The beauty of unyielding disappointment, in science and beyond

There’s an academic trend, hopefully growing, of successful professors publishing their “CVs of failure,” essentially keeping track of their failures with the same fortitude that they track their successes. It’s inspiring, in its own daunting way, and it emphasizes the importance of thick skin, but I think we can do better. I’ve come up with a way to celebrate and rejoice in rejection. Rejection is a lot like science.

There’s this image that appeared in my head a few years ago on a bus ride, that I find myself returning to whenever the constant rejection gets too much. What I do is imagine this giant brass door set in an imposing rock wall stretching interminably up and to each side. In front of it lies this bruised and emaciated monk in tattered robes. Instead of meditation, his practice is to pace back, gather speed, hurl himself at the door with an awful war cry, crumple pathetically against it, get up again, and repeat, over and over, forever. He doesn’t do it with any expectation of the door ever opening. The door is an eardrum or an eye into the other side, in whose dull defeating reverberations lie hints like drumming echoes of the mysterious world beyond, and no ritual less painful can yield truth.

That’s my bus ride image. It sounds crazy, but going back to it literally never fails to cheer me up again. It’s hard to pin down, but I’ve come up with a few theories for why maybe it works. Maybe it’s reassuring because absurdity and humility are great at putting things in perspective. Or because it’s equally accurate as a description of failure and as a description of the nature of scientific progress. Or maybe what’s going on is that futility becomes romantic when it can be experienced in a way that’s inseparable from ritual, hilarity, and ecstasy.