Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some Experiments in Life

Tomorrow night begins Hanukkah. We're not Jewish, so we don't celebrate it ourselves. But we know a number of people who do.

One of them is my graduate advisor from college. I earned (earned?? WORKED MY A*S OFF is more like it!!) a masters degree in microbiology at Cal Poly, Pomona, CA in the mid-1980's. By the time I finished, I realized it wasn't all just about science. The experience changed me as a person as well.

I came from a family where making mistakes was not a good thing, especially when it came to my father and second-oldest brother (I'm the youngest of three), MORE so when the mistake/accident cost us money that we didn't really have. Growing up in an environment like that turns you into an extremely cautious person, sometimes paralyzed with fear at trying something new because ... heavens ... YOU MIGHT FAIL! And if you failed, you didn't hear the end of it. Of course, the gloom-and-doom sayers in the family always knew you WOULD fail because that's just how it is. Don't even bother reaching for the stars, because they're out of reach, anyway. Always and forever.

My advisor, "Dr. J," has a different attitude towards life and towards science. Life is more exciting when you learn new stuff. If you do an experiment and it turns out exactly as you expected, what have you really learned? On the other hand, if an experiment has unexpected results or if it simply doesn't work: NOW you've learned something, even if it involves nothing more than tweaking a procedure or making adjustments so you can move forward. Sometimes experiments can help you realize a particular study isn't worth doing -- but you wouldn't learn that if you hadn't tried it first.

I've found that when you learn through mistakes and failures, the lessons tend to stay with you. There's something about doing things the hard way, or even failing miserably at something, that makes permanent changes in you that can last a lifetime. Hopefully, those changes are positive (although for people who believe failure is negative, failing can make that person even more cynical and bitter).

In my case, accepting this attitude was a necessary step before I could even dream of launching a career in art. If one goes into an art career (or any other profession) with an expectation that it will fail, it will. Changing that expectation MUST be done. I've already endured mistakes, and I certainly have times when I feel pretty discouraged, especially during this economy when sales appear to be as far away as those stars we reach for. Thankfully, "Dr. J" and grad school did much to alter my expectations of myself. Since then, I've learned to avoid discussing chance-taking with the gloom-and-doom sayers.

I hope I can continue and, eventually, prosper, in art. But if it doesn't work out, at least I will have known that I tried. Whatever regrets I might have, THAT won't be one of them. It's been a learning process, and from what I hear from other artists, it will always be a learning process.

So, "Dr. J," Happy Hanukkah, and thanks for turning me into a scientist as well as giving me the attitude to pursue my dreams.

"Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only, Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee and thou with me, For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all." -- Walt Whitman

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