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Dr. Clayton Neighbors

SoAP Box: 
Finding Success in Failure

Spring 2019

Finding Success in Failure

Clayton Neighbors, PhD
University of Houston

Failures, disappointments, and mistakes are inevitable. While experiencing them they can be painful and frustrating. Seeing them from a distance often reveals that they are necessary and beneficial, acting as a carver’s tool, chipping away flaws in our character, shaping, sanding, smoothing, and refining. Three stand out in for me.

At the end of my first year as a postdoc I was interviewing for jobs and there was one I really wanted. I thought the interview went very well and I was optimistic. I was very disappointed when I didn’t get it. Feelings of self-doubt and dejection gave way to reactance and determination to become more productive than the person who got the position.  Later, I saw that the department made a good decision. I was not the best person for the position. In this instance, and many others, the heavy thumb on the scale with which I weighed my own value was an undesirable hindrance to accurate assessment. The person who got the position turned out to be a remarkable person who is impossible not to like.

The second experience came at the end of my first year in a tenure track position. I had worked as hard as I possibly could the whole year. I attempted to give 100% as a researcher, 100% as an instructor, and 100% as a husband. I had begun a marathon in an all-out sprint, and, at the very first turn, I was totally exhausted. I had managed to get the gerbil wheel turning at an unsustainable pace and I saw no way to slow it down without jumping off. Positive feedback from my first annual review fell on ears that were too stressed, tired, and unhappy to listen or care. After two years I returned to a soft money position and it would be several years before the desire for a traditional academic position with tenure and balanced expectations for research, teaching, and service would be rekindled. I have since been careful to advise graduate students, postdocs, and new faculty to think of their careers as a marathon and set a steady sustainable pace in their first years as assistant professors.

The third example is a chronic and enduring struggle, which waxes and wanes in intensity. I take some comfort in knowing that I am not alone in often feeling overwhelmed with the number of people, projects, and tasks, requiring my attention. I blame some of this on the “convenience” of instant communication technology, but it also appears as a relatively normal, if unhealthy, developmentally acquired condition, frequently contracted by productive investigators as they become more senior. I hear many of us having the same symptoms of being behind on things, having too many things to do, and always taking longer than we want to finish things. While I have a few colleagues who seem to be immune, my own case is often comically serious. For example, a few years ago I was working on two papers addressing a similar topic. There were about four authors on each paper, but I was the only common author. At some point coauthors from both papers began talking to each other about the similarity of the papers. It turned out that they were not only similar, they were the exact same idea with the exact same data. Given the relative infrequency of meetings with either group, combined with other projects and papers, I hadn’t noticed. After acknowledging my incompetence to my gracious and understanding coauthors, we combined the papers. I often use this story for comforting others when they are feeling bad about a mistake they have made.         

My creative strategies for treating over commitment have varied in effectiveness. No-sprees are predicated on the maxim: the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. This is when I go in my email and every request for anything gets a stock, copy and pasted, “I am sorry, but I am currently not able to commit to new tasks given my existing commitments.” It is empowering to go down the list- no-no-no-no… At times, strategies that seem like a good idea have been shortsighted. For example, I completely quit checking email for a while. It was a great stress reliever until I was informed that the Human Subjects approval had expired on three of my funded projects. A somewhat more effective strategy is cancelling all project meetings, which I have done on multiple occasions. This frees up a tremendous amount of time for a few weeks before meetings are gradually reinstated one by one as projects begin to languish and suffer. Sadly, I have no long-term solutions and suspect that in my case over-commitment may be an incurable disease for which there are times of remission but no available cure. Humor helps. I like to tell people I have Five Minutes Late Disease. I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do about it. IT’S A DISEASE! You should be happy that I don’t have Ten-Minutes Late Disease.

For the next issue, we want to hear about how you deal with manuscript rejections?  What is your process for overcoming the disappointment and what have you learned from these experiences and what would you recommend to others experiencing this same disappointment? Please limit responses to 500 words and send to by June 1, 2019.


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