On Failure, Truth, and Learning

8 min read

As part of my sabbatical this year I spent time with students and faculty at India Institute of Technology in Jammu, India. While there, I was asked to give the commencement speech at the university’s fall convocation. My speech consisted of three stories. Here they are:

Photograph by Noam Shpancer

Source: Photograph by Noam Shpancer

The first story is about failure. Nobody likes to fail. Yet the only person to have never failed is the one to have never lived. Failure, in other words, is not the end of the world. It is just the world.

Our first story is about a woman born in 1955 in Hungary. She grew up in a small home without running water, a refrigerator, or a TV. A diligent student, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Szeged. In the middle of her post-doctoral work there, the university ran out of money and eliminated her position.

Then, a professor at Temple University in the U.S. invited her to be his postdoctoral student. She, her husband, and their two-year-old daughter immigrated in 1985 with all of £900 stashed inside her daughter’s teddy bear.

A few years later, she received and accepted a job offer from a more prestigious American university. Her mentor at Temple did not like losing her. He told immigration officials that she was living in the country illegally. She had to hire a lawyer to fight deportation. Hearing of her legal issues, the prestigious university withdrew its job offer. Her mentor continued bad-mouthing her, making it impossible for her to get a new position at other institutions.

Eventually, she was able to get a low-level adjunct position at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, however, she struggled mightily. Her work was slow and tedious, not the stuff of fast publication or catchy headlines, and it went against the scientific consensus of the day. As an immigrant, she was often looked down upon. Her foreign credentials were considered inferior.

For over two decades, her research was routinely dismissed. People refused to work with her, seeing no future in the direction she was taking. She had trouble securing grant funding and bounced around from lab to lab. She was demoted four times by the University, and her pay was cut. University evaluations described her as “not of faculty quality.” She was relocated to the outskirts of campus. And she was never granted tenure.

Still, she persevered. “When I was doing the research I could see the promise,” she said later. “I was nobody. Why I didn’t stop researching is because I did not crave recognition… I felt successful when others considered me unsuccessful because I was in full control of what I was doing.”

To deal with her challenges, she relied on the work of Hans Selye, the father of stress research, whom she read as a teenager. Selye spoke about turning negative stress into positive stress, about how to see challenges as motivating rather than debilitating.

“Don’t focus on what you cannot change,” she said later. “Because you are fired, don’t start to feel sorry for yourself. You just have to focus on what’s next because that’s what you can change.”

She also did not hold a grudge against those who doubted and diminished her. “You don’t have to hold a grudge against somebody, because it poisons you and the other person won’t even remember,” she had said.

In 1997 she ran into a new faculty member at the office photocopier. They started talking. He agreed to collaborate with her. Their paper, describing a new way to deliver instructions to diseased cells, was published in 2005. It was met with no fanfare. The woman’s life’s work was again ignored, and seemed destined to perish in the dustbin of scientific obscurity.

The name of this “loser” is Katalin Karikó. In 2020, her research was used in developing the COVID vaccine, which has since saved millions of lives around the world. Earlier this year, she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

The second story is about truth. Truth is a universal value. People who are truthful and honest are esteemed in practically every society. Liars are generally despised and looked down upon. Yet life is complex. It requires flexibility, nuance, and good judgment, even regarding our most cherished values.

Years ago, I worked with patients in a nursing home. One of the patients was an elderly woman with dementia. Every afternoon at five o’clock she would get extremely agitated and anxious. It was clear that she was suffering greatly, but no one knew why.

People with dementia cannot report on themselves well because they lose access to their memories. But the loss is haphazard and unpredictable. Sometimes, islands of memory remain in an ocean of forgetting. We decided to inquire with her relatives about her history. We found out that as a young child, the woman’s strict father used to hit her severely if she was even a minute late to the family’s five o’clock dinner table.

We decided to intervene, and so every day just before five, one of the caretakers on staff would approach the woman and assure her that her father had just called and said it was OK for her to miss dinner today and continue to play. Upon hearing this, the woman would immediately calm down, and her anxiety would subside. Now, what we told her was a lie, of course. Her father had long been dead. It was a lie. But it was also kindness.

The third and last story is about learning. Human beings are a curious species. Unlike other animals, who depend on instinct and reflex, we depend on learning. Most everything you can do you had to learn how to do.

This is why children are more curious than they are afraid, even though they have every reason to be afraid. It is through curious exploration and the acquisition and application of knowledge that our kind has come to survive and thrive on this earth.

But good learning doesn’t just happen. You must want it. You must pay attention. You must learn from the right people. And you must learn the right things.

Our third story takes place in a bygone, unimaginable past, before cellphones and Instagram and TikTok and the current cacophony of constant connectivity. A young woman decided to leave home for college in a faraway place. Before leaving she told her younger brother: “I’ll be gone for a year. You probably won’t hear from me. Please take care of my cat. You know I love this cat more than anything. This cat is my life. Please take good care of her.”

“Of course,” replied the brother. And away she went.

A year later the young woman came back home. The siblings hugged in excitement.

“How’s my cat?” the woman asked.

“Your cat is dead!“ The brother replied.

Upon hearing this, the young woman broke down in shock, crying, sobbing. She was stunned. She couldn’t believe it. After a few moments, she gathered herself and turned to her brother in anger and frustration: “This is not how you break bad news to people,” she said.

“What would you have me do?” asked the brother.

“Well, I was taught in my psychology classes that when it comes to bad news, you must go about it gently and gradually. You should say something like: ‘The cat went on the roof, there was a loose tile, she stumbled and fell, and we called the ambulance. They took her to the hospital. They did surgery and tried to save her, but eventually, she succumbed.’”

“I see,” said the brother. “I’m sorry. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll do better next time.”

“That’s OK, I forgive you,” said the sister. “Now, tell me, how’s mom?”

“Well,” the brother said, “She went on the roof. There was a loose tile…”

What’s the point of these stories? That’s on you to figure out. Don’t worry. You won’t be tested on it. At least not by me. Life, however, will surely test you. Life is like a diamond: precious and beautiful, but damn hard. It can shine bright, and it can cut deep. I hope you meet life’s inevitable setbacks and frustrations with courage and perseverance, and a child’s curiosity. I hope you live your lives by the light of the truth; seek truth; and speak truth. But don’t forget your kindness. I hope you remain always openminded, openhearted, engaged and attentive, and willing not only to learn, but to learn the right lessons.

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