‘Intelligent Failures at the Frontier’? Failure in Academic Life
To err is human. To err repeatedly is research.
Like any would-be academic, I have a fairly intimate relationship with failure. As journalists Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa put it in their recent article on the subject, ‘failure is everywhere and nowhere for academics’ . Academic research sits at the unfortunate intersection of what is essentially freelance work and creative writing, and the potential failures of both, as well as those inherent in the research process itself, are constant companions. Despite its mundanity, however, failure rarely feels normal, not least because researchers are particularly poor at talking about it. Of course, for me (and hopefully a few others), some forms of failure loom larger, and are harder to admit to, than others.
(Non-)failures in research
Many apparent research-based failures are not necessarily problems at all, but cues to reorient and approach a problem differently. A dead-end in a line of thought; evidence that does not seem to lead to any meaningful conclusions; difficulties in connecting ideas; these can all be viewed as examples of what Amy Edmondson refers to as ‘intelligent failures at the frontier’. Such failures, she insists, are inevitable in any imaginative or experimental work, and are in fact a sign that the research process is working as it should . It may be a bit much to argue that academics should welcome them, but there certainly is a need for more honest and thoughtful assessment of failures when they occur. This would entail acknowledging them (rather than hiding them or trying to spin them as successes), as well as thinking about how to use them to move forward .
There are of course significant emotional obstacles to overcoming the prejudice against what seem to be non-results. More generally, academic culture across the disciplines is biased in favour of ‘positive’ results, with failures ‘relegated to the lab books, the drawers and the trash bins’, rather than published or discussed in any public setting . This is less the result of editorial decisions than of self-censorship by researchers . This is not quite as problematic in the humanities as in the sciences, perhaps, but it is also harder to spot while we are still working through sources.
This suppressive tendency is made worse by the fact that researchers rarely see any evidence that other writers—their peers, their elders or the intellectuals of the past—have experienced the same problems. Other people’s work is usually encountered only as a finished product, without any of the drafts, false starts or periods of inactivity that led to its creation. The only place in which these are visible, therefore, is in their own work .
Failures on the CV
Professional failures are similarly ubiquitous, yet invisible. Most scholars, students and veterans alike, inhabit a realm in which success depends on maintaining a constant stream of research output, but in which rejected articles and failed job or grant applications are daily realities. Again, however, these are rarely discussed, with researchers aware only of their own frustrations.
Shahidha Bari half-jokingly suggests that academics make some effort to correct this by putting together a list of their ‘least distinguished educational achievements’, identifying hers as a D at GCSE PE . In my case, it’s a dead heat between the C I received in one of my AS History modules (which may have been due to my answering a different question from the one I had marked) and the 52 percent I earned in a German translation exam in my final undergraduate year (staying up the whole night before an exam to cram does not work, at least not at university level).
In a similar vein, a number of academics and other thinkers have also proposed publishing ‘failure CVs’, or even including a ‘failures’ section in their main CV. These list such non-achievements as ‘awards and scholarships I did not get’, ‘rejections from academic journals’, and the beautifully formulated ‘dreams I’ve had and lost on the finish line’. In setting out both sides of their careers, the triumphs and the disappointments, in this way, the authors of these CVs hope to remind others of the ‘missing truths’ of academia: that setbacks are an utterly normal part of both research and professional life, and that luck and resilience play as much of a role as innate ability .
Failures of spirit
However, while interesting, and possibly even inspiring, failure CVs are limited in the types of failure they can address. They can do very little, for instance, to reassure those who fail by giving up, by succumbing to writer’s block, or by not trying in the first place. No register of failures has yet included ‘risks I never took’ or ‘writing projects I never started’; on the contrary, every item on a failure CV represents a task or piece of work successfully completed, even if it was subsequently rejected by someone else. Melanie Stefan notes wryly that the average failure CV will be ‘six times as long as your normal CV’ —but how much more worrisome is it when neither CV is particularly long?
Failure to write, or to finish writing, is a different form of failure altogether, one governed by a different state of mind and requiring different, perhaps more personal solutions. It is easily the most prominent and disruptive failure in my own academic life. Indeed, it was the inspiration for this post—which, appropriately enough, has taken me an age to complete.
