|Susan Craig, Making Her Own Odds to Find Happiness|
Overcoming the Fear of Failure: You Can Beat the Odds to Find Happiness
Trying to make my dreams come true seemed an overwhelming task until a statistician taught me how to beat the odds.
I Was in Over My Head
At 36 years old, I was beginning graduate school—not in a user-friendly discipline like sociology or education, but in hard science, where graduate school is a full-time enterprise: total immersion. I was the last person accepted into a cohort of 12 first-year students that faculty considered to be the crème de la crème of the current crop of biology graduates. The other 11 had been trained at the cutting edge of science, had the energy of youth, and were experienced in research.
I, on the other hand, had a degree in education (a B.A., yet) that was 14 years old and could claim not one whit of research experience. My previous life revolved around raising children and teaching elementary school.
How on earth had I gotten in? Somehow, by Divine intervention perhaps, each of my scores on the Graduate Records Exam was above the 90 percentile range. Apparently that was relatively unusual. So, on the last possible day, I was informed that I would be given a chance.
Don't misunderstand. I wanted to be there. It was my dream to become a scientist. But I felt like I'd been thrown into deep water, and the only hope was to keep kicking madly away until I learned how to swim. Less than a week into the program, we were informed that we were required to apply for National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships. We would fill out some forms, write a personal essay, and design a research project to submit. I was totally out of my depth.
There Was a Better Chance of Winning the Lottery
The word on campus was that no one ever actually got a fellowship. The faculty just thought it was good practice for us to apply. You had a better chance of winning the lottery. That eased my fears a bit, until I spoke to my advisor.
Some of the other first-years had been told by their mentors to waste as little time as possible fulfilling the application requirement. That sounded good to me, but not to my advisor. He made it clear he expected a quality product, "your best effort." Eager to impress him, I worked hard, polishing my essay and proposal until they sparkled—or so I thought.
When I brought my work for review, he was not impressed. "Try again," he ordered. "Keep it simple and straightforward."
Back to the drawing board.
Next time, he grunted and told me to have the post-doctoral trainees in the lab critique it to "help polish up the language." So I went to Pat, the lab numbers guru, who also had a reputation as an excellent writer.
No luck. He was too busy to look at my work. So I shopped it around the lab. Every time someone agreed to take a look, the papers came back to me bleeding red with snide remarks and comments. I was falling behind in my other work, as I spent hour after hour trying to please my critics.
At last the day arrived to send off the application. Grateful that the end was near, I printed a fresh, clean copy of the last draft and slipped it into the envelope. Just as I was about to seal it shut, Pat strolled into the student office. "Did you still want me to look at that?"
No, my mind screamed. I want to mail it and be done. "Yeah, thanks," said my traitorous mouth, and I pulled the sheets out.
After a 15-minute eternity he came back, smiling. "I hope it's okay that I marked on these." I saw streaks of red like open wounds on the once-pristine pages.
"It's fine," I lied.
The Moment of Truth
Pat nodded in acknowledgement and left. That was my moment of truth. I wanted nothing more than to crumple up those sheets and throw them away. Or stuff them into the envelope, red and bleeding as they were. We were required to enter, not to win.
As I struggled with myself, the door to the office opened and Pat stuck his head back in. "Funny thing about statistics," he said. "The odds of an outcome only apply to the group, not to the individual." He nodded his head at me and left.
Puzzled, I sat down at the computer and began making revisions—again. Half an hour later, I carefully locked the office door, then printed out a clean copy of the application and sealed it immediately in its envelope. Racing to the post office, I got it stamped with 40 minutes to spare.
It took weeks of hard thinking before I understood what Pat had said. If there is only a 10 percent chance of success in a venture, this does not mean you are at the mercy of random chance. It means that 90 percent of the group will give up, hedge their bets, or hold back from giving the task their all.
The Odds Tell You How Many People Put in the Effort Required
For the individual, success or failure with any specific task is clear cut. Either you make it or you don't. And success is always determined, not by the odds, but by a combination of work and ability—heavily weighted in favor of work. In essence, the odds just tell you how many people in a group were willing to put in the effort required to succeed.
Is this simple? Yes.
Is it easy? Not in my experience. I've always found it difficult to make myself actually put forth my best effort.
Is it worth it? Only you can answer that question.
So, did I get a fellowship? Actually, yes, I did. All the hard work paid off. But the part that meant the most wasn't the funding. It was learning how to beat the odds.
Put Extra Work Into Your Query Letter!
Just as with Susan's example, a little extra work on improving your query letter can create an amazing results for your writing career (and your bank account). During the 4-week Writing the Query Letter course offered by Writer's Digest University, writers will learn how to dig deep and turn out query letters that get results.
Click here to get a seat in the next query letter course.
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Check out previous posts from the Life Changing Moments Series:
This is a great lesson for everyone. Always easier to give up, but never truly worth it.
And congrats on the fellowship :)
Matt (Turndog Millionaire)
Much better than winning the lottery! You allowed yourself to be mentored and worked hard for your "luck." I would bet that all those who critiqued your work had a stake in the rest of your academic career. What a wonderful gift your adviser gave you. What a wonderful gift your story is to us. Thank you, Susan.
Someone once said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
I can't remember who said it.
Great story. To me, it reinforces the power of an individual to make a difference, either in his or her own life or the lives of others.
Great story, Susan! Sometimes we all need to be motivated to do our best effort...not just the bare minimum effort. Thanks for sharing your experience!
What a wonderful story, Susan! Thanks for making us look beyond the statistics and inspiring us to put forth our best efforts.
great story about perseverance. thanks.
Great story and perspective - one that I will not forget
Congratulations Susan! Thank you for sharing and providing a little hope.
Wow! Congratulations to you! I never thought of statistics in this way, but after reading your post, I feel better about sending out query letters!
This is so well-written, Susan, and also very inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story!!! As Lara Britt said, what a wonderful gift your story is to us. I second everything she said, and just want to add something that you may not have expected someone to get from this on TOP of a new perspective regarding 'the odds': It was very motivating and because of what you said I have made a major decision in my life that I was - up til today - on the fence about. THANK YOU!!! :) Hope you have a lovely weekend.
This is a a truly inspiring post. As someone who hopes to be a published author one day, it often takes things like this to remind me of why I'm doing it. It's all to easy to forget the power of hard work and determination. It's like the old saying, "It's not how many times you fall off the bike, it's how many times you get back on!"
And, MasteryMistery, I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said that genius was 99% perspiration. I made it through law school as a single mom, with that quote as my mantra. :)
I'm fine with failure...it's success that freaks me out :|
Great insight Susan. You've managed to articulate and idea that few people can even grasp. It reminds me of my own Mantra: "You haven't failed until you give up."
This guest blog speaks directly to me, and I thank Robert for bringing Susan's words to my heart. I have worked over and above all my life, but never on the one thing that scared the life out of me: my novels. Now is my time, and it never feels good enough, still. But I will beat the odds, too! Thanks!
Wow....Susan, Robert, thank you so much for this. I was just crying in my kitchen yesterday, after staying up late working and looking at another published author's beautiful book cover and New York Times reviews and thought, what am I doing? what makes you think you can compete with this?
But you gave me my answer, hard work, which is something I know how to do.
I just want to thank Susan one more time for sharing this bit of advice. It's so true. We all want to take the easy way out, but those of us who dig a little deeper reap the majority of the rewards.
I am so glad that I was able to share something that had value for people. And thank you, Robert , for giving me a platform from which to reach out!
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