Managing failure

You will have experienced failure, possibly several times, during your academic career.

You can end up feeling like it’s only you who has experienced failure as sharing failed job applications, unsuccessful grants, rejected publications and so on, is not as common as it should be within the academic sector. 

  • Separate success from failure
  • Think about failure as a learning experience
  • Learn to move forward

Success vs failure: a dichotomy?

‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 
And treat those two impostors just the same

If- by Rudyard Kipling

In 2010, Melanie Stefan, published an article in Nature where she explored the importance of making failure visible, as a means to normalise it at any career stage and as a way of modelling resilience in overcoming setbacks (Stefan, 2010).

Often failure is placed at the opposite side of success, as if failure prevented the success. These two aspects though do not represent a dichotomy. Professor Warren Mansell, an expert on Perceptual Control Theory, shared some aspects of the psychology of failure.

Perceptual Control shows that our own perceptions of failure and success are influenced by many factors; reaching a goal (success) is not always possible or within our control; and the pursuit of a goal is a continuous journey requiring perseverance.

It is thus important to learn to reassess your goal/s, but also to separate success and failure from self-worth.

Failure as a learning experience

It is quite common to have negative perspectives around failure. These are often connected to a profound fear that can get you stuck in a cycle of the search for perfection, procrastination, and low self-esteem when things don’t happen/get done. 

Yet, it is possible to re-frame your mindset and think of failure as a learning experience or a series of opportunities that will allow you to finally reach a goal. For example, manuscript rejection can sting, but academics know that feedback improves their work, which, in turn better contributes to their scholarly efforts (Watling et al., 2021).

Working through failure can be a transformative experience (Timmermans and Sutherland, 2020). 

You will have come across the quote

‘Fail fast, fail often.

The aim is not to fail but to test an idea or thing, to learn from any mistakes, tweak the idea and try again iteratively until it’s successful (Pontefract, 2018). 

Move forward

It is almost impossible (and undesirable) to avoid failure, so it is essential to learn how to manage your feelings about it. 

Amazing If podcast share some pre-emptive tricks and some strategies for finding the right response to failure. They suggest reflecting on whether your failures are:

  • Foolish
  • Fixable
  • Due to future uncertainty

Next time you are unsuccessful put into practice some of these strategies, or reflect and build your self-confidence.

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Further resources

Udesky, L. How to train early-career scientists to weather failure. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-02168-6

Overcoming a Sense of Academic Failure, Podcast, University of Oxford. https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/overcoming-sense-academic-failure

References

Kipling, Rudyard. 1910.  If -. [access date: 17/04/2023]. 

Pontefract, D. 2018. The Foolishness of Fail Fast, Fail Often. [access date: 17/04/2023].

Stefan, M. 2010. A CV of failures. Nature, 468, 467-467.

Timmermans, J. A. and Sutherland, K. A. 2020. Wise academic development: learning from the ‘failure’ experiences of retired academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 25, 43-57.

Watling, C., Ginsburg, S. and Lingard, L. 2021. Don’t be reviewer 2! Reflections on writing effective peer review comments. Perspectives on Medical Educations, 10, 299-303.

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