When it comes to success and failure, the message is loud but overwhelmingly simple: do one and not the other. However, NASA’s Michelle Thaller thinks pitching these concepts as absolutes is problematic when there is so much gray area between them. Thaller knows this personally: she has a doctorate in astrophysics but is NASA’s assistant director of science communication. To career physicists, she’s sometimes looked upon as a failed scientist who crossed over to the humanities. To members of the public, she’s a shining example of scientific success. Who is correct here? There’s a problem with hingeing our self-worth on external evaluations: success and failure are actually rather vague, impractical metrics to give young people.
Michelle Thaller: I have a slightly different career in the sciences in that I am a professionally trained scientist—I have a doctorate in astrophysics and I’ve done my own astrophysical research—but I decided to emphasize science communication and actually go more into education and policy and trying to communicate science to the public. And the interesting thing to me is that means that there are a lot of people that don’t know me very well that have seen me on television that assume that I’m a brilliant scientist. You know: “the reason this person is on television, she must be the best astronomer of the day,” and that’s certainly not true at all.
And then I have a lot of professional colleagues, you know, who are not necessarily cruel but they really view me as a bit of a failure: I didn’t become a publishing scientific professor, a research professor—which is what I was really trained to be. And especially in these days of social media, a television show will come out and all of a sudden I’ll get messages from strangers who say that they love me and strangers that say that they hate me.
I often get questions from young students and they say, “Well, how did you become a success?” Or another great question these days is, “How did you overcome failure?” And the funny thing is I found myself really kind of at a loss because the very concepts of success and failure I think are words that never really meant anything. And actually, I strongly suspect they have a lot to do with privilege: that if you can make yourself in the model of a research professor of 100 years ago, that’s defined as a success, and if you do something different, it’s defined as a failure.
There’s never been any time in my life where, even after having received an award or having been on a television show, I sat back and said, “Boy, I really feel like a success.” It was always wrapped up in feelings of, “I should have done something differently, I should have had a different career path.” There’s never been a time where I felt like a success. And at the same time the idea that you ever really fail at something. There are plenty of times that I very nearly failed differential equations and calculus, you know. There were things that I was not very good at, but I eventually got them on, say, the third or fourth try.
And the problem was just, you know, staying around and telling yourself that, “I really want to learn this and I’m just not going to leave until I do.”
There wasn’t any really true failure either. It was always kind of twisted up with things I was proud of that I was actually working through and trying to learn. So this idea that at some point in your life you’re going to stop and feel like a success. “Yes, I am successful now.” I get very, very nervous when people ask me about that, about, “How did you become a success?”
I want to sit them down and tell them all the things I screwed up and all the things I did wrong and all the reasons I’m not a success. Now at the same time when anybody calls me a failure, it’s like, I want to sit you down and explain why what I’m doing is actually getting your money and your funding for the rest of science, you know. I’m not a failure either.
Everything in life is going to be a flow between those two things. Everything is going to be a jumble of success and failure. Your personal life, your professional life, the way you feel about yourself. And it’s a strange model we give young people. “Try to be a success. Try to overcome failure.” All I can do is just kind of breathe and just realize that at no point in my life am I going to separate those two.