I am trying to optimize a process and the experiment I am running takes about 24 hours to prepare, run and test. The notable thing about this length of experiment is that you get a feeling of failure every day! The past 14 days has seen the experiment work once (for reasons known only to Voldermort) and never again. 13 straight days of failure (I am going for the 14th as a write this!).
I have read quite a few articles about adversity and uncertainty during PhD’s, they seem to pop up more often when you are thinking about it! Some articles have really helpful advice, “Everyone in academia experiences uncertainty/ adversity” – well I for one feel better already. “People deal with adversity in different ways” – I think most have a few common methods: Swearing wildly, eating sugar and drinking to name a few. Putting the helpful advice, gleaned from hundreds of linkedin articles aside, what really got me thinking was why and how do people actually stick with something, through continued failure, even when they know it might not work?
My case is slightly different, some blessed soul has actually made this experiment work at least once, so I know it should work, but there are no guarantees that the whole project, or any PhD project for that matter, will work. So why do people stick through long projects with a large chance of failure? Well here is my theory, it is not a mindboggling psychological model (alas there isn’t even a flow chart), it isn’t because some people “Deal with it better than others” and it isn’t due to some blind belief that it will be OK in the end. The reason why people put up with adversity and carry on even though the end is uncertain is really because they like it. These sick, masochistic people actually like (Some part of) adversity, and the uncertain of the outcome.
I realized today that I really like adversity. Don’t get me wrong I hate failure, if you ask my girlfriend she will tell you how much I can’t stand losing! The bit I like about adversity is the planning. I couldn’t sleep last night and spent 4 hours this morning, nervously waiting to see if my experiment had worked. Yeah, there was a bit of excitement, a bit of apprehension; and I imagine some people really like this bit… kind of discovering if Santa left you a present or a lump of coal on Christmas morning. But the bit that I really like is the analyzing and planning. After each failure I sit at my desk and analyze, read and ponder over the data, trying to work out exactly what went wrong and designing the next experiment to see if I am right and giving it the best chance of working next time. This is the reason I really like adversity, although give it another 14 days and I might delete this post pretty quickly!
As for uncertainty, well I have always enjoyed risk. Uncertainty seems to make little successes feel like big wins in anything you do. I’m not talking about gambling recklessly with your money or your life, you don’t have to take those risks to enjoy it; there’s a little thrill when you take a calculated risk, a satisfaction when an uncertain outcome turns out in your favour. We have all done it, been brave enough to ask a question in a packed seminar which turned out to be an (at least relatively) intelligent point, or tried something off protocol in the lab which improved results or time. Sadly, for each one of these victories there are plenty of times when you have asked a blindingly obvious question in a packed seminar or stayed until midnight in the lab because you were a smarty pants and thought you knew better. The people who enjoy uncertainty, myself included, forget quickly about the (many, many) times they have looked like an idiot and remember (Probably a little too well) the times that those risks payed off.
So for me, the answer to the question “How and why do people pursue uncertainty even through adversity?” is simple. They enjoy a small part of it. I don’t think there is a magic formula to dealing with every type of adversity (Yes there are courses which claim to teach (Buzz word alert) resilience and they might work for some people) but in a PhD context, I think everyone can find a something they enjoy in whatever adversity brings. Finding this and looking forward to this will definitely help with the tough and not so nice bits of adversity and uncertainty. So now as I prepare for another night of uncertainty, at least if I hit the 14th straight day of failure I will know that I will enjoy figuring out why!