The Man in the Arena

The Man in the Arena

The fear of failure and rejection are uncomfortable but necessary feelings to experience in order to wholly live out your personal and professional life. If you’re anything like me, almost everything you care for involves the necessary risk of failure and rejection. I’m captivated by innovation and creativity.  There is a certain allure in being able to create something new and unique. However, that attraction carries the heavy burden and undeniable risk of personal failure. Every inspiring success story had to overcome some type of failure. I am more interested in hearing about the failures. Moreover, how did that person’s failure define their success? I believe the heart of their story lies in the failures and that is what defines them. I’d like to share one of my stories dealing with that balance between innovation and rejection.

During my admission for grad school in the Analytical Chemistry department, all incoming grad students met with multiple advisors and current grad students to learn a little about the various research possibilities available. The purpose was to eventually choose one research path to pursue. There was one research avenue that stood out to me and would help save numerous lives. I wanted to contribute to the group working on HIV. I figured that if I’m going to do something that seems hard or improbable, then I might as well reach for the stars.

Part of what makes HIV so difficult for vaccine development is that the virus uses our bodies to make itself a glycan shield which can be thought of as a sugar shield. This sugar shield would act as a Trojan horse and allow HIV to pass undetected through our body. To our body, HIV would look like a harmless sugar. Also, the sugar would act as a shield. If detected, our immune system would have a difficult time attaching itself on HIV because the sugar shield would be blocking its path. It’s our body that makes this sugar shield on HIV.

The idea behind our research was that if we could understand what types of sugars were located in the HIV sequence, we would be able to understand what regions of HIV would be visible to our body’s immune system. HIV regions that had simple sugar structures meant that our body was either not exposed to that simple sugar region or it was not able to interact with that simple sugar. HIV regions that had a complex sugar structure meant that at one point during the manufacturing of HIV in our body, our body was able to interact with HIV because it’s our enzymes that exchanges the simple sugar to a complex sugar. HIV presents different regions of itself to our body or exposes different regions of itself to our body in order to have our body exchange its simple sugars to complex sugars.

When I was struggling through this research, the thought of failure crept into my head. It’s that raw state of mind of thinking I’m not good enough. It’s that raw state of mind of thinking I’m not smart enough or that I didn’t belong in this environment. It’s that raw emotion of thinking I’m disappointing others who counted on me. When we step out of our comfort zone and take risks in life, we make ourselves vulnerable to failure. This is part of what contributes to why so many of us are hesitant to take risks. The best solution to this is to try one more time and not worry about the opinions of your critics.

Every great idea or accomplishment was once upon a time in a minority position. It took someone with guts, confidence and courage to speak out against the majority. It takes nothing to stand with a crowd but everything to oppose the crowd. Whenever you take necessary risks, there will always be doubters.  Don’t let anyone, not even yourself tell you that you can’t achieve your passions. As Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness said, “Don’t ever let somebody tell you … you can’t do something. Not even me. All right? You got a dream … you gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.”

I’m passionate about science. Whenever failure knocks me down, it’s that passion that makes me try one more time. Whatever failures you may experience in life, if I can get through it, then you can get through any challenges. Just try one more time.

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in Paris that was later named “The Man in the Arena”. In that speech he said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Have the courage to spend your time in a worthy cause and to dare yourself to be great. Have the confidence to walk into the arena.


Qing ChangQing Chang is a Senior Associate Scientist at Pfizer. Qing wanted an opportunity to serve in the community and discovered GenNext through the United Way Campaign event at his work. After actively volunteering at GenNext since 2011, he’s excited to serve on the Steering Committee and become an ambassador for the organization within the community.

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