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To Failure

A midnight note on unemployment and good health

Tonight, at midnight, I became unemployed. And my last afternoon of employment – as training coordinator for postdoctoral researchers in the humanities at Oxford – was spent running an event called ‘Overcoming a sense of academic failure’. It was inspired by a lunchtime discussion that happened here a few years ago under the same name, which I didn’t manage to go to but whose name lingered with me. It was inspired by a piece in Nature (Stefan, 2010) that suggested we step away from the false narrative of unbroken successes and start being more honest with each other, by doing things like writing our alternative CV of failures. It was inspired by some of the academics who have very publicly taken up her suggestion (particularly Johannes Haushofer, with a CV dedicated to his failures, and Bradley Voytek, who tacks them matter-of-factly on to the end of his ordinary one). It was inspired by a clear if distant idea of what the academic world could be like if enough of us took enough small actions like this to make it happier and healthier because more truthful.

The problem goes right to the core of what research progress means. Psychology, the scientific field with which I’m most familiar, has lately undergone something of a replicability crisis. Lots of academic papers get published whose results have been massaged into statistical significance, or in other ways fail to replicate when the experiment is repeated. This is far from a problem for psychology alone (serious concerns are being raised in neuroscience too, for example regarding false positives in fMRI [Eklund et al., 2016]), and at a technical and procedural level there’s plenty that can be done about it (there’s discussion of some of the options for psychology here, and a neuroscience initiative here). But at the human (i.e., the psychological) level, the situation shouldn’t surprise anyone. As long as we have huge incentives for publishing positive findings, and near-to-zero incentives for publishing non-results or replications or failed replications, science is only pretending to progress.

What we end up with, because of all the professional pressures towards a particular form of success, is a highly distorted view of the fact that negative results (finding that your intervention had no effect, or that there was no difference between your groups) are an everyday reality in the conducting of experiments. This distortion has far-reaching consequences when it comes to the objects of academic inquiry: eating-disorders research, for instance, is clearly and counterproductively moulded by targets that make a BMI of 20, or 19, or even sometimes 18, an acceptable marker of ‘recovery’ (see my discussions of this problem here and here). If clinical researchers weren't so desperate to publish papers demonstrating the 'success' of their interventions, maybe there would be time and space to develop interventions that had a chance of being truly successful.

But the same unsurprising truth can be observed across academia and beyond, in the people conducting the research. The reality of sometimes-not-succeeding (or not getting what we wanted, or expected) is universal and important, and the more we conceal it, the more distorted becomes our understanding of our professional environment, our colleagues, and ourselves. And maybe all it takes to start to turn the tide is the courage of just enough (successful) people to say, wait, I’ve failed at this, and this, and this, to help us all come to see that while failing is inevitable as soon as we step beyond the known, feeling like a failure – or feeling like an impostor who is still somehow managing to fool others into believing in their successes – is not inevitable. Failing is a good and important thing, but it can’t be if each failure makes us doubt ourselves rather than being proud for having taken a risk.

All this academic year, in this job, I’ve been experimenting with ways of connecting up research-specific skills training with everything else that contributes to whether postdocs here are happy and effective academics and human beings, or not. I've learned a lot, and failed sometimes. And this event felt like a fitting way to end, especially since the last in a short and selective string of job rejections has left me looking uncertainty more closely in the eye than ever.

Yet not unhappily so. Having just been thinking and writing about personality change in anorexia and recovery, and reflecting back on a much older post about constructing a character for oneself after anorexia (or letting it reconstruct itself), I realise just how intolerable this degree of open-endedness about where I’ll be living and what I’ll be doing come the autumn would have been to me when I was ill, and that now it kind of excites me. One of the greatest forms of powerlessness comes from being unwilling to imagine alternatives, and that’s a position many early-career academics today find themselves in. This is partly because an academic life does offer attractive freedoms that others don’t, but also because we’re well trained to accept the miseries of the status quo, as well as to believe that leaving the academy is the greatest failure of them all.

Five of this afternoon’s speakers were senior academics at Oxford, all of whom talked bravely and bracingly about their failures. And the other two were my mother and stepfather, both of whom were undergraduates at Oxford and later took one or both feet out of the academic mainstream – committing that most sinful failure of them all, and thriving on it. Together they all created a rich and intimate opportunity for participants to think about success and failure, expectation and ambition, career plans and life’s lottery tickets.

Some of the thoughts we pulled together at the end have stayed with me this evening. Like…

Enjoy life right in the face of uncertainty.

Planning has its limits, though also its uses; know what you can change and what you can’t.

Be curious, be courageous. And not too modest.

Know thyself. Cherish your friendships.

Others’ expectations are more rigid than your creativity. Ready yourself to resist them.

No (wo)man is an island.

If only, when young and fretful, you could summon a magic fairy to wave her wand and show you: your life will be interesting; be calm, and enjoy it.

Try a thought experiment: imagine getting that job you long for, and hating it.

Work out what you value.

Everything comes in waves. Even if pressures are institutional, they may still be only occasional.

Failing is a skill that needs learning.

The only failure is not trying.

Let’s publicise our failures, not keep them secret.

Nothing is a waste.

There are many lotteries.

We are not failures.

Learn to laugh.

These are insights into academia, and no doubt into many other walks of professional life about which I know less. But they are also universal insights about wellbeing. Every mixture of mental good health and ill health bears all these insights and their opposites within it.

Sometimes the insights come only as the fruit of long suffering, while sometimes a conversation with someone else who has learned the harder way can be enough to make us feel their importance. For me, seven years of anorexic academia left me ready to take it or leave it – ready to wait and see whether it would accommodate itself to me or not. Eight years further on, and maybe it’s time for something new, or maybe someone sensible will still decide to give me some more research funding.

But even while worrying earlier about whether today’s event would be a success or not, and even now as I reflect afterwards on the various little things I could have done better, I’m reading this little list of crystallised ideas and realising that anorexia was incompatible with every single one of them, from the laughter to the curiosity to the magic wand. Free of it, one has at least the chance to call these things to mind and try to live by them, even when all the pressures and all the choices seem too much. Finding ways to fail well can be a beautiful part of the adventure.


You can read more about the failure event here. I have also created a workbook and a series of five audio podcasts on 'Overcoming a sense of academic failure', here.