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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2 responses

  1. No, you’re not a failure at all, far from it. But I think that the academy/academia has conditioned those it trains with PhDs to think that way. I’m so glad that you’re feeling better about life.

    • Thank you so much, Anthea for your kind and thoughtful comment. It has been a struggle over many years, but I finally see the light. Only when you leave, does the extreme dysfunction of academia really become perceptible. I am hoping this post helps others as well.

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