bad academics · failure · mental health

Failing, failure, failed: part 1

I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about failing. I probably spend more time worrying about failure than I do dreaming of success. I don’t think this is uncommon among academics.

Lee has been thinking about winning. Me, I’m thinking about failing.

The three kinds of failure that most terrify academics are, I think, these:

  • Failure as not-winning
  • Failure to live up to an established standard, and being told so
  • Failing to create something of value from our time and effort

Let’s hit ’em in turn, shall we?

Case 1: Failure as not-winning.

We often confuse “failure” with  the quality of not-succeeding. We consider ourselves to have failed as academics if we do not win that graduate fellowship, that research grant, that job interview, that award.

This is a mistake. It’s not you–it’s the pool. Or, it’s not you–it’s the department and its needs. Or, it’s not you–it’s the very precise requirements of the funder. Let me be clear: 99% of the time, it’s really, truly, not you.

For me, this is hard-won knowledge, that I have to hard-win over and over again. May I be perfectly frank with you, dear reader? I have tended to always deem myself a failure in these situations because, at base, I am a control freak: I have this cuckoo sense that somehow my own efforts are enough to shift the earth on its axis to secure a desired outcome. It turns out that I do no have such powers. And neither do you. Sanity is restored through the cultivation of a shrugging attitude towards this reality.

Believe me, it’s only four years of near-constant yoga that’s taught me this kind of non-attachment in the face of 15 years of academic failures of this sort. And hoo boy! I’ve had some doozies. Like the job interview where the members of the search committee didn’t talk to me at all during the fancy dinner, after a long day where it had become apparent by 9 in the morning they weren’t going to hire me. Or like my first SSHRC doctoral application that just missed the funding threshold. And! I just lost an election for a departmental committee I really wanted to be on! That had two open spots! WAAAHHHHH!!!!! I suck!

Obviously, even today this kind of “failure” sends me immediately for my Comfort Gin Drink (Bombay-Sapphire-martini-extra-dry-two-olives-straight-up) and a day of maudlin self-pity and self-recrimination. But I try to damp down the failure self-talk as fast as I can.

In any of these kinds of competition, there are always many more qualified candidates than there are prizes and jobs and grants to bestow. I have been on plenty of appointments committees, scholarship adjudication panels, and the like, and I can tell you this much: rare is the application that is considered to be an outright, positive failure. You know, where the committee members enjoy a moment of levity marvelling at the sheer incompetence of it? Howlers do happen, but they are very, very rare. It is more usually the case that committees employ idiosyncratic sieves (and a good deal of arguing) to sift out an application or an applicant of a particular kind of size and density–what that sieve sifts for is largely dependent on qualities internal to the bestowers of the desired thing, and much less so on the intrinsic qualities of the applicant. Once, I won a travel scholarship over one of my good friends, because she proposed to go to Germany and I to France, and the funder had a special keenness for France: my application was no worse than her, nor hers than mine, but the adjudicating committee applied a particular filter that in this case favoured me.

So in these cases, to judge yourself a “failure” for not “winning” is to fruitlessly cause yourself anguish. It still sucks to not win; but not-winning doesn’t make you a loser or a failure, and it won’t help to consider yourself so.  Remember: attitude of shrugging, Gallic-style. Possibly while sipping a martini, or meditating.

Next week, we’ll tackle one of two varieties of real failure: the kind where you actually fail to live up to standard where only you are being measured. Ulp.

2 thoughts on “Failing, failure, failed: part 1

  1. Interesting. We talked about failure in class today. Our professor said… “let's see who failed this assignment” (I'm in a photography program so we have class critique for every assignment). Then he said… “I bet you're all thinking, please don't let it be me. But let me tell you, I fail every day. And then I learn from what happened, and I promise myself I will fail better next time.” He is teaching us, early in our careers as professional photographers, to face problems and learn from them. I found this way of thinking so refreshing, as I entered this program addicted to getting straight A's…


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