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. In these days of social media, a television show will come out and all of a sudden you’ll get messages from strangers who say that they love you and strangers that say that they hate you. 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.
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.