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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

What my spectacular PhD research failure taught me about planning.

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”…


Not quite. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of making a brilliant plan, only to find it didn’t work.

In South Sudan, a water and sanitation NGO invested heavily into building toilets in a village to reduce infectious disease outbreaks and did so very efficiently, only to find noone would use them because they were facing East which was the direction of prayer.

In 2010, I started my PhD funded by the Wellcome Trust to research obesity in Egypt. The plan was to visit the Upper Nile region and collect crucial data using a unique study. But the Arab Spring erupted and the study was halted…Oops.

Ironically, this painful experience has been a great life and leadership lesson.


Of course, you should have some sort of plan. If you’re on this list, you’ll have had experience of project management of some kind and been on a career track for a while.

But, a plan is no more than a hypothesis. It’s built on assumptions and bits of data telling you that if you do X then you’ll get Y.

Therefore, just like a scientist, you have to continually pay attention to the results you’re getting from your experiment/plan.

You have two options if things aren’t working: either you change what you’re doing through further experimentation; or you change your what you’re thinking through better self-understanding of your assumptions about how life works. The combination of the two leads to personal growth and fulfilment of your goals.


Navigating life’s twists and turns is an art and a science. It requires self-awareness.

The one thing that my clients have found to be pivotal in reaching their goals is identifying their core values – usually 1 or 2. How do you want to live in the world? Free? Respected? Creative? Loving? Safe?

Planning then becomes easier. You base it on your values. For a scientist, it would be “truth” in which case the plan (research protocol) is a best guess then endlessly modified until the answer is found.

As the Arab Spring unfolded, I went back to the PhD drawing board and explored alternative sources of data and analytical methods to answer my original research question. Within a month, I had a new tangible plan and was able to finish my PhD on time.

Planning also becomes more flexible. There’s no need for the perfect, bullet proof plan. You can put a plan together and fully expect it to change. It’s not the end of the world if your first plan doesn’t work because you still get to live out your values one way or another.

As Henry David Thoreau put it:

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”

Until next week,


p.s. Email me for more information or to join the wait list for my “Create a Career and Life you Love” six month Transformational Coaching programme. Opening again soon!

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