"You miss 100% of the shots you never take." -- Attributed to Wayne Gretzky
I was reminded of this quote this week after I had a grant submission rejected. Although it stung, the criticisms were legitimate and, as one of my advisors told me, "rejection is part of the process." It was this comment that reminded me of Gretzksy's quote and realizing that, although it doesn't feel good to be rejected, it does mean that I made an effort -- I can't make a shot that I don't take after all.
This was a lesson that was hard to learn in grad school and I was fortunate that I had people around me -- advisors and more advanced grad students -- advise me that it is important to send things out. In fact, as I became an advanced grad student myself and subsequently took my post-doc, it is now something that I try to advise others about. As academics, we are perfectionists. As academics, it is good to be perfectionists, it is what gives us credibility and without that instinct we would not have gotten to where we are. At the same time, it is important to remember that things will be more perfect if we seek advice and help from others; this, too, is the essence of scientific inquiry.
As a very concrete measure, I often suggest that people (and too infrequently take my own advice) send out drafts well before they think the drafts are ready. Not to journals, but to colleagues. I learned relatively early that great journal articles often start with incomplete ideas, a lack of structure, and inadequate analysis. But, by receiving feedback early, good authors incorporate the comments of others that helps them refine their ideas, pull out what is unique in their paper and structure their argument around this uniqueness, and get advice on methods to incorporate in the analysis.
Of course it is possible to receive too much feedback and become paralyzed, or to try to do everything in a single article (a frequent sin of my own), so it is important to find people who you trust to give you advice and to talk through what is crucial, what is important, and what is "gravy." Make sure to do the things that are crucial, make a valiant stab at what is important, and then add the gravy, but don't hold up the rest of the dish to get that on.
That is what I learned from my grant (and other rejections) -- I missed a couple of the crucial elements and several of the important ones; but, now I have text that can help me work on the next draft for submission and it is always easier to work from text than a blank screen. Although it stings, it means that some progress was made on the project that otherwise would be a nebulous idea still be sloshing around in my head. So, here's to the shot taken and missed and, hopefully, to a future goal on the rebound!