‘Failing forward’ in science: how college athletics prepared me for setbacks in graduate school

Taking an athlete’s mindset into graduate school equipped Joshua D. Smith with more transferable skills than he expected.
Joshua D. Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at Indiana University Bloomington.

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Ball State's Scheumann Stadium

Joshua D. Smith underwent multiple severe injuries during his time with the Ball State Cardinals football team. Credit: Ball State University

I had three season-ending injuries playing American football during my undergraduate studies in chemistry at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Of the six surgeries I had on my knee, three included surgical transplants from deceased donors to repair the cartilage and ligaments. One of the first things I had to learn in the physical therapy sessions following these three major surgeries was how to walk again. This is extremely hard: it involves pain, weakness and frustration. But instead of focusing on the negatives, I used my rehabilitation as a learning opportunity. At the time, I was hoping to go to medical school after graduation, so I treated each session as a hands-on opportunity to learn about knee physiology. Even though I ultimately decided to pursue a career in chemistry, approaching a difficult, month-long task as a positive educational opportunity made learning to walk easier.

Although science doesn’t generally involve physical adversity, it does offer plenty of other challenges. As scientists, we are taught to ‘fail forward’, or to use information from failed experiments and negative results to grow. As the son of a construction entrepreneur, I was taught that negative outcomes can be translated into positive steps towards success. This early lesson would later help me to understand that a ‘failed’ science experiment does not necessarily make you a bad scientist. Great innovators, entrepreneurs and scientists are defined by their ability to grow from previous experiences. Regardless of what challenges arise, coupling relentless optimism with strong self-confidence makes overcoming future adversity much easier.

Be the best you

From college athletics to graduate school, I have experienced the symptoms of imposter syndrome in which one feels inadequate despite previous successes. Early in my collegiate career, my coach told me: “We have brought you to Ball State because you have potential to be great. It is on you to bring it out.” This advice resonated with me so that, instead of focusing on being the best athlete on the team, I focused on being the best athlete I could be.

I apply this same mindset to my graduate studies. Instead of comparing myself with other classmates, I focus on building my self-confidence in things that I can control. This process includes reviewing fundamental concepts and studying literature outside my focus. Being the best you is a dynamic progression in which you better yourself every day.

Take a holistic approach to health

As athletes, we had rigid nutritional plans, intense workouts and physical therapy to ensure that our bodies were in top physical condition. Along with our physical fitness, we were encouraged to meditate, visualize success and positively manage emotions to improve our mental fitness.

As scientists, many of these principles apply. When I arrived at graduate school, my focus on fitness and nutrition waned to the point where I was exercising for fewer than 45 minutes a week. This negatively affected my lab work: I was less concentrated, my energy decreased and I gained too much weight.

Improving my nutrition and reconnecting with a fitness plan continues to boost my focus and efficiency in the lab. I know how to exercise, I just need the time.

To address this, I allocate time for specific tasks, avoid social media in the workplace and use a project-management approach to clearly outline my goals. These techniques help me to ‘create’ more time for exercise.

Celebrate everything

The roar of tens of thousands of fans cheering for your team is exhilarating, but the most valuable celebrations I had were those with my coaches and teammates. Being part of a positive athletic team gave me the motivation to want to do better.

My lab and I celebrate everything. From passing a qualifying exam to publishing a paper, my adviser celebrates people’s successes: we make sure that every lab member feels valued and part of a positive scientific team. This team atmosphere in science is inspirational and exciting to be a part of.

From running 30 110-metre sprints to waking up at 5 a.m. for physical therapy, little did I know that my experiences as a college athlete would be invaluable to my development as a scientist.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02704-3

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