The Virtues of Failure


Thank you, Professor Vigué, for your most kind and generous introduction, so ample and magnificent that only my mother would have wished that it were longer.    I am truly grateful to be invited to Université Paul Sabatier, this great and ancient university, to receive an honorary degree and to be part of these most special ceremonies.


Your President has asked me to address you in French despite my protestations that public humiliation should not be part of the festivities.   Alas, my command of this language is poor, indeed, embarrassingly so.  My knowledge of French is based on two high-school courses taken more than forty years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. The first course was taught by Mademoiselle Barr, who was young, vivacious, and most curvaceous.  I remember that every boy in the class looked forward to Mademoiselle Barr, who delighted us in wearing tight-fitting blouses and spoke with enthusiasm about the time she once visited France and discovered the meaning of joie de vivre. The next year, my second class in French was taught by a much older man who was a strict disciplinarian. My interest in French declined markedly as this course progressed.


  Those of you familiar with the United States will recognize that the Midwest is what we call linguistically challenged.   By this I mean that American English is spoken there almost exclusively, and frequently not well either.  My studies of French allowed me to read Alexander Dumas  The Three Musketeers, and to learn by heart the phrase, Le chat et le rat n sont pas amis.   This last phrase has proved to be useless to me. The occasions for using it have been  until now  meager to nonexistent! Sad to say, since that time, my abilities to speak French have deteriorated, largely through lack of use.  I beg your indulgence while I proceed.  I can only promise you as the English king Henry the Eighth said to each of his many wives, Our time together will be short. 


I have chosen for the title of my talk, The Virtues of Failure.   You might be surprised that I wish to speak about failure today.  First, failure is no stranger to me.  Second, I believe that innovative research is a mix of many failures and few successes.  This fact may not be apparent to those of us outside science or to those students of the sciences who are just beginning.  We read in newspapers and in scientific journals accounts that stress the accomplishments achieved. These articles give the impression that successes vastly outnumber failures.  This false idea is often reinforced by oral presentations in which the speaker makes the research enterprise sound like it were effortless, consisting of one logical step after another. But this impression is misleading, as every researcher knows.  Real research is a comedy of errors in which one thing goes wrong after another. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, research progress consists of staggering from one failure to the next with undiminished enthusiasm. 


If research is truly innovative, then little can be predicted ahead of time about what will happen and what will be found out.  Innovative research is not an activity of filling in the blanks in some form or in extending the boundaries of well-established knowledge.  Such activity also has its place, but I do not call it innovative.  One of the most important lessons to be learned by anyone beginning to do research is that experiments fail, and they do that rather regularly. Experimentation is not like a laboratory exercise that has been devised to work each time. No matter how well understood the theories upon which an experiment is based or how well designed the experimental plan, the results can often be nothing like what was first imagined.  Experimental science delves into the unknown, so the planning beforehand is a best guess.  Sometimes, these guesses turn out to be totally ill-conceived and a series of experiments seems to yield nothing of significance.  Indeed, great discoveries surprise us. Without some surprise these discoveries cannot be considered to have altered the way we understand the world.


         I believe that these sentiments are shared in many other fields. I note that writers of fiction often say, after the fact, that their characters took over the story and drove the story in unexpected directions.  Similarly, writers of nonfiction often find as new facts tumble out that the story they thought they were telling turns out to be different.


Getting beginning researchers to accept failure and assume the risks of trying yet another approach is difficult but essential. A more seasoned investigator knows that failures are part of the creative process.  What helps I find is to develop an attitude of what I call a contented schizophrenic, an attitude in which you are willing to believe in something and yet disbelieve in it, all at same time. Simultaneously, to believe passionately and to question critically appear to be contradictory activities, but such a mindset helps in seeking to understand nature. You must put forth you best idea how something may behave and then begin immediately to devise means of testing whether this idea about nature s behavior has beguiled and blinded you to what is taking place. Living with ambiguity is something that can be learned and even taught to others. 


Science at its core is a subversive activity.  We seem only capable of disproving things that seemed established.  Only by exhaustive efforts of failed disproof do we gradually accept an assertion as likely to be so.  That is the process that leads from hypothesis to theory to scientific law. And as we become wiser and more reflective, we find that even some of our most cherished laws only have limited scopes in which they are valid.  Experimental work is often a series of failures punctuated by a few successes.  A wise person learns from each failure and accepts that failures are nature s way of guiding us to what really works.  It is human nature to be disappointed by these failures. But, learning from failure and learning to live with failure are truly key elements in becoming a successful researcher. Without nearly constant failure the few successes we experience would not be so sweet.    The contented schizophrenic accepts failure as the only way to create innovation of real value.  Failure does have its special virtues in encouraging us to unlock the mysteries of nature.  In the research arena, failure is sure to be a nearly constant companion. The smart researcher uses failure as a powerful but often secret tool for finding success.


Let me thank you again for conferring upon me this great honor.