Secret #36: Failure and Struggle Are The Road To Success
Have you ever struggled with or failed at something that you’d rather not tell anybody? I certainly have. That one time (actually twice) when I submitted an idea to the Conversation a few months ago, got rejected and didn’t tell my supervisors (sorry!); or all those times when I’m nervous sending something through or presenting my latest progress because I’m worried they might rip me apart. I can picture it in my head: We’re not mad, Elli, we’re just disappointed. Or the time before I came back to UofG to continue my studies when I applied to about 30 jobs in Germany and didn’t get invited to a single interview.
Well, the bad news is, failure and struggle are unlikely to disappear, neither for you nor me. But the good news is: we are not alone. Yay for us! Everybody has these moments. In fact, we have found a few brave UofG staff who have talked to me about their failures and struggles throughout their (impressive) careers…
The stories to come will give you a glimpse into their lives. Despite (or likely because of) their struggles and failures they have found their path. Failed collaboration experiences, struggles with identity in and surrounding research, and the very straightforward but quite scary breach of confidentiality - highly successful people and academics have and are experiencing these. Let’s open up the discussion about failure and struggle because without failure we are failing at life.
Prof. Sean F. Johnston – School of Interdisciplinary Studies
I used to work in science and engineering before working in academia. Once I was designing a measuring instrument that needed to be aimed at a target. I suggested to my boss that, instead of merely buying an off-the-shelf viewfinder, we could design a more elegant, simple and robust sighting device. He agreed, so I made the case to the client, who also agreed in a spirit of generosity, although the solution was unfamiliar. The draftsmen drew up my design; the machine shop made it, and within a few weeks it was duly painted and catalogued. When I tried it out, I realized it could never work because it had to be held too close to the eye to focus on the target. I went back to my boss, and the client, and back to the purchasing department to order a standard viewfinder.
As a lecturer, I once gave a critical (historically accurate and meaningful) talk on a local scientific hero at Wigtown Book Festival, a celebration of books in Scotland’s book town. The hero was physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who had grown up and lived much of his life nearby. I was introduced to the audience by the Head of School at the time and gave a warts-and-all account of Clerk Maxwell’s life instead of the ‘great genius’ account that the audience (including a few of his distant relatives) were expecting. I was trying to get across that great science can be produced anywhere with the right circumstances – e.g. enduring curiosity, encouragement and nonconformity! However, the Head of School and one or two colleagues were embarrassed at my academic bluntness, and I realised later that my talk might have been a little insensitive and poorly judged.
Dickon Copsey – College of Social Sciences Employability Officer
As I was approaching the end of my PhD, I realised with increasing alarm that the idea of pursuing a career as the world expert on German comedy cinema actually filled me with dread. I felt like a failure after (yet another) three years of studying and still didn’t know what to do. I sat back and took a long hard look at what I had enjoyed during my PhD and (apart from social life!) it was actually the teaching I had enjoyed the most, as well as working within the unique environment of the University. I had taken on lecturing and tutoring from the start and had later got involved in tutoring in schools for the UofG Top-Up Programme, a widening participation programme for 5th and 6th years in secondary school. I started (fairly desperately) looking round for jobs that could enable me to continue these interests and pay the bills when an admin post with the aforementioned Top-Up Programme came up. I had to do some soul searching as I felt somehow that an ‘admin’ job with a grad starting salary was not what I’d done a PhD for, but it was in a programme I really rated, doing something practical (which after three years of theory was attractive) and really socially worthwhile and it kept me in the university. So, I went for it 150% and got it. The job was great, the programme really impactful and interesting and I got to do some teaching; I built a big network of contacts, and this and my experience, helped me move onwards in my career in professional services within higher education, which has been really fulfilling and given me a massive amount of autonomy.
What I learned from the experience? Question what you might assume you thought you wanted to do with your career. Look at how you actually choose to spend your time and see if these things are congruent with what you thought your career plans would be. Also, it is often the activities you get involved in alongside your main activities that help you build the skills and networks that really facilitate your future careers and development.
