I do not fail … I just find thousands of ways that don’t work, and am thereby satisfied with the subsequent success (#EdisonInspired)

My name, Renetta, means “reborn” and persistence is a core value that was taught in my household. My parents, fueled by their faith, always taught my brothers and I that there was a divine plan for our lives (based on Old and New Testament teachings), and therefore we should move forward with purpose. Certainly, we must acknowledge missed steps, mourn lost opportunities, and attempt to right wrongs, but if there is faith that everything has a purpose, then it is a bit easier to get up (again, and again, … and yet, again) when you fall down. I try to teach my students about excellence, but I also hope that they receive my messages about resilience.

  • What do you do when things go wrong? You gird up, identify the issue, expand your knowledge, and you try again.
  • What happens when a door is shut? You look for a window, you go to another building, and if necessary, perhaps you build your own house.

My first major, external engineering job was with General Electric (the former Military and Data Systems Operations division). With that job, precision was paramount, and I learned several principles that I still hold dear. My connection with GE, also deepened my desire to learn more about Thomas Alva Edison. Edison … the great inventor. He was flawed, but we entrust our knowledge to imperfect people everyday, so we might as well find something that we can use. From Edison, I consider a few things: freedom and resources to create (which, recognizably, is a commodity for most people), a desire to discover, insatiable curiosity, but my most important take-away is his resilience. He tried many things, but we only hear about a few of them. When things went wrong, he either kept trying or moved on to something else. February is the month where we celebrate Black History, and so perhaps it might be more apropos for me to discuss Lewis Latimer, who contributed to discoveries and patents for carbon filaments and incandescent lighting. It’s a shame that we learned about Edison in elementary school, but I didn’t even learn about Latimer until I attended a national conference for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) as a college student. Acknowledging the achievements of Latimer, other African-American inventors, and other diverse scientists and engineers, I hope that we have a new generation of curious minds who will be persistent in their pursuits of the unimaginable. My take on Edison’s tenacity and my version of his quote, are embedded in my brain as a simple reminder of the need for persistence. In “light” of those thoughts (pun intended),  here are some things that I put on my list to remember, and things that I hope that my students are learning:

  1. You can always learn from things that don’t work. (Edison: Not failure, just 10,000 ways that don’t work)
  2. It takes time to develop your craft and your natural ability, don’t be discouraged if it takes longer than you expected. (Gladwell, 10,000 hours discussion from “The Outliers,” K. Anders Ericsson’s discussion on deliberate practice)
  3. If you’re chipping away at a brick wall with an ice pick, perhaps you should regroup and find a wrecking ball. (This one is an adaptation from Dr. Janet Rutledge; it is my version of how I remember a conversation about my performance on one of her engineering exams, when I was a graduate student at Northwestern.)
  4. “Perfection” is fleeting. Work hard, do your best, and always add to your knowledge, but remember that every problem started with an unanswered question. (Adapted from one of my favorite poems, “Perfectionist,” by my colleague, Dr. Robert Deluty.)
  5. Don’t be afraid to try. If you fall down, get back up (A reminder from my dad who used to make me try everything from solving calculus problems to tasting shark meat, and a simple song by gospel singer Donnie McClurkin.)
Public Speaking seminar with ScottM Feb2015Photo credit: Shawnisha Hester, for 
Photo taken during a discussion with graduate students at the 
University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), during a 
Saturday morning professional development seminar. 

My name is Renetta Garrison Tull. You’ve reached my home page: I work in Maryland, and am Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Student Development & Postdoctoral Affairs at UMBC.

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