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 realize 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 saw an advert for 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. You can download the PDF workbook here, and access the podcast episodes via the Oxford University Careers Service site here or (with slightly fuller episode summaries) from their podcasts site here (note the episodes display here in reverse order; start with “The feeling of failure”!).
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 Oxford’s Careers Service on Portfolio careers: How to optimize 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 tips and exercises to help you prepare for a portfolio career, or optimize 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 topics like finances, marketing, support networks, time management, and how to tell your story.
If you’re interested in running or taking part in a failure-focused event, at your university or in some other context, you can read about what I offer on my Courses page, under the heading “Overcoming a sense of academic failure”.
And finally, in the spirit of openness, and because writing a CV of failures is such a beautifully cathartic thing to do (I wholeheartedly recommend it to you), here’s mine.
If you end up using any of these resources, I’d love to know what you make of them. Do get in touch if you have comments of any kind.