Resilience is key to achieving success

Director's Message Spring 2019


Dear MNTL Colleagues,

In this issue of InstruMNTL, we highlight impressive research accomplishments, funding awards, and career milestones for several of our most distinguished faculty members and researchers. It is especially important for us to celebrate these things, since each one represents the recognition of efforts, ideas and results that likely took many years to come to fruition. Along the way, however, I am sure that these people would tell you about all the false starts, tangents, failures, struggles and disappointments they experienced. So my topic for this issue is one that we rarely discuss:  The need to be resilient.

As we are engaged in scientific discovery, we all are trying new ideas and seeking to uncover new capabilities of engineering for the first time. If we are truly at the leading edge and taking risks, a good fraction of our ideas will not work out as we expect. One of our alumni, Dr. Fred Kish, a highly accomplished Senior VP at Infinera, described how his engineers try to “fail fast,” so they quickly learn from each engineering design, and optimize through each cycle of failure to reach a high-performance solution ahead of competitors. In their case, failure is actually part of their process and a way in which they intentionally seek to learn important lessons about why a design failed. In my own career, I have been turned away uncountable times by prospective investors, had the majority of my grant applications declined, seen many patent applications rejected, and rarely had a journal manuscript accepted for publication without revisions.

You should know that most of the people who you think of as “successful” are trying to overcome all kinds of obstacles you probably are not aware of, and the visible victories are probably outnumbered by a larger number of unheralded defeats.  Despite rejections, enthusiastic investors are found, grants are revised and awarded, we respond to patent examiners with solid arguments, and journal manuscripts become published papers.

So how do we avoid becoming despondent? First, you should recognize that the world resists change, and those of us trying to change it face an uphill battle. It’s not supposed to be easy, and if it was, everybody would be doing it. Second, our community of scholars at Illinois and colleagues with whom we collaborate are our partners in the journey. We hold high standards of excellence and integrity together, and we support each other through the difficult times. Third, we recognize how fortunate we are to be at a place like Illinois, where we have such excellent staff, facilities, friends and community to mutually support each other. Together we use our diverse set of knowledge, skills and ideas to solve almost any problem. Fourth, we celebrate the “wins” when they come! Be sure to acknowledge the accomplishments of your colleagues and congratulate them on the fruits of all the work. Finally, I know from my own experience that sometimes you have to take a break to regain your enthusiasm. When you need to, read a good book, take a hike outdoors, visit Disney World … and come back with new energy. Resilience is one of the most important things to learn.