The Road to Success is Paved with Rejection Letters
My other CV. The CV of failures.
07 February 2022 Michael J. Black 7 minute read
Let's get this out of the way up front. I'm a successful academic. I have one of the best jobs in academia (Max Planck director). I've been able to do work that I care about, with great colleagues and students, and it's been recognized by my community. I'm white, male, and straight. I was raised by educated, caring, parents who were not rich, but not poor. I'm definitely privileged. Life gave me a good shot at success right out of the gate.
So, what do I know about failure?
Every step of my academic career has met with rejection. I'm not unusual in this. So why write about it? The road to academic success is full of barriers and when you hit them, they can feel insurmountable. Maybe my stories give a glimmer of hope that helps someone continue through failure. The academic life is worth it.
I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I didn't know what interested me. I didn't know how to study. I wasn't mature enough. Add beer and freedom to this and it wasn’t an auspicious start. I barely passed first year physics and I failed second year calculus. Then I discovered computer science, by accident. I fell head over heels for it. Loved it. Was good at it. But that's another story.
I switched my major to the Honours Computer Science program, discovered a love for computer vision, and graduated with a First Class degree. My dream was clear -- do basic research in AI. This meant getting a PhD.
I applied to maybe a dozen schools. Some were a reach, like Stanford. Others felt like a relatively safe bet, like the University of Toronto. The result? 100% rejection. When the letter came from Toronto, my last hope, I remember crying. My early mistakes sealed my fate. Straight first class grades in CS weren't enough to wipe out the stain of my first two years of mediocrity.
I decided that the only way to get into a good PhD program was to get a Master's degree. It had to be pristine and from the best place. So, I got a job as a software engineer in the Bay Area at a company that was part of the Stanford Honors Co-Op program. The company paid for me to do my Master's part time.
I worked nights and weekends. I made sure to do well. I earned an GPA of 4.3 out of 4 by getting A+ grades. I also loved it. Everything about it.
With the Stanford seal of approval, I applied to maybe eight PhD programs. The result this time? 100% acceptance.
I chose Yale and it was like entering a new world. While I'd had a good upbringing, my parents were immigrants and didn't know how the US worked. The Ivy League was not on our radar. The people I met at Yale seemed to understand the world and its opportunities in a way that other people didn't. They had a confidence in their ability to shape that world like I'd never seen. My Yale education went far beyond the academic.
As a graduate student, I applied for the prestigious Hertz Fellowship. I was invited to an interview in a hotel room with a very Ivy-Leaguey gentleman. He asked me questions to test my knowledge and intelligence -- the kind of interview questions that Google is now famous for. He also dropped names of famous people who he'd met at the Rainbow Room. I realized that he was testing my social pedigree. Who did I know? To what class did I belong? When he asked about my family, I totally underplayed them. I didn't mention that my grandfather was chaplin to King George VI or that my mother finished first in her class in all of England. I was going to get this on my own merits, as a nobody, or I wasn't going to get it.
I didn't get it.
So I applied for a NASA Fellowship, which I got. It allowed me to spend summers at the NASA Ames Research Center and paid me more than a normal graduate student stipend. It was awesome, but it's also another story.
Faculty: First try
I must have sent out 25 applications for faculty positions. Result 100% rejection. No interviews. Not even a whiff of interest.
Ok, back to Plan B. Work hard, build credibility, and try again.
I had one post doc offer. So, I took it. It was at the University of Toronto and they turned it into a non-tenure track faculty position. When I told them that they had rejected me for the PhD program years before, they were quite embarrassed and apologetic. Bygones. The fault was with me and not them.
Toronto was great and my advisor, Allan Jepson, was the best. That's also another story.
There were still no tenure track faculty jobs on the horizon so after Toronto I moved to Xerox PARC, which was a dream job. But my eye was always on getting a faculty position and I treated my time at PARC as though I was in a tenure-track job. I maintained my publications, worked with student interns, and stayed visible.
Faculty: Second try
PARC shifted its focus from basic research to more applied, top down, research, but that's another story. So, I started looking for a faculty position. I interviewed with Brown and really loved the place. The faculty was small but excellent. The school was the right size. The quality was high but it didn't have that Ivy League sense that it owned the world.
The chair called me and told me that they were going to make me an offer as an assistant professor with a short tenure clock. I was over the moon. A dream finally come true.
Until he called a few days later to say that he was terribly sorry and that they couldn't make me an offer after all. Another failure.
Faculty: Third try
I stayed at PARC and figured that I would make it work. A couple of years later Brown's chair wrote saying that they were still interested in me and wondered if I'd come and interview. I said no, that I was happy enough at Xerox. He said, "Well just come for a visit, see some friends. Nothing formal." So, I did, and it was great.
This time they made me an offer as an associate professor with tenure. Of course, it took months to finalize as I had to go through the tenure process. I knew it could fall through again but this time it didn't.
All the previous rejections were a drop in the bucket compared with starting a company. All my experience as an academic counted for nothing in the world of venture financing. I had no track record. Maybe the only world more brutal than academia in terms of rejection is venture capital. The litany of rejections isn't particularly novel or interesting except for maybe one. In 2010, I used some Brown connections to get a meeting with Amazon when it as a "small" company of about 33,000 employees. I pitched them an idea about estimating 3D body shape directly from images and using this to help people find the right size clothing. They took the meeting but told me to go away and build a real company. So, I figured out how to do that and seven years later that company, Body Labs, was acquired by Amazon.
I loved Brown and was never tempted to leave. But one rejection really bothered me. In 2009, a colleague and I wrote a proposal to the NSF to create a completely new technology for four-dimensional human body scanning. It would enable the 3D capture of the human body shape in motion with high precision. The proposal was highly rated. The reviewers praised the science behind it and the experience of the team. But they rejected it because they couldn't imagine why the world needed a 4D body scanner. Of course, we explained the many applications in detail but it didn't convince them.
I started fantasizing about a world in which someone would give me research funding and then just trust me to use it wisely. I thought of Johannas Kepler (1571-1630) who was funded by a prince. Every now and then he might be called upon to use the stars to predict an auspicious date for a wedding or a battle but, other than that, he could do his science as he saw fit.
Then Max Planck called. The modern version of a prince. So, I moved to Tübingen, the same town where Kepler studied and commissioned my 4D body scanner, which turned out to be very useful.
Science and Rejection
Looking back, academia was not so different in Kepler's time. After studying in Tübingen, his professors thought that he was not clever enough to be offered a faculty position. He survived the rejection and did just fine for himself, thank you very much.
Success and failure are the alpha and omega of science. For me, every success began with failure. But, this is not a story of hardship. I'm extremely fortunate, I know it, and I'm thankful. Many people succeed in academia against much bigger odds. I'm not special. I'm just determined.
The Perceiving Systems Department is a leading Computer Vision group in Germany.
We are part of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen — the heart of Cyber Valley.
We use Machine Learning to train computers to recover human behavior in fine detail, including face and hand movement. We also recover the 3D structure of the world, its motion, and the objects in it to understand how humans interact with 3D scenes.
By capturing human motion, and modeling behavior, we contibute realistic avatars to Computer Graphics.
To have an impact beyond academia we develop applications in medicine and psychology, spin off companies, and license technology. We make most of our code and data available to the research community.