I was rejected for the NSF GRFP. When I got the notification, I opened the nice beer and great chocolate I had set aside.

My reaction surprised my supervisors. They expected me to be brittle, incosolable, dead to the world for a few days. I'd pinned a lot of hopes on the funding from the NSF GRFP but it didn't pan out. Thing is, we're going to face rejection all our lives as academics, or any other endeavour where we strive for our growth edges. Let's leave aside the other stuff for a second and focus in on that academic stuff since presumably that's what we're mostly about.

What does a working academic do? We teach. We write. We ask others to judge our writing on its merits, either for publication or funding. We're going to spend our careers submitting our work for others to judge, and not one of us is going to get every manuscript accepted, grant awarded, or position applied for*. Logically, this means that we will be rejected, likely over and over again.

If we focus on outcomes here (e.g., getting accepted to the journal or getting the grant) we're in for a career of disappointment. I know that many of us buy in to the whole sacrifice for the pursuit of knowledge academic ascetic thing (just look at PhD stipends!) but I am not ready to accept a career of disappointment piled upon setbacks.

I prefer to focus on the effort I put into the task rather than the outcome in terms of how I feel about my work. I set aside rewards based on how much effort I put into the task when I complete it. Regardless of outcome, when I find out the decision I enjoy whatever reward I set aside, commensurate with the effort and not the result. In some cases, this means I have a Snickers bar when I get accepted to a graduate program. In other cases, this means I crack a really nice bottle of whiskey when I whiff on a grant application.

It turns out that this is about more than preserving my sanity. According to Mueller & Dweck (1998), focusing on ability and outcome rather than effort can undermine children's confidence and future motivation. Admittedly, I am not a child (although I love Lego and cartoons and do not come equipped with a driver's license), nor am I hypothesis-blind, but the result is intuitively satisfying. It makes sense that focusing on effort (something which can be increased) rather than intelligence (a relatively fixed quantity) would lead to more resilient responses to failure. I align the content of the reward with effort and the timing of the reward with outcome in an effort to drive home that effort matters more than outcomes.

This is not to say that one should ignore outcomes entirely and focus entirely on effort. That's a silly stance to take - if I put a lot of effort into doing something poorly, I should evaluate the outcome and change my strategy or focus as a consequence of the outcome. However, I should emphasize doing work I'm proud of rather than doing work that gets me good results because over the long run, this leads to the best outcomes for me. Bribing myself to do good work is just a way of reinforcing those habits and that outlook. Dissociating how you feel about the work you've done from how attached you are to the outcomes of that work is a superpower, because it frees you to do good work and stay motivated based on things within your control (e.g., your effort) rather than things outside your control (e.g., the funding environment, the job market, the acceptance rate or whims of the action editor at your target journal, etc).

This superpower allows you to work hard and stay positive regardless of outcome. It frees you to try and care when outcomes are uncertain. It puts you in control of your destiny because it blunts the power of circumstances to affect your motivation and happiness.

Of course, this focus on effort rather than outcome can lead to unforeseen difficulties (e.g., comparing positive feedback on work you're proud of with work you're not), but the best way to avoid those difficulties is to only show others work that fills you with pride based on the effort that went into it.

* If you are an exception to this, please let the rest of us know your secret!


Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology75(1), 33.

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