This post is about some memorable words from good managers.

I’ve worked on four teams at Nielsen and two of them have been research roles. We had a problem to solve, and my day-to-day consisted of running experiments (models) to try to solve it, understanding what didn’t, work, trying to diagnose why, and iterating. Both of the managers were helpful in encouraging my growth as a researcher, and I’ve lately been reflecting on why.

One of the commonalities between the two was the phrase “I don’t know if that’ll work, but go ahead and try it.” Each manager encouraged me to try out ideas that they knew were unlikely to work, then they later discussed with me why they didn’t. Over time, I developed an intuition for what kinds of things work and what kinds of things don’t. A month down the road, it’s much easier to remember ideas that I tried out, but didn’t work, than ideas that I was told wouldn’t work from the start.

Moreover, part of being an effective research lead is having good hunches for what approaches to take. Both managers have been great at this, too. But those hunches only come with lots of experience working on related problems, and in particular from trying out a variety of approaches and watching them fail. Letting me do this on my own has helped me to grow as a researcher in this way.

It would be equally valid to say “I don’t know if that’ll work because . Let’s try instead.” This, while possibly helpful and occasionally satisfying, leaves out a key step of learning: failure. If I try something and it fails, I improve my intuition for why. I develop a better understanding of the problem I’m solving or the models I’m using, and my future work improves.

(Of course, sometimes my idea is objectively wrong. I might be misunderstanding the problem, forgetting the details or edge cases from an approach, or simply not considering something important. In these cases, what they do is guide me to the answer of why the idea is wrong.)