Failing Forward

There is one simple test you can take to see whether you are fit to be an academic. It’s the first entry requirement, if you will. And it’s only one simple question. The answer will determine whether you will whither or thrive, do or die.

Here it comes:

Are you OK with feeling like a failure for the rest of your life?

If the answer is yes, you may proceed down the academic path, if the answer is no, you may have to reconsider.

I recently read an article on what successful academics in their early career have in common, and the first point was to ‘refuse to feel like a failure’.

I could not disagree more.

If an academic doesn’t get to feel like a failure, who does? In fact, failure is the essence of an academic’s career, some may even argue the very essence of his existence. Failure is everywhere in academia, from the criticism that defines the academic model (you fail, your argument fails, your paper fails!), the daily grappling with all the question marks and the unknowns, to the system that will sit on your papers for many months before spitting out a rejection.

Feel like a failure you will, and you must.

But work with failure, and with being and feeling like a failure, and you may get very far. Academic superstardom may be within reach.

So how does one go about being a complete, utter, and very successful failure?

Two words: strategy and celebration.

To be strategic with failure, it helps to expect it.

Expect it every step of the way.
You are going to get it wrong.
Your work is going to be criticised and rejected.
Again. And again. And again. And again.
And again.
This is normal.
It’s the way academic work works,
the way an argument progresses,
the missing bits, the falling apart, the crossfire.
This is it. It’s what it is supposed to look like.
The coming together goes mostly unnoticed, but it happens in between.
It’s a little like the writing between the lines:
it’s there, just difficult to see or decipher at times.
Trust it is happening anyway.

Most importantly, know that your feeling of failure is not personal. Of course it feels that way. How could it not feel that way? But it’s good to know, at least, that this is not about you. It’s not about your capability. And it’s certainly not about your worth.

It’s just academic work as usual. Sometimes it helps to realise.

What also helps is to be intent on using failure to your advantage. Feel the ugly duckling feeling, but don’t let it drag you into inertia. Ask yourself what the feeling of failure is about, and use it as fuel.

Example: maybe you feel like a complete failure
(Why on earth am I trying to write a PhD anyway?),
because your work got criticised.
Sort out the useful commentary from the non-useful.
Use your best judgment, and know that YOU are ultimately the one who decides on whether criticism is justified, and whether it means you need to re-address an aspect (or many aspects) of your work, or whether you should stick to your guns and do it the way you initially saw fit.
You are the authority here. You call the shots.
Naturally, don’t be stupid about it – if criticism is valuable, use it. USE it.
Take action on it, move forward.
Make decisions.
Or, if you can’t right now, make the decision to let that particular knot be a knot for now.
It will get addressed at some point. It will sort itself out. Taking charge helps.

To deal with the feelings that go along with failure, learn to not take it too seriously.
So you feel like a failure. So what? Really. It doesn’t matter.
Don’t get too wrapped up in your own perfected personal version of how much you suck.
You’re wonderful, you know. You really are.
Failure just happens to be part of your job. It’s not part of you.

To counter some of the suckies, celebrate your failures. Yes, celebrate them.
Every failure means you are doing something right. Every failure means progress.
Your work may progress quite unnoticed, because you are so focused on everything that is wrong with your work, it becomes difficult to notice what you got right!
Try to see both. Academia is about failing forward.
Learn to view it that way, and it becomes easier.

I also suggest celebrating every tiny thing that deserves celebration.
Celebrate every small success, in whatever from it comes.
Celebrate the paragraph you wrote.
Celebrate the paper you read.
Celebrate the chapter finished, or the regression analysis done.
Whilst you’re at it, don’t forget to celebrate the smile from the stranger on the street, or the dog wagging its tail, or that text message that made you crack up.
Celebrate the kiss and the embrace.
Celebrate the rain and the clouds and the bottle of wine in your fridge.
Celebrate your favourite tea in your favourite mug.
Celebrate the colour of the aubergine (OK, OK – I know – I am pushing it here, but I do and I have! I celebrate every grape on the fruit bowl).

I used to scoff at people who would talk about appreciating and celebrating the small stuff. What fun is small stuff? I thought. I want my life to be big and bold and bright and adventurous. Not really into the small stuff. Now I realise the small stuff IS the big stuff.
It can blow your mind, the beauty of it.

Think big, be bold, celebrate.
The magic is at your fingertips.
Right now. Failure and all.

I have become pretty good at failing forward. It’s a skill I teach. Let me show you how: take a look at the HappyPhD Online Course