“I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values.
— Paul Kalanithi
As I look back on my career to date, I reflect on those activities that were successful as well as those that were not. I learned from all of those experiences. I am especially proud of those accomplishments that, in my view, have made a difference. From developing new programs, expanding efforts to educate our students, and creating new initiatives to promote student success, to conducting and supporting research and innovation in all of its forms, I feel great pride when I look back at my successes as well as those of my students and colleagues. At the same time, I know it is important to reflect on where I have not succeeded. This is much more difficult and humbling. The occasional rejection letter from a journal editor is a good reminder of why we should rejoice when we get our articles published. (I have received more rejection letters from editors than acceptance letters!). Rejections from funding agencies serve to enhance the excitement I feel when I receive positive news from a funder. (I have received more rejection letters from funders than acceptance letters!). Teaching difficult classes feels a little less painful when I encounter those students I was truly able to help. But each of these rejections are not atypical failures that academics might experience.
In our multidisciplinary entrepreneurship courses we have a module on failing. The premise of the module is simple. Everyone fails. Success comes from recognition that failure is a natural part of growth. It’s certainly not a part that most of us look forward to, or embrace for that matter. But overcoming challenges makes those experiences with failure that much more rewarding and valuable.
Meaning, though, comes not from success or failure, but from the relationships formed in our efforts to sustain and improve the human condition. To have the opportunity to be in a profession where we can focus on improvement while embracing failure is one of the many things that makes being an academic such a rewarding career. In the end, we get to make a difference — in the lives of our students, their communities, and the world we all live in.