Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Stone: Failure Festival

Last week I read a fantastic post by the brilliant Matt Law, on his blog. You can read it here if you'd like- and I recommend that you do! He wrote about what he called a carnival of failure- people being honest about things that have gone wrong for them in digital scholarship and public engagement. Matt talks about failure as a positive, learning experience and then bravely goes on to analyse a sticky patch in his own work. A wonderful friend and teacher, Sara Perry, has also been incredibly brave in talking on her blog about the ups and downs of her first year in academe- a real inspiration of honesty.

Matt points out that, as academics, we don't often talk about failure. I think you could extend that to most jobs. Our professional personae do not have room for messing up, for things going wrong, for the days when you just want to hide under the bed curled in a ball crying. My twitter feed and this blog are always relentlessly positive: even when I'm grumpy, they are (or try to be) constructive and analytical rather than down and sad and whinging. You just can't fail publicly and get away with it, it seems. Failing is one thing, but fail behind closed doors- perhaps this is why people are negative on Facebook, where only "friends" will see us.

Stormy weather
But what is failure? What does it mean to you? Failure for me is a thousand different things. At the moment, I'm about to finish writing up the first draft of my PhD thesis (last but one chapter in process). My AHRC funding runs out in September. Then I'm on my own. Every day is dogged by fear of a different type of failure: that my supervisor will hate my work (I know she doesn't and would NEVER make me feel like that), that my viva will be a disaster (I had a nightmare that I had to walk into my own viva party and tell them I'd been recommended for an MPhil). Those are just the thesis related failures! I'm scared I will never get anything from the thesis past peer review, and fail to get my research out there. I'm scared stiff of what will happen to me in September- or what I make happen to me. All those academic job apps that I posted about so chirpily a few months ago? Great learning experience, but they were rejections, every one of them. What if I have to leave the academy? Is that failure? What if I can't get a job in archaeology at all? Will I have failed in a dream I had since the age of 3? What if I can't transfer my skills to the non-academic workplace? What if I have no skills? What if I can't get any job, any job at all?

Those are just the job failure fears. And they are ugly. They do not make for good CV material. They do not make for good Lucy PR. But they are real, and they are honest. I suppose they tell you that at least I care about these things. Or do I? Looking at that list of potential failures with a hard eye, they are ridiculous. Why? I'm sure each of those things would make me sad, and very downtrodden for a while. But they would pass. I have failed before, although not on such a grand scale. I would cry, I would hide, I would probably cancel this blog for a while and put my face away from the world. But, in the end, as long as I get to be happy again, I won't have failed. There is never only one path to happiness and to success. The negativity of failure cannot win unless we let it.

How can I be afraid to fail? There are lambs in the world, for goodness sake.

I bloody hope that all the silly failures above don't happen, but what are they compared with, say, losing someone you love? Making the right decisions for a terminally ill child? Battling cancer? At the end of the day, those are all things that are too sad and too deep for the word failure to be anywhere near them. Failure can be turned to success, or at least to a new chance and a learning experience. Painful, gut wrenchingly awful circumstances cannot be anything but lived through. Yes, lets be open and honest about our petty day to day failures, our fears and troubles. Let's celebrate them, share them, laugh at them. It takes the fear away. Most of all, I will try to remember that these little failures will pass and that I am fortunate to be able to fuss about them at all. Compared to the real tragedies of life, they are nothing.

Everything's going to be alright?

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