Heather Lambie - Graduate School Manager of the College of Science & Engineering
Collaborating is very complicated! Once I worked with a theatre company on a production with a Lithuanian and an Irish youth theatre company. The play was supposed to be devised by its actors and come together over a two-week period ready for performance. This did not happen. The actors were unhappy, the director was unhappy, the funding was unclear, my flat was burgled, and I still had to go to rehearsal and explain why the money didn’t exist. The play, not surprisingly, was cancelled. I had to stand at the doors of the theatre and explain to the audience (luckily it consisted of one) why the production was not going ahead. I am not sure this is a failure so much as a disaster.
The very valuable lessons are: agree terms upfront (pretty obvious), don’t expect miracles to suddenly happen when working with people with very diverse interests (also obvious) and have a much clearer idea of your objectives or direction ideally at the start of a project. I have also learnt that it is much, much easier to work in a University and that whatever challenges there are, here I will probably never need to explain to an angry Lithuanian man why he is not getting as much money as he hoped. It could also have been a depressing experience, but I really believe it has made me much more resilient, less able to be fazed when faced with problems, good at working with people from different backgrounds, and also, importantly, happier to have a different job!
Dr. Geetha Marcus – School of Interdisciplinary Studies
Nearly three decades ago, as a young woman in my early twenties, I arrived in London, with my Scottish husband. I left behind a career in broadcasting in Singapore, and a warm sheltered existence with a large circle of friends and family, never to formally return. Throughout my life’s journey in the country of my adoption, and as a British citizen, paying my taxes, whilst working with what would be over time hundreds of children and their families, and more recently in the intellectual ivory tower, one challenge still eludes me – how to reconcile my identity within a nation that struggles to conceive of itself as having committed loyal citizens who spring from diverse parts of the globe. It was only a few days ago, for example, despite having lived here for thirty years, that I was labelled as ‘international staff’ at a meeting. This awareness of being insufficiently British, despite long self-identifying as such, was brought into painfully sharp focus during my doctoral research into the lives of Scottish Travellers, as their struggles to be respected in this nation, have largely failed. Centuries of persecution and deep mistrust experienced by these ‘hidden communities’ impacted on my ability to gain access to research participants willing to speak about their lives.
I thought of giving up my PhD several times, and especially after a low point of having been chased by dogs on a Traveller site. Persevering, it took over a year of networking and nurturing of trust to gain access and friendships. I discovered to my surprise that we had a lot in common. I think that as researchers we choose to study phenomena that in truth resonates deeply with our own identities and angst, putting rest to this idea of objectivity in research. I can offer no neat solutions to budding doctoral researchers. From my experience so far, research is both an intellectual and emotionally demanding exercise. It can be as messy as our individual and collective lives, and it is unravelling these conundrums, however uncomfortable, that brings joy and excitement, especially as we speak truth to power.
We once had a school admin who emailed me asking if the grades for a course had been put online yet and made available. I was a bit confused by the email but didn’t think more of it and so I sent all the grades through to the admin. After a good night’s sleep, I woke up when it suddenly dawned on me: this school admin had left the school quite a few years ago. Panicking, I went back to my emails only to realise that, in fact, I had sent all the grades to a current student with an almost identical name to that of the school admin. Immediately I emailed the student explaining the situation and asking them to delete the email and the attached file. Afterwards, I reported myself to the Head of School and the Data Protection & Freedom of Information Office.
I would like to once again thank these staff members for bravely sharing their stories with us. While failure (and our perceptions of it) plays a big role in the PhD processes, we often shy away from sharing or discussing it. We will all fail, because we take risks, we make mistakes, we stumble. But, especially as (aspiring) academics, we are dedicated and creative and innovative. And we persevere. Sometimes sharing a blunder or two makes us own our imperfections, but it also makes us reevaluate our processes, and take stock of the value gained, the lessons learned, the successes fueled or encouraged or even supported by having failed along the way.
What are your failures and struggles? Have you ever messed up big time? Tell us about your experiences! If you are a member of staff and feel brave, get in touch and tell us your story!