“Learning to Fail” Story 1: Perseverance

I’ll begin this multi-part journey with a simple story about rejection and perseverance.

As I said in the introductory piece to this series, I was a perfectionist and overachiever who beat herself up over even the smallest failures, like a single red X amidst my hundred green check marks. Obviously, this mindset is never good if one wants to improve, but I wasn’t interesting in improving. I just wanted everything to be perfect.

Of course, life has a way of taking your biggest fears and shoving them down your throat, and that’s exactly what it did to me.

One of the biggest experiences that changed this destructive mindset of mine was my experience in research, participating in the Sanofi Biogenius Canada Competition in grade 12.

This was a competition in which high school students designed and executed real world research projects with mentors from universities and hospitals. I had a project, but without a mentor I couldn’t enter the competition. So, I had to suck in my gut, stand tall, and email hundreds of professors begging to let me into their lab.

After a few days of constant researching, emailing, and telephoning, my email sent folder looked like this. LITERALLY THIS WASN’T EVEN ALL OF IT:


Over the course of a month, I had sent hundreds and hundreds of emails and painfully waited for the responses to pour in.

After 1 week: nothing.
The second week: nothing.
The third week, some emails trickled in. Excited and filled with hope (chanting the mantra “I definitely got it, they totally loved my proposal, that was so easy), I clicked on them.All of these emails were filled with the same disheartening responses:

“Unfortunately, my lab isn’t taking any undergrads at this time.”
“Unfortunately, this isn’t my area of expertise.”
“Unfortunately, we do not have the materials you need.”

The weeks passed. Literally every single email I received had the same harsh rejection.

This went on for a while. The moment an email would start with the short preview “Unfort–” I would immediately put my phone down and re-evaluate whether I wanted to do this at all. There was even one moment where a professor had completely destroyed my proposal. This was his response to my proposal:

“Let me first say that the last thing I would want to do is to discourage someone interested in science…but there are several issues with your proposal.  First, although cancer is a really important issue, and I would never dismiss its importance and even though I am not a cancer specialist, I am pretty sure that the statement that “the incidences of cancers have been rising steadily in North America” is false.  …More important is the implied hypothesis of your proposal…”

He then proceeded to comment on every sentence of my proposal in one massive paragraph, then wrote at the end:

“As much as I hate to discourage people interested in doing research, and I have had one high school student do research in my lab, there are several reasons why I will have to decline this request.”

Well then. I was completely discouraged after this.

But no! Out of all the emails I sent, there was NO WAY I would let one silly email destroy my goals. This was a respectable competition with thousands of dollars in prizes, and I wasn’t about to let a few rejections get in the way of that. In fact, I forced myself to take the step I hated the most, the step I didn’t want to do at all, the step that I was sure would crush my flimsy pride:

I emailed him a thank you letter and accepted the criticism.

Of course, it crushed my soul. I wrote that email feeling worse than I did before, but even so, I began to feel my shattered ego start piecing itself together again.

It was okay. People get rejections all the time, and yet they’ve been able to pick themselves up and move on. Why couldn’t I?

Then a few days and some more emails later, a sliver of hope, peeking out from behind the mass of rejections. An email titled with words that made my heart beat a little faster:

“Interested in your proposal.”

This was someone who had complimented my advances, expressed interest in my research proposal, and asked to set up an interview.

And so I learned an incredibly important lesson about perseverance: if it had not been for those 999 failures, I would never have gotten that single position at the St. Michael’s lab.

Stay tuned for part 3: HONESTY.


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