This is my entry in this month’s Carnival of Journalism, in which all of us journalism-nerd types blog on a particular topic.
Our topic for May is full of fail – literally. We are tasked by our fearless leader David Cohn to write about our lessons learned from one of our biggest personal or professional failures.
This post was proving hard to write not because I don’t fail. I do, in countless little ways, all the time. But I can’t point to a spectacular, massive journalistic or academic undertaking that crashed and burned in a memorable, thrilling way. My failures seem, well, too mundane a litany to be interesting to others. Papers written but not edited and sent in for publication. Lack of timely feedback for my students. Inattention to relationships that matter to me because I’m so focused on work. Etc. Etc. Personally frustrating, but run of the mill.
But ah-ha, you might say. Therein lies the fail. The fail of not having the courage to try something big. And then try something bigger.
My greatest fail is fear.
It took me far, far too long – but, hopefully, it’s not too late – to learn that sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.
To have enough confidence to know that failing does not mean that I would have no worth as a person.
To not be so afraid to fail that I was often debilitated by paralyzing anxiety.
Sure, I always could have parroted back for you all the cliches about “failing early and failing often” and learning lessons and all that, but I wouldn’t have believed it, not really, at least not for me. For other people, I have always been quite compassionate. Just not for myself.
Academia is a fear-based business, and although I also worked in the real world as a journalist for several years, most of my life has one way or another been spent as part of the academy, and that’s where I work now. We use fear a lot to keep students in line, and now as a teacher, I find myself using it too, to motivate the slackers. The problem is that the people it really works on tend to be the students who don’t need that kind of exhortation at all, but nevertheless are the ones actually listening and absorbing a worst-case scenario view of the consequences. I spent most of my time here convinced that the very next test, the next paper, would be the one where I proved that it had all been a sham and I couldn’t hack it after all. Irrational in my case? Sure. But it didn’t really matter.
And it goes on. Tenure is a freakin fear festival. I’m sure you’ve heard the words “publish or perish?” Yeah. Ask any tenure-track faculty member how many times well-meaning senior peers have ominously intoned in breathless terms the importance of publication, as though we hadn’t all heard that at least 10 million times already from the day we stepped into graduate school. You can’t throw a stick without somebody giving you advice on “what not to do” and how to properly finesse the tenure process. Not blaming – people are genuinely trying to help. We choose how to react. For years, I reacted to this kind of stimuli – sometimes subconsciously, in ways I couldn’t entirely control – with epic anxiety and fear. You might not have known this unless you knew me well. I’m pretty good at faking at.
It’s only been in the past year, maybe two, that I’ve had this wonderful, liberating realization, beyond platitudes, somewhere deep in my brain, and that is: Screw it. Failure is underrated. I’m tired of fear. It’s getting us all nowhere. I can’t do this any more and stay sane.
I decided that not getting tenure, for example – a kind of worst-case scenario for most professors – would be, well, suboptimal and a little embarrassing, but I’d get over it, and find another damn job. As much as I love my job, there are gigs that pay better for half the hours that I put in, and it’s just not worth the sacrifice to become something you are not.
And ironically, ever since, I’ve been at least ten times more productive. I’ve done more research in the past year than in the three years before it. I’ve designed two brand new courses and a number of projects where my students were able to collaborate with other students around the country and even in Cairo, Egypt. I’ve helped start a Safe Zone program for LGBT students at the University of Memphis and got grant funding for it. I’ve managed a city-wide high school newspaper.
The big lesson, then is that when we are freed from fear we can really start #winning.
I haven’t done anything even close as spectacular, good or bad, as i’m sure many of the other carnivalers have. But maybe that’s to come, now that I’ve gotten over the biggest fail of them all, which is to not start.
P.S. Apologies for such a self-helpy post, which is striking me as a bit cheesy and cliched on second reading, but this was the best I could do and still be totally honest.