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 for the individual podcast episodes, find them here.)