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"I'm a Total Failure"

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Maria’s profile.

Mathematician/computer scientist/college president/painter/stellar all-around human Maria Klawe is our 44th subject in the "Secret Life" series. And I love all of them and could never choose a favorite (and if you ask me to try, I’ll cover my ears, make loud noises and pretend you don’t exist).

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I do think, though, that Maria may have given us my favorite quote. And it goes like this:

"I'm a Total Failure"-maria_for_blog.jpg
Portrait of the mathematician as a young woman.

“I get up every morning with two different thoughts in my head. On this side of my head, I get up every single day saying ‘I’m a total failure, I will always be a total failure, I’m going to feel like this forever.’ On the other side of my head, I get up and it says, ‘I can change the world. If I care enough about it and I work hard, I will change the world.’ So I’ve got both of those two pieces together, and they’re always going to be there with me.”

Partly, this is powerful to me because it’s the way I feel, too. I sometimes worry that the world’s going to catch on to the side of me that thinks I might be a fraud… and that that may be the side of me that’s right – I am a fraud. Extending beyond this admittedly Tom-centric perspective, though, what Maria said applies to all of the other 43 scientists and engineers we’ve profiled for this series. Over and over again, we’ve heard amazing people who are at the very top of their fields say things like “I’m wrong so much more than I’m right” and “I never know if I’m every going to get anything right.” And that road inexorably leads us to the big guy himself, a certain violin player by the name of Einstein :

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

And we’ll also suggest that if science and engineering (and any other worthwhile pursuits) were easy, why would we bother to celebrate the people who do them? Our subjects, including Maria, are absolutely not superheroes. They make lots of mistakes. They have deep doubts about themselves. Just like you and me. But what does make them special and worth celebrating is that they don’t let those mistakes and those doubts stop them, paralyze them. They keep going. That’s something we can all do, even those of us who aren’t Einstein… or Maria Klawe. And it is Maria who gets the last word today:

“If you are someone who feels like you might fail at something and you don’t want to do it because of that, just remember me. The vast majority of people that I know in the world, who are incredibly successful, they’ve got this piece in their brain that’s saying, ‘I’m a failure. I’ll always be a failure. I’m not good enough.’ But the reason they’re incredibly successful is they’ve got this piece in their brain that’s says, ‘don’t listen to that part, just go forward. Do stuff. Make a difference. Work hard. Dream.’”