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August 2011
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Sometimes the choice is yours.
by Susan Craig

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back…

The situation is desperate. Imperial fighters closing in and nowhere to hide.

“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1,” offers golden protocol robot C-3PO.

“Never tell me the odds,” hero Han Solo responds and steers his ship into the moving mass of rocks bringing about, temporarily at least, a brilliant escape.

Great theater. But, of course, the movies are not real life. In real life, we are better off paying attention to the odds—or are we?

When I was in graduate school, my department—Psychobiology at UC Irvine—required all first year students to apply for a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship. Experienced graduate students said the NSF applications were a waste of time. You had a better chance of winning the lottery than getting funded. Some first years in my cohort even hinted that their advisors had encouraged them to waste as little time as possible on the process.

Not so with Dr. Cotman, my advisor. He made it clear that he expected a first class job—the best I could do. I remember being summoned to his office to discuss strategy for the project proposal. He recommended a few journal articles to read as background and cautioned me against reading too many before beginning to write. “Keep it simple and straightforward,” he said, and sent me off.
I read the articles, planned the experiments and took a first draft of the proposal to Dr. Cotman. He was encouraging, but he also left none of my errors unmentioned. Before I left to correct and rewrite, we discussed how best to approach the personal essay required and he suggested a few possible sources for letters of reference.

With my mentor’s high expectations firmly in mind, I wrote and rewrote the proposal until it sparkled—I thought. Then over the next week, I asked various post-doctoral members of the lab group to review it for me. Most were willing to oblige. Only one, Patrick Kesslak, never seemed to have time. I really wanted Pat to look at my work. He had the reputation of being one of the better writers in the lab group, and it was discouraging to feel he was avoiding me. But soon I was too busy to care. As each reviewer handed my lovely copies back, I saw they ran red with corrections. Most frustrating, no two persons chose the same things to criticize. I found I needed more data here, better references there, and, of course, a more precise description of how I would analyze the data I hoped to gather. I rewrote and reworked, again and again. Gradually, the amount of red ink the lab group deposited on my work began to decrease. The scientists I had asked for letters of recommendation wrote them, and my personal essay no longer came back to me with large sections scribbled out.

At last, and not a day too soon, I finished the application, made a final copy of both essay and proposal and carefully assembled them for mailing. Just as I was about to seal the envelope, Pat Kesslak walked into the student office. “Do you still want me to look at that?”

My mind screamed, No! I want to mail it and be finished. But I pulled out the pristine sheets and handed them to him. “Yes, I do,” I said.

Fifteen long minutes later he was back. Smiling, he said, “I hope it’s okay that I marked on these.”
“Sure, thanks,” I lied, staring at the bloodied papers.

It took great effort not to just throw the papers in the trash, or stuff them in the envelope as they were and be done with it. We were required to apply, not to win.

Instead, I went back to the computer and revised everything again. Not that there were masses of corrections to make—many of Pat’s proposed changes were stylistic, and by then I had learned to ignore those and speak with my own voice. Still, he had caught some errors that were not matters of style—errors which everyone else had missed. I fixed those, printed fresh copies and—behind locked doors this time—reinserted them into the envelope and sealed it. Quickly, I left for the post office and got the application safely mailed.

I’ve often wondered if Pat’s timing was deliberate. You see, in addition to being an excellent writer, he was the statistician for the lab. And one of the things I learned to understand from working with him was that odds apply to the population, not to the individual.

In other words, if less than fifteen percent of a group will succeed, as was the case for biology graduate students seeking NSF fellowships, this does not mean that whether you succeed is determined by random chance. It means that more than eighty-five percent of the group will give up, hedge their bet, or hold back from giving it their all (which does provide an excuse of sorts—“I didn’t really try my best”—when failure happens).

For the individual, success or failure (not in life, but with any single specific task) is clean cut. Either you make it or you don’t. And, always, success is determined not by the odds, but by a combination of effort and ability that is heavily weighted in favor of effort. 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 the fellowship? Actually, yes, I did. All the hard work paid off. But the important part wasn’t getting the funding. The important part was everything I learned in the process, especially the truth of another bit of Star Wars wisdom…

Jedi-in-training, Luke Skywalker, convinced of the impossibility of raising his X-wing fighter from the Dagobah swamp, finally agrees to “give it a try.”

“No,” his master Yoda snaps. “Try not.

Luke looks surprised, but Yoda isn’t finished.

“Do… or do not, the wrinkled wise one says. “There is no try.”

The same applies to beating the odds. Do what it takes, or choose not to. In a very real way, it’s up to you.

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