At about 1:00pm on October 7, Caitlin Kirby, 28, strode confidently into the Michigan State University seminar room where five learned faculty members waited to see if she could summarily pass the final oral exam for her PhD degree in the field of Environmental Science.
Research done, reading finished, classwork over, just this final grilling and she would have reached the ultimate academic pinnacle: She would be Dr. Caitlin Kirby. This process happens thousands of times each year on campuses all across the nation. With this one unlikely exception: Caitlin was wearing a skirt made of seventeen pieces of paper. But not just any seventeen pieces of paper. These were seventeen of the rejection letters she had received over the previous five years.
There were rejections from other PhD programs, scholarship grant requests, and academic journals where she had attempted to get scholarly articles published. She had other rejection notices, too, but these were her favorites. Fortunately, the professors she faced loved the idea (and ultimately determined that her dissertation was worthy and the degree was granted).
Behind the brash apparel lay a profound observation: Anything worth doing is not likely to be easy. Failure is an event, not a destination.
Caitlin and her fellow candidates tackled the issue of failure as part of success. Most every truly successful person you’ve ever met or read about, they assure us, has come through difficult waters to get where they are. Dr. Julie Libarkin, Caitlin’s academic advisor, comments on the fact that Caitlin not only earned her doctoral degree, but during the same period also earned a Fulbright Scholarship on urban agriculture and will spend eight months in Germany in further research.
Dr. Libarkin is convinced the Fulbright grant came after Caitlin had made several approaches to the Program, and each time she re-submitted her proposal it got better. Her conclusion: Success is often a by-product of failure.
(A couple of interesting asides: The skirt is a one-time garment. It was not intended to endure a second wearing. And it could only be worn standing up. Caitlin drove to the event in jeans and stood during the examination. There is a photograph of her skirt here if you’re interested.)
But what’s your take-away? Any obstacles ahead that frighten you? A Friend of yours wants you to know that with Him at your side there are no impossibilities. Any debris behind you that embarrasses you? Your Friend loves to fix broken things.
By Don Jacobsen