The Critical Difference Between Failing and Being a Failure: How I Realized That I Have Not Wasted My Life

One of my most important “aha!” moments during this post-ac transition was when I was able to distinguish between my failure to reach a goal and being a failure.*  The distinction between the two is nothing less than recognizing the difference between invalidating your whole person, entire self, and all of your achievements and, instead, recognizing that something you tried didn’t work out the way you anticipated.  Most of us view our work as academics as being personal; we often view it as an extension of ourselves.  We place our ideas and writing out there and in the process, we share very intimate parts of ourselves.  We expose to the world, like some peer reviewed diary, how we think and how our mind works.  These are ideas that we have spent hours crafting, mulling, and honing which we then publicly display for the world (or the five readers in our niche subfield) to judge.  It is understandable how blurred this line between self and work becomes.  The thing is, that work does not sum up who we are.  It is a part of us, but not all of us.

This is “easy” for me to write now after years of believing that I was a failure.  And sometimes I still slip.  Thinking of my academic experience in terms of this distinction is still new for me.  In some sense, it is such an easy thing to do, to conflate my academic career and my self identity but it is also so wrong.  I was the first person in my family to go to college.  I worked my way through college and then graduate school.  I earned a Ph.D. in one of the most rigorous programs in the world.  I won a prestigious award for a published article.  I had my work debated by a national government, resulting in a response paper.  I mentored and inspired students and asked them to consider thinking about the world that challenged their assumed understandings.  For all of these reasons I am proud and have a huge sense of accomplishment.  For years I did not allow myself to enjoy these accomplishments because I did not land a tenure track position.  I thought everything was a waste because I didn’t achieve that goal, a goal that was largely out of my control.  I framed all of these things as incidental to the goal, but in reality I was living the life of an academic.  I accomplished so much.  I taught; I got to know students; I changed students’ lives; I advised; I researched; I helped students reach their goals; I made an impact on the field; I published; I mentored.  I did not get an opportunity to shape departments or university trajectories.  And I did not get the opportunity to make this enterprise a life long career.  This is regrettable and sad.  For me, living life as a contingent faculty member is not sustainable.  I am not sure that the tenure-track would suit me well, but I wanted the opportunity to make that decision for myself.  I didn’t get that opportunity, but that doesn’t mean that I am failure or that I wasted my life.

*Therapy helped me to make this distinction.

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Tough Week in Post-Ac Land

This week I received three rejections for positions I applied for over the last few weeks.  On the positive side, at least they let me know and the rejections were very respectful, which is a lot more than I can say for what usually happens in the academic world:  1) Apply; 2) Hope; 3) Tap, tap, tap, is there anyone out there?  Sometimes there is:  4) Receive snobby letter that makes you feel like crap.  I have actually received letters worded in such a way that put down the rejected candidates.  Luckily, job market rumor mills have developed which create some transparency for this wretched process.  I do remember, however, two academic rejections that stand out to me as being so well written that I actually felt better about myself after applying even though I did not get the positions.  Proof exists that respecting people while sharing the bad news is possible – even in academia – which makes this whole process a bit more humane.  I wanted to meet the letter writers, have a coffee with them, and thank them for their generosity and kindness.  Using a little bit o’ reflection theory here, I would argue that when applying for jobs (academic or not) the way in which a potential employer handles your application and interacts with you,  “reflects” workplace culture and how you are likely to be treated as an employee.  I had a devastatingly poor interview for a dream job earlier this year (more on that later, maybe) but the way the whole thing unfolded sent up red flags all over the place.

Respect aside, it still super sucks.  Two of the positions really, really, really, really interested me.  I would utilize those skills that I fought so hard for in graduate school, have meaningful work that made a difference, and participate in more collaborative environment.  I can envision life post-ac, but I wonder if I will get there.  It is sometimes hard to conceive when I have been looking for more “permanent” (tenure track) work for about nine years.  It has been sooooo long since I have had a career accomplishment to celebrate.  It has been so long since my skills have felt valued.  It has been a bit of disappointment all the way down.

Thus far, I have been applying to academic-y type jobs that require research capacities because that is what fits my skill set.  The thing is, I am not sure I want to even use them.  It is where I decided to start, though.  I have no problem thinking of non-academic-y careers.  The problem is, each one of those is difficult to break into as well.  Interior design, cake decorating, landscape architecture (man, do I wish I knew this field existed when I was an undergrad), opening a niche boutique, and floral design all appeal to me, but good luck!  I can picture myself in funky work environment (preferably with exposed brick walls in a repurposed industrial building) thinking up solutions for important problems in a dynamic team environment with interesting coworkers.  Yes, this explicit vision is a little bit ridiculous perhaps, but it gets me through the tough times.  The many years of rejection in academia have taken their toll on me and my self confidence.  Add in three rejections in seven days, and it has been one tough week in Leftovers land.  At least I had a good week teaching, so that is some solace.

I have been reading a bit of Escape the Ivory Tower this week which has been immensely helpful.  Although, I keep on reading stories about post-acs (in various blogs) who get jobs 2-4 weeks out and change their lives quickly or they “fall into” something.  In comparison, I languish in the land of rejection.  I don’t know about you, but I have never fallen into anything.  I planned and strategized and planned some more.  And now that I am rudderless, I still don’t sense any opportunities to “fall into.”  Virtually everyone I know is in academe and my social networks are very thin after sacrificing them during endless years of grad school.  This process is very frustrating as I know I am qualified for many jobs but I don’t appear qualified. On the other hand, there are jobs that I know I could “grow into.”  I have all of the qualifications except office management experience, for example.  I have managerial experience leading research projects but that doesn’t seem to be enough.  I simultaneously feel over and under qualified and wonder if there is any place I will fit.  I went into academia, in part, because I didn’t think that I fit the “normal” work world.  All I know is, that after nine years of looking for work I am tired of looking for work.