On potential failure, and welcome, AAAS MMF judges!

17 Jan

I recently submitted my application for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship– the deadline was two days ago, so if you’re a graduate student keep this in your mind for future years.  So if you’re coming to my blog from that, here are some of my favorite posts:

On math: Apollonian circle packings, Aaron Fenyes’ research (with GIFs!) and part II, open problem in combinatorics

On news: review of Yale situation, what is a “trigger warning?”, algebra and the NYT

On life: being sexist, being racist, the job search

The rest of this post is for normal readers/not AAAS MMF judges (though you’re welcome to read on as well).

A few weeks ago I posted a wrap-up of 2017 on Facebook and received some kind comments on it, and then a friend who visited me told me that she finds me inspiring.  (Not a humblebrag, a straight up brag-I believe in bragging!)

But I’m concerned that these stories we tell of strings of success and people we admire can be de-motivational and contribute to imposter syndrome.  Here’s the inner monologue I’m imagining:

Oh look at Sandra Dee, she got a fancy fellowship and a great job and has a perfect family; she works so hard and is so smart.  There’s no way I could be like her.  I don’t deserve what I have and I am a lazy pants who played Candy Crush for half an hour today and I can’t do my toddler’s puzzle.  Why should I even try.  Boo me.

When we have idols and heroes, we aspire to be like them, but know that we’ll never actually be like them–they’re too good and have never had anything bad happen.  I don’t believe that every time a door closes, a window opens, because then your house would be really cold, but I do think that opportunities present themselves to those who seek them out.  And that the key to success is lots, and lots, and lots of failures (hello, math research!)

That’s why I’m telling you that I’m applying for this extremely competitive fellowship. If I get it, that’s great, and if I don’t (91% chance!), then you will know that I tried, and I failed, and that door closed.  It’s important to try, it’s important to fail. 

I can already see in our toddler the fear of failure, that he second-guesses himself and won’t enter an answer he’s not 100% sure of into his play laptop even though nothing bad happens- it just prompts him to try again.  I don’t know how to convince him that failure is good and okay- I’ll just keep trying things, and showing him that I fail at things and I’m still okay.  I want you to know that I’ll keep trying things, and I’ll keep failing at them, and I’ll still be okay, and you will be too.  Yay failures!

Here’s a run-on sentence of a failure anecdote that I think about sometimes.  I tried to fight for the editor in chief of my high school newspaper, who was forced to resign after writing an article about kids coming out/being gay in high school.  I wrote a petition with a friend and circulated it.  It got confiscated by our journalism adviser (I had left it in my open backpack) and everything went bad- I got mildly kicked off the paper (immediately reinstated, both in a 1-on-1 conversation with the vice principal), we had to sign a piece of paper saying we wouldn’t ever badmouth our paper or editors or adviser (remember we were idealistic journalism students at the time so this hurt), our adviser left (rumor was she went to Colombia for a while) and we got a new one, we had to get parent permission slips signed for every interview, and we generally had much less leeway.  I was perhaps in the running for editor in chief for the next year, but definitely that did not happen after that fiasco.  If this anecdote was mysterious and didn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it DEFINITELY didn’t make sense to me as it was happening.  I had many teachers take me aside and try to give me wisdom via metaphors that I didn’t understand then and still don’t.

I’ve had plenty of failures, but I don’t dwell on them- even that high school paper one, which bothers me, doesn’t eat at me.  Probably because I tried, and maybe there were other things I could’ve tried, but I know I did something.  This line of reasoning and blog post are now going nowhere, I am very tired, but I said what I wanted to say – that I’m applying for a fellowship with small chance of winning, but I put a LOT of time and effort into it because I believe in trying.  And failing, and telling the stories of our failures.

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5 Responses to “On potential failure, and welcome, AAAS MMF judges!”

  1. handmade habit January 17, 2018 at 10:59 pm #

    Great post. Thank you for this! And best of luck on the fellowship application!

  2. jeanne2626 January 18, 2018 at 8:09 am #

    Another thoughtful blog. The fear of failure can really paralyze us just as it does your son at times. We each must find the balance between risk-taking and comfort. I have noticed this changes at different stages in my life and when I am grounded with secure relationships I am far better at handling failure and other stresses.

    • yenergy January 18, 2018 at 9:07 am #

      Thank you!

    • yenergy January 18, 2018 at 9:12 am #

      Whoops wrong response. I agree, secure relationships can give us feelings of validation and add to our confidence. At this stage I’m lucky that I have those!

      there’s a balance of self belief being bolstered by those who have confidence in you, and self doubt which undermines other’s confidence (like if someone gives you a compliment, and imposter syndrome tells you that they’re wrong).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. I am the 2018 AMS AAAS Mass Media Fellow! | Baking and Math - April 11, 2018

    […] friends!  You may remember that I applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship and wrote about it in a post about failure and I even posted my application essay.  Good news: the American Mathematical Society is […]

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