A PhD Conditions the Mind for Failure - and Success

posted: 5/4/2017
listed in Fellows

If you never fail, you probably ought to find something more challenging to work on. These days, I spend most of my time inventing, doing science, and figuring out how my company can realize the most value from new ideas. All of these activities, by their very nature, require that you walk up to the edge of what’s well understood—and then take the next step. Frequent “failure” is just the cost of entry.

I think that’s one reason there aren’t more inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs. You have to be unusually determined, patient, and self-confident to be able to handle failure after failure on the way to success. We all get deep emotional satisfaction—a little squirt of dopamine to the brain—from a job well done. But I’ve noticed that the best inventors and scientists, and even business people, also get excited in a different way when their ideas fail to pan out as expected. It shows them there is a hard mystery or puzzle still to be solved.

"I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas A. Edison

Some people seem to be born with this innate curiosity and drive. They just keep persisting until their invention succeeds—think Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Bell and Thomas Edison. But most people need actual training in how to embrace and overcome failure. That is, in some way, the most useful benefit of getting a PhD. It’s a long, hard effort to do it, and the process of getting your doctorate actually conditions your brain to view failure—and success—differently.

Education, from kindergarten all the way through an undergraduate degree (and even some Masters programs) effectively recapitulates the historical discovery of knowledge in a given field. Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants. Students learn about the many giants who came before and the bricks each of them laid in the foundation of the field.

For most students, it’s not until they pursue a PhD that they are ready—and given the opportunity—to place a brick of their own upon that wall, to contribute something that is original, substantial, and of real value to the field. Of course many extraordinarily intelligent people excel in school and leave before completing a dissertation (or even a degree!)—and many go on to accomplish extraordinary things, like launch Microsoft or Facebook. And many undergraduates assist in research and make real contributions. But those experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a bit like aspiring to be a chef and getting a job as a dishwasher. You may learn what it is like to work in a kitchen, but you won’t learn much about flavor profiles and your knife skills would be seriously lacking.

It’s during the pursuit of a PhD that you are forced to step off the ledge of the known and confront the abyss of the unknown. Although you work under the guidance of a professor or mentor, it’s up to you to define the problem, design and execute the research, and find a solution. You don’t stop until you have discovered something entirely new—even if that means starting over, again and again. Doing that trains your brain to become comfortable with failure. Eventually you start to see failures as opportunities to learn and refine your search for a solution. They call it “research” for a reason!

My personal quest for knowledge has certainly not been linear. I took the long way around pursuing my PhD, changing my focus multiple times, including a detour through cosmology. The Hertz Fellowship let me follow a range of interests. Thanks to the Foundation’s support, I could let the research illuminate my next step until I found a path that was interesting enough to me to follow all the way to a dissertation. I’ve always strongly believed that passion plays a huge role in success because that’s what drives sustained dedication to a subject.

But it’s also possible to be passionate about many things. Today, I hold degrees in several disciplines—but hardly any of the jobs I’ve held or the books and research papers I’ve published have been in any of those areas. Obviously I haven’t changed much since graduate school: I still allow my many passions to chart my course. That’s just me. And luckily, it works.

Now, I don’t recommend this route to anyone—it is horribly inefficient and tends to drive analytical folks mad. But it did help me realize that the process of learning can sometimes be even more important than what you actually learn. Whatever in yourself keeps you on the journey—pushing through failures and confusion on that long and frustrating road to insight, discovery, and invention—is worth embracing.

Dr. Nathan Myhrvold is the founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures (IV), an avid inventor with hundreds of issued patents, and an accomplished author, having co-authored and published the acclaimed five-volume, 2,438-page cookbook Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (2011), Modernist Cuisine at Home (2012) and The Photography of Modernist Cuisine (2013). His original research has been published in leading scientific journals, including Science, Nature, Paleobiology, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Physical Review, and he has also authored numerous essays on the tech industry, bio-terrorism and climate change for Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, TIME, Bloomberg and National Geographic Traveler, among others. Prior to founding IV, Nathan was the chief strategist and chief technology officer of Microsoft, where he founded Microsoft Research and helped spearhead many of the company’s most successful products. Myhrvold is the recipient of many honors in addition to the Hertz Fellowship, including the James Madison Medal from Princeton University and a postdoctoral fellowship from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, where he worked with Professor Stephen Hawking. Myhrvold received his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton, his master's degree in geophysics and space physics from Princeton, and his bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of California at Los Angeles.