“Oh, hi, Failure! Did you change your hair? A new outfit? I almost didn’t recognize you!”
I thought I’d gotten to know failure pretty well, after spending the better part of the last year learning that anticipated outcomes are guaranteed to change. I worked to recognize that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and realized that it is better to succeed at failing than failing to succeed. I had gotten an ‘A’ in the art of failure.
Or so I thought.
Despite trying to bring the message of failing forward to my graduate community, of discussing radical vulnerability as a vital element of collaboration and research praxis, of learning that my self worth is not tied to outcomes, of embracing that failure is an inherent (and welcome!) part of the graduate school experience (if we adjust our expectations to welcome it!)… amidst all of these exercises and conversations, these adventures into the art of failing gracefully, I had forgotten how to recognize and embrace failure in other parts of my life.
Higher education, and graduate education in particular, systematically mark failure as negative. With limited contact with faculty advisers, we often only hear feedback if we’ve done something exceedingly well (i.e. validating our self-worth with positive outcomes), or if we’ve done something exceedingly wrong (i.e. doubting self-worth and belongingness in our departments/fields/careers because of negative outcomes). This extends further into how we educate our undergraduate students. As a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out, the bias against failure is deeply engrained into how we evaluate students, how we structure assignments, and how we discuss the learning process.
This fall, I set out to unlearn my negativity bias towards failure in the academy. It meant letting go of seeing a tenure track job as the only sign of success. It meant learning how I assess success on my own terms. It meant recognizing that there would be (and have been, and will continue to be) roadblocks along the way that trip me up, make me stumble, where I don’t always ‘get an A’. I was definitely learning to fail at being an all-star academic; I was learning to fail at being an ever-present member of my graduate community; I was learning to fail at identifying and articulating my own needs, especially to an audience that isn’t primed to hear that kind of language.
Given how deeply this failure-bias pervades higher ed, there were many opportunities to practice throughout the last year… Didn’t get accepted to teach the new class on Nonprofits that I spent 2 weeks developing with all of my heart and soul? Not a problem: I get to choose how I respond to such changes in my expectations! Fantastically gaffing up the AAG presentation this year because of technological woes? What an opportunity to recognize that my self-worth isn’t tied to the outcomes of how well technology operates in a session that bears my name! Forgetting everything about everyone I’ve ever read in geography during my Generals defense? Fantastic! What a way to recognize the humor and humility and imperfection that comes with new experiences.
All of this is to say, it is no wonder that I’ve come to view failure through a pretty narrow lens. And, along the way, I’ve forgotten how to identify (and embrace) opportunities for failure in other parts of my life.
I read a lot of food blogs, I live in an incredibly fit and healthy city, I eat on a mostly Paleo/Primal template because it has proven to be what makes my body and mind feel best, I am surrounded by a group of highly entrepreneurial friends, I have a large, dynamic network of absolutely incredible women in my life (near and far), and I am a graduate student in one of the strongest geography departments in the country, under two of the most brilliant women I’ll ever have the pleasure to know (this sounds hyperbolic, but I guarantee, it is not).
Who am I kidding? Against this backdrop, of course I am setting myself up for failure! Because I have created a landscape of unreasonable expectations based on amalgamations and abstractions of many individuals into an unrealistic whole. Even though I know, empathically, that all of the individuals in each of these realms has their own struggles, imperfections and shame tapes, I’ve still developed my metrics for success against a set of unrealistic paradigms. It is patently false that every person in Seattle runs every day, that those Paleo food bloggers never have cupcakes, that every other grad student knows how to write grant proposals, that all of my friends have amazing partners, or that I am the only kid on the block not brewing my own kombucha.
So, with this realization, I’m going to try to give failure a high five. I’ll say, “of course I’ll have a cupcake, because it’s Kori’s birthday! ” I say, “no, I will not run today, because it literally just rained 2 inches in 36 hours, and y’all are crazy”, and I will say, “I actually have no idea how I’m going to fund my dissertation work, but thanks to my entrepreneurial friends, I’m starting to figure it out!” Failure, in all parts of life, not just graduate school, is par for the course.
I won’t stop giving my soapbox pitch for embracing failure within the academy. This feels more important to me ever, as we lose too many bright and amazing graduate students who see their dis-ease with the academy as a sign of failure, and thus, as a sign that they should leave. That said, now that I’ve spent a solid amount of time learning how to fail at grad school, I think it’s time I learn and embrace failure in the other parts of my life. Not as a sign of weakness or a problem, but as an inevitable step in learning to be a more wholehearted, vulnerable and connected individual. Failure means I’m trying new things. It means I’m learning, and it means that I’m imperfect and human.