Fear of Failing

success-failureEarlier this year there was a lot of buzz when a Princeton professor published a “CV of Failures.” I know: “Princeton professor” and “failure” hardly seem to belong in the same sentence. But that was pretty much exactly why Johannes Haushofer decided to make his record of rejection public. “Most of what I try fails,” he wrote in his preamble,

but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.

I admit that it seemed a bit silly to me at the time. Don’t we all fail a lot, and isn’t the point of a curriculum vitae to make the positive case? But he and the many people who responded enthusiastically to the whole idea of going public with failure weren’t wrong that in academic culture failures are hidden while successes are trumpeted — not just in the relatively discreet form of CVs (which are all-too-rarely made public anyway), but by announcements from Deans, or applause at Department meetings, or faculty book fairs, for example. In this context failure always feels a bit shameful (which is just one of many reasons the terrible job market for PhDs is so psychologically damaging). Academia is a profoundly evaluative, and thus incessantly judgmental, culture, and thus also a culture that all too easily divides us (if only tacitly) into winners and losers.*

fisforfailureI have been thinking about the question of failure in academia again since my promotion was denied. The appeal is ongoing, so I don’t yet know how the story will finally turn out, but no matter how it does, the fact will always remain that I was not successful in this process.** It has recently occurred to me that one reason last year was so difficult for me is that when things took a turn for the worse, one of my most intense reactions was humiliation. I felt profoundly embarrassed, because I had been held up for scrutiny and found wanting: I had not passed the test, and in this world, that feels not just like a professional evaluation but also like a very personal and all-too-public shaming. I know that this is not an entirely rational response, but I bet it also isn’t unusual for academics who fail in this way, especially when you add in imposter syndrome (endemic among academics) — this is the time you were finally exposed as the pretender you always were.

freakoutthrowstuffWhat I have been thinking about more recently, though, is how much worse this cringing attitude made the whole experience for me, because it led me to be not just discreet but downright secretive about what was going on. I’m not saying that I should have made all aspects of the case public (and I don’t plan to now, either): I have some doubts about the advice on Historiann’s blog (about another case) to “YELL AND SCREAM ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING,” not just because it seems to me a strategy that could backfire but also because it could look as if you’re trying to do an end-run around proper procedures. (Not that those procedures themselves might not sometimes deserve yelling and screaming about, of course, but as a general rule I don’t think professional matters should be litigated in the court of public opinion.) I just mean being frank about the basics, so, for instance, when people ask how you are doing, instead of saying “fine” and then going in your office and throwing things to relieve the stress of keeping up appearances, maybe saying “not great, actually, because my promotion application isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.”

My overwhelming desire to hide in my office and listen to Adele may have protected me in some ways, but it also, I belatedly realize, cut me off from what might have been really valuable gestures of support. Mind you, being more open might well have created other problems, since the sources of my troubles are one way or another all colleagues: presumably we don’t routinely discuss these processes more openly precisely because the airing of internal grievances threatens our collective collegiality. Of course, from my point of view the damage is already done: there are people I’ll never look at the same way again. Also, the prevailing norm of confidentiality strips away some kinds of accountability. My feeling at this point is that like any dissension between co-workers, it’s awkward any way you handle it, but my way — which meant closing myself off from many of the people around me — ended up being quite personally debilitating.

failureI don’t rule out that some of the intensity of my own reactions might be idiosyncratic: I myself was surprised that I took it all so hard, and that has been cause for some self-reflection. (Indeed, I have experienced fits of meta-failure in which I have been thoroughly unimpressed with myself for not handling everything better!) That’s what got me thinking again about the general context, though — about what failure means and how failure is treated in the academic world. And it also got me thinking about other failures in my own life, along the lines of the ‘CV of Failures.’ It isn’t, after all, as if this is the first time I have swung at something and missed. So in the spirit of Johannes Haushofer, here are a few more of my own failures. I’ll restrict the list to things that quantify more easily than, for instance, my general failure to thrive during my graduate coursework, and that are on a larger scale than, say, the many books I have failed to understand.

