“The ability to transform failures into a learning process is important”

September 26, 2016

Prof Daniel ZaifmanOn 14 September 2016 The Korean Economic Daily  e-mail interviewed Professor Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute of Science. This was in commemoration of Global HR Forum, held in Seoul, November 1-3, 2016. Other distinguished guests were also interviewed. This is an extract of the interview.

Born in Belgium, you have worked as a scientist in various countries including the US, Israel, and Germany. It certainly is a very impressive career with many accomplishments. However, I can also imagine you probably have experienced some obstacles and difficulties due to cultural differences. If you have, would you please share your experiences with our readers, and also tell us how you responded to, or coped with those problems? Did they work out as you wished?

You are absolutely right that there are quite some cultural differences between all these countries. But for me, as far as I’m concerned, this was part of the interest and learning process. One of the unique characteristics of science and scientific research is that while the results are “cultureless” in the sense that it is the same result everywhere, and that the solution of an equation is the same, no matter where you work, the process to get to the solution is very much culture different, and it makes this very interesting, and useful: Different cultures have different approaches to the same problem. If you think about that, it is an amazing tool for problem solving, and this is one of the reason why international collaboration in scientific research is so important. So for me, it was never a problem, but rather part of the solution!

Many people say that the free discussion culture of Israel is the key factor of Israeli scientists’ core competence. Is it related to ‘chutzpah’? What does the term signify, and how does it play out in our everyday lives? Do you think there is something unique or different in Israeli science industry that does not exist in other cultures? If the scientists in Israel feel like they have more freedom or right to express their opinions than those in other countries, what do you think caused such difference?

Indeed, there is a culture of free discussion and argumentation in Israel (not only in Science). “Chutzpah” is a term that means so many thing to so many people. What we believe in Israel to be standard practice might look “impolite” in other culture, and Chutzpah has its good sides, but also bad ones. In a way, it is a show of self-confidence which allow people to challenge common knowledge, and as you know, in Science, it is important to challenge what we know. I do not know if it doesn’t exist in other cultures, but it is often present in our day-to-day activities. In a way, it allows each of us to challenge the authorities and to believe that nothing is impossible. It is more a state of mind than a real core competence, and as I wrote, it can, sometimes, be very annoying! Why is that unique in Israel is, I believe, due to the history and culture of the Jewish people for thousands of years.

Some say that the Israeli culture tends to admit failures easily rather than blame them. Do you agree with this statement? If so, how does the process of ‘admitting failures’ work? For example, imagine there is a group of individuals working together for a project. Some people do not like a certain idea proposed by the others, and yet the group still proceeds to carry through the idea. Once the project fails, however, it seems natural for the people who disagreed to blame the others for pushing through the failed idea. Since there are only limited resources in a society or community, it is perhaps best to focus on getting things done rather than continue ‘tolerating’ or letting failures to keep occurring. Although it does sound nice to say ‘you can fail,’ it perhaps does not always work out that way in reality. I believe you’ve had some experiences of such case. Could you share your story and your opinion on this idea?

I do not think that Israelis tend to admit failures so easily, but rather tend to see failures as a necessary step toward success. Especially in research, where failure is a day to day feature, the ability to transform these failures into a learning process is important. As far as your question concerning the group dynamics when a project fails, what I observe is that most of the people who will stay on the team will try to make it a success, while others will leave from the beginning. However, I also agree that it is not that simple, and indeed, there will be disagreements and some will blame others at the end, when the project fails. There is another issue that I have often observed: You start a project with a specific goal, and at some point, during the work, in the middle of the project, you understand that the project will fail. Some will stick to the original idea, and complete the project until it fails completely. Other will succeed to convince their team that, in fact, what is now leading to a failure provides new opportunities for a different ideas, and the goal of the project will be changed. This is sometimes complicated, but it shows you that a moving target can be better than a fixed target, and sticking to an original idea might not be the best strategy.

If someone at Weizmann Institute of Science failed to achieve a goal, what would you do? How long, or to what extent would you wait for the person to try again? When do you leave it at that and perhaps say ‘we’ve had enough’? What factors make you decide so? If you were to give some help to improve the result once failed, how do you give a hand? Do you give certain conditions to push them to pursue a higher goal? Or do you just let them do what they want as much as they can?

This is a difficult question as I do not think there is a unique answer. First of all, I strongly believe that for research institutions, freedom of thinking, and freedom of research is critical. Scientists themselves should know if they are successful or not and they should convince themselves that spending many years of their careers on a very difficult problem, and failing at it, is valuable because, as I wrote above, even these failures can teach us what not to do. So it depends on the challenge: If you try to do something simple, and you are not successful it is different from if you are trying to solve a big problem and failing. So there is no final set of parameters and it is, what I would call, common sense (which is of course, culture dependent…).

I heard that your institute allows students to attend different major classes for one year after admission. I guess this approach can help them to find their potentials. If you have some productive or positive cases of this, could you please tell us more about them?

Remember that the Weizmann Institute of Science has only a graduate program. So the students are accepted at the Master level, and at that level, in some faculties, we allow them to probe several areas of research before they make their own decision. So these are not really “major classes”, but rather experiences in various labs, doing different type of research.

Creativity is a nice thing, but it is perhaps difficult to maintain amicable relationships among creative people. If the institute allows students to have more time and space to explore their potentials and true interests, there could be some tensions, struggles or discords. How do you manage such troubles? Are there any special measures you recommend for especially creative people to be able to collaborate or work together?

You are right that creative people are more individualist than others, but I would not describe this as making troubles. It is simply that you need to remember that creativity is mostly an uncontrollable process, and that you should not try to control it. So while it comes with some challenges, a place which allows for individuals to be creative is more enjoyable for all than one which forces collaboration.

It is said that a hard-working person cannot beat those who enjoy their work. What does ‘pleasure’ mean at your institute? Is there any special measure that you take in order to make people find the Institute more pleasurable?

I agree. In fact, as a scientist, I never felt that I ever worked. I always did (and still do) what I enjoy most. I’m not sure how to define “pleasure” at the Weizmann Institute of Science, but I know that we need to create an environment that will be as good as the people are, respect them, and provide them with a feeling that they own the place. I think there is nothing stronger than a sense of ownership for employees to enjoy the place in which they work.

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