Lucy Zheng is a senior at Duke University, studying biology. She currently assists the Academic Guides Program with graphic design and marketing, and is loving the opportunity to stretch her design skills! Lucy loves singing, making art, and baking. After graduation she plans to go to medical school, and hopes to pursue a career in sexual and reproductive health.
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One of the most basic lessons a student can learn from research is simply Murphy’s Law: what can go wrong will go wrong.
As soon as I began working in a lab during my sophomore year, the fact that things would often go wrong became quickly apparent. So many factors could ruin what I thought would go smoothly, and when there was something I missed as I fumbled in the process of learning, I felt deeply disappointed in myself. I hauled this heavy sense of disappointment to and from the long walk to Research Drive every week.
As I worked in my lab, and also faced the obstacles of college—mixing up procedures, failing exams, and more—I realized how my gut reaction to mistakes was often bitter disappointment. I had linked achievement and perfection to my own identity, and when those characteristics were put into question, I doubted myself, and that doubt hindered me from taking action and improving.
The failures and the sense of shame I felt about myself could often feel deeply isolating. Especially in a space like Duke, where effortless perfection feels so written into the atmosphere of the student body, it’s easy to forget how prevalent failure is. When I failed, sometimes I felt like I failed alone.
It was talking to the people around me, opening up about the failures and anxiety and uncertainty I experienced in my research, that reminded me of how much I wasn’t alone. After sharing my stories of experiments gone wrong, of making so many mistakes and being so ashamed of myself, of wanting to leave my lab but feeling tied down, my friends, my peers, and students I looked up to began to share their stories of failure, of failing exams, of research protocols gone horribly, horribly wrong, of feeling beaten down and weary by the constant motion of being a student trying so hard to succeed. But their stories rarely ended purely with a dejected sigh. There was often an upturn, a conclusion about how failure steered them to the path they were meant to be on, how it taught them about their own strength and persistence. Those stories got me through my research experiences, inspiring me to find new ones that lit a spark in me that I hadn’t felt before.
Me on a hiking trip, a few seconds before I failed to keep my balance and nearly fell into the water!
Lack of conversation about failure can make it feel rare and deeply isolating when you are experiencing it. By sharing in the experience with those around me, creating a space with those I cared about to talk openly— that made all the difference.
Attending the Duke Real Talk on failure a few weeks ago reminded me of the importance of establishing that space. I’m rarely in spaces where I can speak to students I haven’t met before—much less faculty—about our experiences of failure, how they’ve allowed us to grow, how they’ve made us better. As I sat in the breakout room, listening to stories of my peers struggling with classes, with applications to jobs and programs, struggling to teach complicated concepts of physics to younger students, as I listened to a statistics professor speak about how astonishingly terrible his exam scores were in graduate school, I was reminded once again of how prevalent failure is, and how much it can teach us, lead us. Especially with faculty, whom I’ve looked up to as the leaders and scholars in their field, it’s so easy to imagine them as paragons of perfection who have never failed. But they have, of course—we all have. Failure is human, helping us understand ourselves better, guiding us in new directions that will help us grow.
So, let’s talk about it. When have you experienced failure? When have your friends, your mentors, and the people you look up to the most messed up, made mistakes, crashed and burned in remarkable, surprising, and even impressive ways that make them laugh now to recall? And what did you learn; what did they learn? By talking about it, we stand to learn so much more— about each other, about ourselves and our journeys, and about the experiences that unite us.