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Try, try, try again…then accept failure August 12, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics.
Tags: ,

I have always thought that people could do whatever they were determined to do. I used to buy into the notion that Edison was right: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”

I think there is a lot of truth to that, but at some point I realized that, to get to that point, there has to be some inherent ability there.

When I was in undergrad, there was another student who was in the Navy for many years. After getting out, he decided he really, really, really wanted to go into astronomy. I have never seen someone work so hard…and ultimately fail.

The poor guy couldn’t make it past the first semester of calculus. By his third attempt, he enlisted the help of the other physics students. We would hang out in the student lounge and were always glad to help him when he requested it. But it was a horrible thing to watch: he knew in general what he had to do, but could never fill in the logical steps that would take him from A to B. You had to spell out each and every one for him.

I honestly thought that the guy would make it through on sheer will-power, but after several attempts at helping him, I realized he just couldn’t do anything requiring more than a couple basic steps. The devil really was in the details for him.

I’ve seen other people decide to quit physics and engineering because they felt it wasn’t worth the work or because they had other priorities (short and long term). You accept that maybe that’s not their path and life and move on. It was truly awful to watch someone who so desperately wanted to and was willing to work so hard be forced to leave the program. No one forced him out; his repetitious failure of calc brought his GPA to the point where he couldn’t receive any more financial aid.

What made things worse is that he was so devoted. He was an extremely active member in our Society of Physics Students chapter. He was always doing things around the department, and he really kept trying to get involved in research.

I know a couple people who snickered at our ill-fated hero because of their obviously superior intellect. I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt very lucky to have an ability that not everyone has and that I should not take it for granted. He made me really appreciate what I had. If there were some way to share the ability that I had and he needed, I would have done so.

I think about this student a lot. And I wonder what I’ll do if I ever run into someone like that as a teacher. I honestly don’t know. I would hate for a student to continually strive for something when no matter how hard they work at it, they’ll never be able to accomplish it. On the other hand, I would never want to tell someone to quit, especially if they are pursuing their dream.

I am not sure what happened to that student because he cut ties with everyone once he left. I just hope that he found something he enjoys doing. I imagine that, whatever he’s doing, he probably built himself a telescope and spends his evenings gazing at the stars.



1. dynamicbio - August 12, 2010

I hope he is happy and doing something he loves doing. Really nice story. I feel so blessed to have survived engineering and often feel that I am not doing enough, if anything from lack of direction and mentoring or from not truly finding a passion in my field and then correlating it directly with what I have the resources to do. I’m still searching and working towards this. I think engineers and scientists should have more technical guidance and apprenticeship throughout their careers (not to mention guidance on soft skills that I try to provide through resources and teachings in my courses). Cherish, you are an amazing thinker, scientist, woman and mother. An honor to know you.


2. theamphour - August 12, 2010

Boy, I liked that last paragraph a lot. It’s like the end of a bittersweet movie; very well written, if not sad to think about.

Speaking to the “natural intellect” of people, sometimes I just don’t believe it. But situations such as the one you describe almost make it impossible to deny. I first think “Well perhaps it’s just a learning disability” and it can be diagnosed and treated…but that’s kind of the phenomenon, isn’t it? It depends how you look at it. Some would say the student lacks a gift, others say he’s impaired (depending whether they believe logical connections are a natural human trait or an exceptional mutation).

Ooo, and I just noticed I’m logged in as The Amp Hour. I’m going to keep it…but this is Chris…don’t put my comment in spam! 🙂


3. Charles J Gervasi - August 12, 2010

This is a powerful post. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” A person with that determination will find opportunity somewhere. I taught second-semester analog electronics lab, and I hated giving bad grades even to people who were trying. I do not like teaching for that reason.


4. Trainee Theorist - August 13, 2010

Thanks for this post, as the others have said it really is powerful. I think at some point in academic careers we all run up against ideas that just don’t stick, we can’t comprehend or we have to spend the majority of the rest of our lives thinking about before we have a moment of inspiration and finally understand that one thing we’ve been glossing over for ages. It’s just a great shame that this happens at different stages of our academic careers – to see someone who is so motivated and really trying fail is heart-breaking.

I hope whatever he’s doing he’s still holding his interest in astronomy close to heart and is happy.


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