Keep knowing your ‘why!’

In my professional bio, I call myself a grant writer. But I have failed with grant writing over 30 times. Not exactly the track record for a successful grant writer some might say. In fact, my success ratio is still very low, at 25%. Still, I call myself a grant writer. Of course every grant writer wants to be successful all the time. I am so impressed with those that have that touch. I call it the Midas touch, where every grant they write is successful. In fact, just muttering their name on a grant leads to a successful grant. That’s not me. Far from it even. I’m sure all grant reviewers when they see my application, are saying to themselves, not again, when will she learn or stop writing. They are in for a rude awakening. I will not stop. Not when perseverance is quite literally my middle name. So why? Why write grants even though you are most likely to fail at it and woefully if I might add, given the current funding cycle. For me, questions. I write grants because I am passionate and committed to questioning. Far from being a grant writer, I am a professional questioner or what Warren Berger would describe as a questionologist.

Why write grants?

I was indeed that preschool child that wondered why the sky was blue. I was also that middle grade child that read mills and boon romance novels and wondered whether love is truly as it seems. I was the high school child that moved to America in my teen years and wondered how do they make Lays potato chips. I never had them growing up so eating them for the first time in my teen years was fascinating. In college, as an undergraduate student, I wondered what it would be like to create my own unique Bachelors degree, in research, or basically conducting research and thanks to Penn State, though the degree is in Human Development and Family Studies, I was an undergraduate researcher. I spent most of my junior and senior year not in typical classrooms, but as a data collector for researchers for example focused on how children interact at an early age or developmental changes among college students as well as research for myself on the right to health for all women as a Ronald McNair scholar.

By the time I got to my doctoral studies, the idea of asking questions went on overdrive. I say publicly that I have failed 30times with grant writing. These failures are with grants I wrote while working as a faculty member. But as a doctoral student, failure was my middle name. Every single grant I wrote to fund my doctoral degree, failed with the exception of one, my NIH predoctoral award to explore child malaria practices in Southwest Nigeria. It failed the first time too. But the experience of revising and resubmitting that grant would change the course of my life quite literally. In fact, it helped me go from a mediocre questioner, to a very structured questioner. It also informed my dissertation and set the stage for my career as a grant writer. Yet, I still fail terribly with grant writing.

I have now come to realize that what I was doing, what I have been doing isn’t only about writing grants, hence my failures. I am still prepared to fail. Every grant writer is. However and thanks to homeschooling, I realized and through the lens of my children, that grantwriting for me, are my attempts with questioning. The reason I love writing grants is because I love asking questions. Grant writing for me is very much about asking questions, pressing global health questions that need innovative and sustainable solutions, more beautiful questions, one failed or successful grant at a time. I realize now that I may not be asking my questions correctly or in ways that make sense to reviewers, hence all my failures. But still, almost like a habit, I wake up the next day in search of the next question. You didn’t like that question. Fine, here is another one, and the questioning goes on and on and on, like a child who asks questions too, over and over again.

I am like a child with grant writing, with a zeal for more beautiful questions to pressing global health issues. Questions are all I know. Questions inform my daily living and interaction with my children. Every grant, even the ones I fail, are my attempt to extend my knowledge. Grant writing provides a structured approach to questioning, discoveries, ideas, with prior questions leading to the next questions, new questions emerging with each failed attempt as inquiry proceeds. Old questions are also reinterpreted in many cases. Everyone loves when old failed questions finally make sense and I have had success there. Still, every grant is my attempt at dialogue with reviewers with questions that move progressively towards deeper levels of explanation of how we can implement sustainable health interventions. Even the ability to interact cooperatively with other colleagues, to ask more beautiful questions are all connected to my agenda with sustainability, one grant at a time. In the end, but from the beginning, it has always been about questions for me. Even this act of thinking about why I write grants, even when I fail, is tied to a question that begins with ‘why.’ Keep knowing your why.

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