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Coping with Failure

In their book, Success Built to Last, the authors tell the following story:

“Tell me,” the young man asked the guru, “which is the path to success?” The guru said nothing but pointed to a path nearby. The young man almost ran in his enthusiasm to follow the wise one’s instructions. Minutes later came a loud “splat”.

The young man reappeared, bedraggled and covered in mud. Convinced that he must have misunderstood the guru’s advice, he asked the wise one again: “Which is the path to success?” Again the guru pointed in the same direction. A second time the young man set out, and again there was a loud “splat.”

This time he reappeared before the guru shaking with rage. “Twice you have pointed to a path, and twice I fell into a muddy pit. This time, no more gestures. Speak. Tell me the path to success.”

The guru looked at the young man and said: “Success is that way.” Then he added: “Just a little past the splat.”

I found this story while reading through an essay by Sir Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. His essay is called Failure is one of the greatest gifts bestowed on the faithful. The message rings true for me, given the human drama that I see unfolding for so many couples from day to day. This is why:

No one expects failure

Many couples struggling with infertility expect that that the straightest and surest path to success is a matter of finding just the right doctor to devise just the right treatment. This expectation follows a simple logic that goes something like this: if a proper diagnosis is made, a proper solution will be found. And a proper solution always leads to success. Although this logic may appear at first to be sound, when it comes to medicine it is flawed because of the wide diversity of biological systems. Simply stated, human beings are not always predictable. When it comes to fertility treatment, the logic is deeply flawed. Despite the amazing advances in treating infertility that have been made in recent decades, our understanding of the reproductive system is woefully incomplete. This is why so many couples are diagnosed with “unexplained infertility.” Furthermore, women treated for infertility respond in unpredictable ways. Often, a woman subjected to the same treatment over different cycles will respond differently each cycle. In a certain sense, biology is fickle.

For reproductive specialists, the lack of certainty and predictability demands that current knowledge be suffused with a degree of experience and, yes, the art of healing. But for patients it is often the source of recurring frustration. Logically, they may understand that even couples with perfect fertility have, on average, a 20% chance of conception during any given cycle. Nevertheless, there is a tendency to think that, when a treatment fails, this means it will always fail, and that there is never a point in repeating something that has already failed once, not to mention twice. If a single, well-timed insemination through a normal uterus and open fallopian tubes does not result in conception, the thinking goes, then there must be something else that is wrong. How many times has a patient, after one failed embryo transfer, felt certain that her uterus must therefore be inadequate? But such thinking does not take into consideration how complicated it is to produce a new human being, that the inefficiency of human reproduction is nature’s way of assuring that most babies that are born are normal and that, like most things in life, success generally takes time.

It is for this reason that I think dealing with failure is so important an issue for anyone contemplating or already in the midst of fertility treatment. And there are lessons about failure all around us:

 • J. K. Rowling’s manuscript was turned down 13 times before she found a publishing house that agreed to take a chance on Harry Potter.
• Seth Godin, of internet fame and the author of 17 books, recalls receiving 900 consecutive rejection letters (!) before his second book was published.
• Van Gogh sold only one of his 1,700 paintings in his lifetime, even though his brother Theo was an art dealer.
• Even the Beatles had to overcome failure. The verdict on their performance, in January 1962, was: “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
• In his essay, Rabbi Sacks relates this story about Thomas Watson, the legendary head of IBM in the early years of computing: One of IBM’s employees had made a bad decision that cost the company $12 million. Eventually he was summoned to see the boss. “You are right to fire me, Mr. Watson. I made a mistake and it was a bad one.” “Fire you?” said Watson, “We’ve just spent $12 million educating you!”

Pathway to success

When we think of successful people, we often forget that nearly all of them achieved success specifically because they were undaunted by failure. Indeed, failure is often an essential pathway to success. My personal hero in this regard is Milton Hershey. Though we are all familiar with the chocolate empire that bears his name, we may not be as familiar with his early career, which was marked with failure after failure, including bankruptcies. Hershey would never have been a success without his dogged perseverance. As Winston Churchill remarked, “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Milton and Catherine Hershey were childless, but they found meaning in their situation by founding a school that still bears their name, in a village largely built through their charity. One can only wonder how persistent they would have been had they had access to modern fertility treatment.

We live in a world where we’ve become used to having what we want when we want it. In our inter-connected world, our access to goods, services and communication is now measured in seconds. Patience is becoming a lost virtue. Too many of us fear failure. As reproductive specialists, my colleagues and I see many couples who have an excellent chance of conceiving but who, for fear of failure, decide to take precious time away from treatment, only to return after it’s become too late. Too many couples turn to us after one failed treatment demanding to change the treatment plan, even though that is not medically advised. How many come to us after brief stints at other practices, thinking that we hold the secret of life! (We do not). Often the success they find with us is built on the failures they’ve experienced elsewhere. And surely the same is true for the few who leave us and find success (and inconvenience) in different hands. For most who experience parenthood after infertility, perseverance in the face of failure is what won the day.

Of course, being persistent when fertility treatment fails is never easy. And there are surely situations – as every honest physician must point out – when persistence is unrealistic. But, for most couples, treatment failures are better thought of not as a no, as in “no, you are not pregnant,” but as a not yet, as in “you are not yet pregnant.” Because history, as well as medical science, has shown time and time again, that persistence in the face of failure is very often the secret to success.

Original post January 2015
Updated June 2022

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