  1. I was rejected by most of the graduate schools I applied to, including the one I most wanted (the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, which in retrospect I think might have been a complete disaster for me).
  2. I was also did not get most of the jobs I applied for, including the one I really (really) wanted (at Simon Fraser University, where I came close enough to have a campus interview). (Worse, almost, is that they sent the rejection by email so I wept over it in a dank basement computer lab, which is where we read email in those days.) Obviously, I did still get a very good job (just as I did get into a good graduate program) but I didn’t know at the time that’s how things would turn out.
  3. I didn’t get the only SSHRC grant I ever applied for. The funny thing about that, in this context, is that one criticism of my promotion case (from some quarters) was that I hadn’t applied for a SSHRC grant — I had, but it wasn’t on my CV because I didn’t think failed applications belonged there.
  4. I’ve been fairly lucky with articles submitted for publication, though I’ve certainly had failures there too. One that I remember with particular clarity came back with a very dismissive assessment and then was accepted unchanged by a different journal — good evidence for the “crapshoot” theory. Another came back as a revise and resubmit: that ended up being one of the most valuable experiences of my early professional career, as it was for Victorian Studies, the revision advice was both generous and rigorous, and they accepted it when I sent it back.
  5. I don’t yet have much experience with “pitching” essays to magazine editors, but I’ve failed almost every time I’ve tried. Sometimes these failures come in the form of absolute total silence in response — that I don’t really want to get used to, as it seems to me just plain bad manners. There was also that book review that was declared unpublishable.
  6. I have so far failed to turn my miscellaneous writing on George Eliot into a viable book project. I do consider this particular failure a work in progress, though. At the very least, as time goes on and I try different variations of it, I hope maybe I am failing better!
  7. (I thought of this one after I’d published this post originally.) Although I have been nominated 5 times for teaching awards, I have never won.
  8. (Updated) It turns out I did lose the appeal, so that’s a story that ends in a resounding failure. (Not just for me, IMHO, but definitely and specifically for me.)

Like Haushofer, I’ve been very fortunate overall in my academic career. The point is not to complain (that would be absurd, for someone in my privileged position, and anxiety over giving just such an impression has nearly kept me from posting this at all) but to reveal more of the whole picture, to be clear that my career has not been an unimpeded string of successes that nobody with any failures on their record could possibly hope to emulate. I’ve learned over the past year, too, that for all my successes — maybe even to some extent because of them — I still need to work on my own fear of failing, or, more specifically, of being seen to fail. This post is a start.

*I’m sure these attitudes are not unique to academia, but I think they may have some unique features there given the particular form and very long process of indoctrination professionalization we’ve gone through by the time we end up in these jobs.

**I know now; see #8 above.

10 Comments to Fear of Failing

  1. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    September 26, 2016 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I wish you the best possible outcome on your appeal.

    I don’t know if this is a comfort or not, but Robin S. Oggins, the professor responsible for my interest in and knowledge of medieval and British history (and probably for majoring in history as well as political science), and the best and most inspiring university professor I had, remained an associate professor for his entire academic career. When he retired, he finally pulled together and published his magnum opus on falconry. He always went above and beyond (his office hours ended when there were no more students waiting outside his office door) and his students adored him even though the highest grade he gave was an A——/B+ (which was an A anyway) on a closed-book exam all of whose questions (plus a few others) were known in advance.

  2. Jennifer Diascro's Gravatar Jennifer Diascro
    September 26, 2016 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    So very glad you posted your thoughts on failure in the academy. Too few people contribute to the conversation, which benefits enormously from your wise voice. Brava!

  3. Alison's Gravatar Alison
    September 27, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this thoughtful post! I recently heard Gloria Steinem speak at my university, and one of her comments was about how women have a “gratitude” syndrome–we are so “grateful” to get a job that we do not negotiate as we should, for higher pay, etc. I recognized this in myself, and it goes along with the “imposter” syndrome in academia, which I suspect women have internalized much more than men. Hence the (pleasant) surprise I felt on reading your frank discussion of your denied promotion… we really do NOT talk about this stuff, whereas we SHOULD, as a lot of it is ridiculous (the snarky dismissal of submitted articles among the rest–I have received that, too, while the second reader LOVED the article and advised acceptance as is). Success, failure; in academia it may be more important to measure one’s place on that spectrum in terms of personal satisfaction versus professional “approval.” Thank you for your post and your blog–always very interesting.

  4. September 27, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    This post is a stunner. Thank you for your candour and humour.

  5. September 27, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    This is indeed a stunner. My thoughts turned to caring about you the Professor, Wife, Mom, friend, confidante, daughter and so on. Humble words from a far away fan is little salve for the turmoil you’ve experienced. I hope you’re successful in the appeal and applaud you for writing about such a deeply personal and professional situation and that opening the discussion will encourage others as well. Onward!

  6. September 29, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    This was really wonderful. There is such a stigma attached to failure but really we fail at things all the time. The only people who don’t fail are the ones who never take a risk, who never set a goal and try to reach it, who never leave their comfort zones. The tech industry talks a lot about failure and it seems like it is gradually making its was into the broader culture. I think the more we talk about failure, the better off we will all be.

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