the danger of being paralysed by our doubts and fears.
Don’t let fear make you procrastinate and put things off. The risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of failure. Act now and don’t delay. Procrastination is a huge price to pay for the fear of failure.
How do you break the fear of failure cycle?
1. Take 100% responsibility for your results. Don’t let fear cause to make excuses. There are no excuses only action you can take. Fear if you allow it to embed into your psyche causes hopelessness. If you do an experiment in the lab and don’t get the result you want then take responsibility and learn so that next time you can do better. Don’t let fear make you feel sorry for yourself. If get into the fear cycle you start see yourself as a victim. You don’t take responsibility. Taking 100% responsibility will enable you to do something about it.
2. Think failure as a gift from which you can learn from and make you even more successful. When you don’t get the result you expect in an experiment then the knowledge you gain from analysing what you have done is a great gift. If you learn from failure you will achieve even higher success. Success come from taking action using good judgement. This comes from experience, which in turn is the result of numerous failures and learning experiences.
“The past does not equal the future” Tony Robbins
3. Take action even if you are scared. Don’t wait for inspiration or motivation. Just start doing something and then bang motivation will hit you and accelerate your success. Act yourself into feeling great and inspired. Motivation and inspiration are by-products of right actions. Follow your plan of action.
“Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared” Edward Vernon Rickenbacker
4. Build momentum which comes from persistent action. When you achieve a good result from an experiment then keep going. Do the next experiment and you will build momentum. Momentum makes it easy to keep moving forward towards your goals. Keep going and focus on the next action.
“I’m more concerned about the five of us getting it right. We’re the momentum. It has nothing to do with the bullpen. We have to be able to set the standard each day” John Smoltz
5. Even the most talented get stuck and fail. Einstein, Newton and Edison failed numerous times in many experiments they performed. Even the most successful people get into the fear cycle at times in their career, however they don’t stay there. They break out of the cycle of inactivity and excuses.