Tag Archives: failure

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.


On failure, also coconut chocolate chip cookies

2 May

Lately I’ve been thinking about failure a lot.  I have my prelims coming up in a few weeks, and I’ve been anxious and fretful about failing them.  Nothing bad really happens if I fail them.  I’ll just have to study for them again, though that’s annoying- weeks spent trying to remember/relearn all the math I’m expected to know for a three hour exam (or two).  The harder thing, harder than restudying and relearning (which is sort of fun), would be knowing that I failed.  That there was an expectation for me, a line to cross to prove that I’ll be an okay mathematician, and I fell short of it.  That I should have been able to do something, but I didn’t because I’m not quite good enough.

This is pretty terrifying and terrible and there’s all sorts of stuff written out there about math anxiety.  But here’s the thing: math is always like this.  There’s always a quiz, or a homework problem, or a few minutes in a lecture, or a paper that you feel like you just don’t and can’t understand.  Part of what’s so beautiful about math is that it’s really hard.  And part of throwing yourself into your work (baking or math or whatever you do) is letting go of the fear that you won’t be good enough, that it’s too hard, that you aren’t up to the challenge.

I bring this up because I made these coconut chocolate chip cookies just now and they’re almost inedible.  Food blogs and TV shows always have pictures of gorgeous food but most food doesn’t look like that.  In fact, if you bake cookies often, I bet you have had this happen:



The cookies are flat, there’s big holes where the unincorporated baking soda lifted out of the cookie, there’s not enough flour to hold them together, and the edges taste like scrambled eggs (it’s gross).  I bet one of these things has happened to you before, or you don’t bake, or you are lying, or you are my friend Edward.

But I did everything right!  Not really: I added coffee, and I didn’t incorporate my baking powder.  Up to the very end the cookies looked like they’d be okay:

Nut another pun... these drive me coconuts!

Nut another pun… these drive me coconuts!

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

Gotta put this dough in the oven before i eat it all

And then they come out and they’re awful.


I failed at these cookies.  I fail at math sometimes.  I am not a failure of a person, and while I enjoy baking and math, being great at either of them does not define me as a person.  In fact, being infallible at both of them would define me as a not-person and you should check me for robot parts.  Speaking of segues, an old friend of mine has a wonderful post about failure, and here’s a quote from it:

“There’s a simple reason why tackling a hard problem can lead to depressive symptoms: you’re necessarily wrong 99% of the time.”

A few days ago a great blog post showed up on slate about being bad at math [disclaimer: this guy was at school with me.  Again this disclaimer makes no sense/is irrelevant because I didn’t know him].  A great quote from it:

“Mathematical failure – much like romantic failure – leaves us raw and vulnerable. It demands excuses.”

The humidity was off, my oven doesn’t work well, the baking soda is old: excuses in baking, perhaps, sound more rational when written than excuses in math (this is too hard, I hate math, I’m too stupid for this).  But they’re still excuses, which are what we make when we fail.

I’m human, I make mistakes, I fail sometimes.  I make excuses.  But I try to learn from my mistakes, and I’m going to make cookies again, and I’m going to keep doing math, and I’m going to fail again (hopefully not in a few weeks).  And this is all okay.  This is life!  This is why this blog is about baking and math!


Recipe (follow it but don’t do the step that I point out) [taken from taste of home]:


1 c flour

1/2 tsp baking soda


1 stick butter

3/4 c white sugar

Then beat in:

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla


Mix your dry and wet ingredients.  This delicious stuff is batter starter.  Add anything to it, but I added:

1 c chocolate chips

1/2 c shredded coconut

1/2 c walnuts

Drop by tablespoons onto your silpat or parchment paper or greased baking sheet, and bake at 375 (NOT 350) for 10 minutes.

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