I never really failed at anything until in 2008, after eight years being very successful and very ill at Oxford, I started to get better and also failed to get a research fellowship, and then another. And what does that year mean to me? The start of happiness, of course, not the start of failing.
Being open about failure — with ourselves and other people — changes all kinds of things. In particular, it’s made me realise how little overlap there is between the things that feel like failures at the time (failing to get jobs, research grants, paper acceptances…) and the things that keep bothering one years afterwards (not having been kinder, having turned down that opportunity for an adventure, not having said what I meant…).
Perhaps more than anything, I’ve come to understand that failure is potent, for everyone, and that it loses its corrosive, undermining edge when we look that potency in the eye rather than shying away from it, and when we acknowledge that it is so (the potency and the defusing) for everyone else too.
In 2013, I read about a lunchtime talk called ‘Overcoming a sense of failure in academia’. I didn’t go (had more important things to get on with, obviously), but the title stayed with me, and in 2016 I ran an event inspired by it, ‘Overcoming a sense of academic failure’. That in turn gave rise to a workbook and a series of audio podcasts, which you can find here. (Or if you’d like more detailed summaries of the individual podcast episodes, find them here.)
And, since for those of us who have grown up in academia, thinking about leaving it, or leaving only a few toes in it, can so often feel like failure, I’m also including on this page a workbook I put together in collaboration with the Oxford University Careers Service on Portfolio careers: How to optimise and manage them. In case you don’t know the phrase, a portfolio career is basically a multi-stranded mixture of usually mostly freelance roles. It’s what I now have, and I like how it makes slightly haphazard heterogeneity sound so smart and proper! The workbook is full of useful tips and exercises to help you prepare for a portfolio career, or optimise it if you already have one. It includes material from Barrie Hopson and Katie Ledger’s excellent book And What Do You Do? and covers finances, marketing, support networks, time management, and how to tell your story.