The freedom of failure



Wouldn't it be wonderful if you failed?

This is probably the only question from a course that has stuck with me for over a decade. I remember sitting in a circle, having that typical conversation at the beginning of a new training session - 'what do you want to get out of this experience? What would you like to learn?' The teacher talked to me a little about what I hoped to get out of the next three days, and then they responded with that question, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if you failed?'

Of course, my answer was one of laughter and 'hell no!' I was already an expert perfectionist and long-term overachiever even then. The thought of failure was akin to the apocalypse in my mind. I knew the point he was trying to make though, I'd heard it before from various sources, how slowing down can make you more productive, how being productive isn't all there is to be, and the personal (and professional) benefits that can come from not putting so much pressure on yourself to achieve. I had heard it all before, and I knew on some level it made sense, but I didn't believe it.

Enter academia. I love meeting people from other professions, because it reminds me just how weird academia is. It brings together people who have dedicated much of their lives to being experts in a wide range of topics and issues and then convinces them that they aren't good enough and that their knowledge is next to worthless. Expected to work many hours above full time, and unpaid, lecturers, instructors, part-time and temporary contracts leave academics of any stature with imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy.


When those outside of the profession hear about your accomplishments it can be surprising (and feel a little odd) to see how they react when they find out that you have published something (anything!) or that you successfully brought in a large amount of money for a research project for your department. It can feel odd because usually those tasks are expected - and they are expected to be constant. It's not enough to publish, you must be constantly publishing, it's not enough to win a grant, you have to keep winning them. The need to achieve is never ending in academia, you need to constantly prove your worth.

It's perfect for those who embrace perfectionism, over-achieving, and workaholism - but the big winner will always be the university. The personal costs of chronic stress, job insecurity, long hours, competitive work environments etc. can be extensive. Less family time, nights spent lying awake thinking about deadlines, being unable to stop thinking about work at all, stressed relationships and more.

If over-working can be so destructive, can under-working be constructive?

I'm going to share one of my biggest failures with you. I'm sharing it because I view it as kind of awesome (does that mean it's not a failure?) and I want to live in a working world where failure, mistakes, and letting people down are part of the 'norm' and not seen as dire or taboo. How else can we learn and do better if we can't openly acknowledge when things went wrong?

In one of my jobs I was bullied. I wish this was a shocking statement where people sent me flowers and ice cream and sent me kind thoughts and well-wishing messages - but the truth is it's not uncommon, particularly in academia. Violence, abuse, harassment, and bullying are frequently reported and documented by faculty and students alike. The first person I confided in about the abuse simply said, 'That's what academia is. That's the job.'


I tried as hard as I could to keep up with all of my commitments - marking, teaching, research, writing, grants, supervision, supporting students and so on. I believed that if I just kept going, proving that I was 'good enough', the abuse would stop. It didn't, and the more I did, the worse things got. I felt stuck and trapped - that if I left or took a moment for myself, all the projects I was leading would collapse without me. The vast amount of work piled upon me had me believing that I was an essential cog in the university machine. It's a handy crutch when you feel inadequate - 'look at all the work I have, I must be really good at what I do'. But at the same time, taking on too much sets us up to fail. Something has to break under all that weight, and let's face it, it's usually us.

I did break. I was required (by doctor's orders) to take time off work. I was terrified - how could I let people down? How could I fail to deliver on time the projects I had promised? Isn't it selfish to put my needs before others? These are the wrong questions to ask - it individualizes the culture of the working environment, it blames the person who burnt out instead of looking at why they burnt out in the first place. It allows abusive working practices and violence to continue with only a high turnover of staff as evidence of a greater systemic problem. Putting your needs, and your health, first makes the statement that you deserve better. This will be better for your self esteem in the long run than any grant or publication.

Walking away was wonderful - failing was wonderful. There's no better experience to learn that the world won't crumble without you. People have a lovely way of adapting, changing, and making things work in your absence. The university existed before you, and it will exist after. If you fail to finish that paper, to submit that grant, or to win the approval of your colleagues and superiors - it's okay and the world won't fall apart. It's perhaps a depressing thought to think of how insignificant we truly are - but at the same time, isn't it deliciously liberating?

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