At the root of the problem, at least in my case, is the way in which some researchers understand and approach the writing process, particularly their inability to shake what might be termed the myth of the ‘tortured artist’. This is a popular conception of writing as the product of innate but erratic creativity, rather than workmanlike craft—in short, as a talent, not a skill. Writers with this misconception enter the field and drive themselves to distraction (or into slumps) waiting for inspiration, rather than working steadily. This myth has been denounced, and proudly disproved, by musician Matt Farley, who has written over 18,300 songs over his career and views artistic creation as a job and a skill to be refined, rather than an inherent quality that one might possess or lack .
A writer’s susceptibility to this myth is closely linked to their possession of what psychologist Carol Dweck has termed a ‘fixed mindset’, as opposed to a ‘growth mindset’. These are terms coined by Dweck to describe the two principal approaches she observed in school students to their work. Dweck concluded that students who believed that their intelligence could be developed (those with a ‘growth mindset’) generally outperformed those who believed intelligence to be a fixed attribute . The growth mindset is comparable to what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls ‘grit’: that is, the willingness to view achievement in any field as the product of steady, determined practice, and the overcoming of challenges, not simply the fulfilment of pre-determined potential . Those with the latter mindset (myself very much included) tend to view failure as a final, irrevocable judgement on their ability, rather than a temporary obstacle or an opportunity to learn and refine their skills. Unsurprisingly, failure, and even the fear of failure, loom far larger in their minds as a result.
This is exacerbated by the success that a majority of writers enjoy at lower levels of education with this sort of approach; at least up to the end of secondary school, and possibly well into undergraduate study, immature, untamed talent is enough. ‘It isn’t that they never failed,’ as journalist Megan McArdle puts it, ‘but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class. This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent.’ When these high achievers enter academia, or any number of other writing-based professions, they find themselves competing (either explicitly or inside their own heads) almost exclusively with others who were also ‘at the top of their English classes’ . The transition is brutally abrupt, and many lack the intellectual or emotional preparation to adjust to the new playing field.
This feeling also insidiously invades our writing process. As McArdle notes, ‘if you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are.’ Some writers find this feeling paralyzing; for others, it is merely crippling, and the cause of extensive procrastination. Indeed, the only thing separating many successful writers from the failed also-rans is that for the former, ‘as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpass their fears of turning in something terrible’ .
Occasionally, this feeling leads writers to (semi-)deliberately sabotage their own work, in order to give themselves an excuse for what they believe is their inevitable failure. My vain attempt to stay up and revise the night before my translation exam, for instance, would be classified by social psychologists as an act of ‘self-handicapping’. It was, in essence, a trap that reinforced my own exceedingly fixed mindset: I was able to attribute my failure in the exam at least partly to my lack of sleep and the generally unforgiving circumstances, rather than my own ability. Of course, had my results been a little less feeble, I could have put this down to my ‘exceptional ability’ to succeed in spite of these disadvantages. At least I dodged that particular bullet .
These anxieties are now being discussed more frequently, though normally in connection with fiction writing and other obviously creative endeavours. Academic writing is considered a more dispassionate activity, and probably ought to be, but for me, at least, the distinction is hard to acknowledge, and still harder to believe in.
The search for solace
If there is a point to be extrapolated from all this, it is that academics need to talk about failure more often. Academia is already an isolating career, especially in the humanities, and reminders from others that setbacks in research and professional life are commonplace, and not all-consuming, are crucial in order to avoid adding to that isolation.
Failure to write, as opposed to failure to get published, is harder to share, not only because it is more embarrassing to confess, but also because it feels as though comparisons with other researchers are less useful, their experiences less transferable . Nonetheless, this form of failure is certainly not as rare and uniquely personal as it feels, and also needs demystifying.
If, in addition to this, talking more openly about failure allows academics to be more optimistic about it, to see the silver lining more readily, so much the better. This is unlikely to be easy for many, though; I at least am rarely able to make that particular leap. However, that would be a welcome bonus, rather than a necessity. Being productive about failure is less important than accepting—emotionally as well as intellectually—the fact that everyone does fail.