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

Should I quit my PhD?

Last week an old friend and PhD colleague popped up on facebook. In fact I hadn’t spoken to him in eight years, since the moment he decided to quit his PhD. I remember going for a coffee together, him rather pensively stirring his sugar into his espresso, and telling me that was it – he was leaving. “One year of writing a PhD, and I haven’t been this depressed in my entire life,” he said. He also told me his professor was trying to persuade him to stay: his work appeared to be promising (and he was the kind of professor who likely saw being depressed and miserable as an integral part of academic life, and nothing to be overly concerned about).

I remember that coffee chat well, and I also remember being impressed with his decision to leave. In my mind it was a courageous decision: to not stay ‘just because’, but to actively quit because staying was simply not the right thing to do.

There are so many reasons to keep plodding along:

    1. Not wanting to ‘fail’, in your own eyes or the eyes of others
    2. Not wanting to give up the ‘certainty’ of a miserable PhD life in favour of a potentially equally miserable life outside of academia (and thus failing twice!)
    3. Not wanting to give up on something that sounds good, even though it may not feel good (again failure!)
    4. Not having to be confronted with your general cluelessness about life in general (failing full stop)

So, yes, basically just avoiding failure.

You realise of course, that I am not talking about my friend here. I am talking about myself. I thought he was courageous for leaving. Maybe I should have done the same.

I mentioned I would be giving a talk at our university in a month’s time. “You should come along,” I said. “I can tell them how to write a PhD without going nuts, and you could tell them about how to leave before you do!”

If you are doubting whether this whole PhD business is (still) right for you, consider the following:

1. Only pursue a PhD for the right reasons. In my mind, there are basically two, the first being the most important:
A. Writing a PhD is something you intrinsically want to do.
B. A career in academia is a career you are seriously considering pursuing.
(There is one exception: in some career paths – I am thinking about medicine- you are expected to write a PhD at one stage. In that case you just have to suck it up and do it, whether you like it or not).

2. If you are not enjoying doing your research, and are miserable a lot of the time nobody is stopping you from quitting. I am not talking about the bumps in the road that anyone writing a PhD has to face at some point. I am talking about semi-permanent PhD blues. There is nothing wrong with deciding that finishing your PhD is not something you are going to do. In fact, it might be a very good decision.

3. The only one who judges you harshly for the decision to quit your PhD is you! My friend thought I considered him a loser for quitting, and to be honest it broke my heart to hear him say that (my heart breaks easily). Of course I did not think anything of the sort. It is courageous to take bold decisions that are right for you. Conversely, it is cowardly to not take decisions you should take, because it goes against the conventions of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

4. Really, forget about ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and what it’s supposed to look like. You will never figure it out, anyway. (Or, if you do, email me and explain it to me – I need educating).

Are you contemplating quitting your PhD? Tell me in the comments!