No One Likes a Failure

I remember clearly the afternoon I learned my department would not support tenure.

My immediate response was shock. I thought I might get some pushback from higher in the administration, but I did not expect to be rejected by my colleagues.

The disbelief transitioned pretty quickly, though, from wondering how this happened to completely believing that I totally fucked up. And, for the eternity that it took to drive home, the loop in my head included questions like, Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I make different decisions? What the hell was wrong with ME?

The shame was palpable. It wasn’t just the overwhelming embarrassment (soon enough, everyone would know) and guilt (I had let down my family, but also mentors, colleagues, friends) that weighed on me.

It was the suffocating sense of failure that was a boulder on my chest.

* * * * * 

Short of bodily functions, there may be nothing more universal to the human experience than failing.

Everyone does it. Regularly. In small and big ways, we make mistakes, don’t meet our goals, fall short of our expectations, miss our mark.

Sometimes we fail quietly, alone, with little fanfare. And that’s how we like it. With no one watching. It’s painful enough to know our failures ourselves.

But more often, we fail in view of others. Sometimes in view of many, many others. And this is devastating.

Because no one likes a failure.

We dislike our own failure. It fills us with insecurity, remorse, regret. With shame. So much shame.

It is a well-worn narrative--at least in American folklore--that success derives from the strength and perseverance required to pull one’s self up by her own bootstraps. It is an individual accomplishment. We may know better intellectually, but this myth about personal agency, ability, and responsibility pervades our thinking about our achievements. It defines our beliefs about individual worth -- and worthiness. Succeeding is good; it is strength and fortitude.

And if we get to take credit for our success, then the corollary must also be true: we must take responsibility for our failure. It too must be a function of individual characteristics, like ignorance or laziness, that prevent us from achieving our goals. Failing is bad; it is weakness and incompetence.

Given this frame, it is rather unfortunate that most of us fail more often than we succeed. The burden can be enormous, and devastating to our self-esteem. It is little wonder that we are embarrassed, ashamed, and even afraid of failure. That we will do any number of things to avoid it.

As much as we are uncomfortable with our own failure--and perhaps because of this discomfort--we really, REALLY dislike failure in others.

I’m sure the psychology is very complex, but projection surely plays a powerful role in how we grapple with our real or perceived inadequacies. We take back a bit of the security and respect lost by our own failure when we highlight the failures of others. We deflect attention from our own deficiencies when we emphasize the shortcomings of others. We diminish our feelings of vulnerability when we make others feel exposed.

We all do it. A defensive posture against powerlessness, a natural response in a competitive, challenging world.

Add to this the social Darwin-like nature of that competitive world in which a so-called meritocracy rules not only how the game is played but how we frame our own strengths and weaknesses. Some win, some lose, we tell ourselves. Our success is meaningful only in a world where others fail. And where success is earned, so is failure.

Everything is relative, and success requires failure. Just let the failure be someone else’s.

* * * * *

That night after reading the Chair’s letter, I intuitively understood how the psychology of success and failure would play out for me, for the gatekeepers in the process, and for others who would learn that I’d been denied tenure:

Everyone would blame me.

Although the substance of the letter was devastating, the kick in the gut was the line at the end:

“Dr. Diascro knows the consequences of this failure.”

Her failure.

She’s a failure.

That’s what I read. That’s what I heard. And that’s exactly what they meant.

This line, more than any other, was intended to make me feel as badly about myself as possible, to assume full responsibility, and to withdraw into a corner in shame.

I was primed by my own sense of obligation and responsibility--and a healthy dose of self doubt--to believe it all, hook, line, and sinker. To be sure, there were reasonable critiques to be made of my record, at least on its face.

And I wanted to hide; that was certainly my initial impulse. I knew (I know) better than anyone the weaknesses in my record, and I felt very badly about myself for not having been able to publish more.

But it was more than my professional record. My perception of my personal weakness was profound. It was very easy for me to dismiss the challenges I faced in the years on the tenure track with children and the death of my father. I knew well that there were others who’d managed the hurdles of parenthood and life and death to achieve tenure. Surely there was something better about them that led to their success, and something wrong with me that I was unable to do it too.

If their success was earned, then my failure was earned as well.

But the sense of failure doesn’t end in our own heads. Much of it is comes from others. A significant source of my feelings of failure came from being called a failure by my peers. I’m quite sure I would have felt a little less horrible--perhaps it would have seemed a bit more private--had they not actually documented their perception that I had failed.

There is enormous shame that comes from the external reactions to failure. This is one reason we do our best to keep our shortcomings and challenges as secret as possible; it’s the reason we don’t talk about failure. As much as we blame ourselves for falling short of our aspirations, others blame us more.

With some notable exceptions, the responses to my “going public” with my failure have met with this kind of response.

And I get it. There is enormous insecurity and vulnerability in academe. The risk and experience of failure is everywhere, fundamentally inherent in the scholarly process of research and teaching. The opportunities for success are slim and highly competitive and coveted. The process is devastatingly unforgiving. The game is perceived as--and perhaps is--zero-sum. The anxiety about completing intellectually and psychologically rigorous doctoral programs, competing in a sparse and cut-throat job market, and achieving the brass ring of tenure in a constantly shifting higher education environment, is very real.

I understand why some people aren’t sympathetic to someone who appears to have benefitted enormously from the institutions of academia, only to throw it all away by her own actions. Someone who should have known better. Someone who should have known the consequences of her failure.

And I feel badly about this. I know I’ve been lucky in many ways, and I know that others have struggled in ways that I have not.

Yet, I think it’s worth taking a step back to reflect a bit. Despite some views to the contrary, my purpose in writing about my tenure denial was not to garner sympathy. That’s hard to believe because it’s hard to understand any other reason for exposing failure so publicly.

But take a moment to ignore the particulars of my experience and all the baggage that I’ve brought to it--and the baggage that you've brought to it as well. Instead, consider the underlying issues about the institutional processes that I’ve described, that affect all of us in academia. What’s the role and significance of internal and external written reviews? What are legitimate standards of excellence and how are they administered? What’s the purpose of different levels of institutional review? How available and trustworthy is advice and mentorship? How meaningful are the processes by which life events are accommodated in professional advancement, if they exist at all? What’s the commitment to diversity and how is it implemented? And more.

If you consider these questions outside the context of my failure, what do you think about them? What will you do about them? Can you get past your own insecurities, vulnerabilities, and fears, to constructively evaluate the current state of the academy? What is the state of play, and who benefits and loses? How might we develop processes that are at once rigorous and demanding, transparent and honest, and forgiving of the nonlinear paths that most humans experience in their lives?

What might we do to better to understand what success and failure mean for academics?

I know I’ve made some people very uncomfortable with this blog. More often than not, I’m uncomfortable writing it.

No one likes a failure.

But if you don’t dig it, don’t read it. If judging me makes you feel better about yourself, then so be it. Your choice.

Alternatively, if you’d like to constructively address the many challenges we face in academia, then let's do it. We can do better, and we should.