Failure is an Option

The Importance of Failure | New Faculty


It’s been a rough spring,  personally.  Professionally, things are going well. I’m doing what I’m supposed too, thinking outside of my own comfort zone, and trying to set myself up for the future. I’m comfortable but looking, as always and keeping my eyes open to opportunities that may knock at the right time. As I read and hear all of these graduation speeches and commencement addresses, I can’t help but think about failure and how it impacts our lives as academics and as human beings.

Personally, the spring has been a battle and only recently have I begun to dig myself out. I have failed personally this spring. I have failed myself. I allowed my judgment to become clouded by emotions and now I’m paying the price of my own mistakes. I ignored my intuition for far too long and now I’m picking up the pieces.


I think it’s important to talk about failure in academia. Too often, we hear about someone’s 9384 article as they get promoted, we see their ginormous grant in the university news, and we see their photo splashed across a piece of online advertising throughout the year, serving as the ‘poster child’ for the college. What we don’t see is their struggle. We don’t see their lonely work time. We don’t see how many times they failed before they were successful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure this spring due to my own reflective state and how I’ve used it to advise students, mentor fellow teachers in the field, and use it as a powerful tool to bond with people who I’m close too. Failure is a real option in life, it’s one that happens more often than not, and we’ve trained our students that failing is bad, failing them by doing this.

  • Failing makes me relatable. I tell my students of my failures. I tell them of my poor GPA in my undergrad (it wasn’t all that pretty quite frankly) and how I turned out just fine with a phd and some good common sense. Sometimes, I share some of my ‘finest’ teaching moments with other teachers so they can think, “oh yeah, she’s done it too!”
  • Failing makes me “real” or “approachable.” I’m not one to sugarcoat my life and by sharing when I’ve failed, people perceive me as a real person who is approachable, not some research robot that has the sole mission of publishing like a monkey in a cage. Yes, that’s part of my job, but sometimes, I fall asleep reading articles for no reason too. Failing has opened me up to positive relationships in my life that I’m so thankful for. By sharing a piece of myself when I wasn’t at my best, it helped set the tone for a positive relationship with another person.
  • Failing makes me emotional. I know you’re probably thinking, ‘pull out the tissues’ but it’s not emotional like crying, it’s the emotional bond when you have a shared experience or when you listen to someone else share their emotional experience. It’s never meant to be used as leverage against the person later, but rather to help be sensitive to their needs.
  • Failure adds value to the authentic experience. Failure has turned me into the person I am, shaping my character, my responses, and my arsenal along the way. Failing has added so much value to my character, that I would not be half the person I am without failure in my forefront and background at various times. I remember failing in high school, crying, and hearing a trusted mentor say, “pick yourself up, there’s always next year.” Success looks effortless, failure is often dirty, emotional, and hard to get through. One of the lowest times of my life was when my marriage was unraveling around me and I did get through. It wasn’t pretty, it was emotional, but it has led me to trust my intuition this spring, it has added value to me as a person, and has made this process more authentic and ‘real’ to me and those around me.
  • Failure has challenged me and my failures will challenge others. When I share my failures, hopefully it gives the listener the insight that it’s a challenge to overcome and that they can do it as well. I don’t share my failures on my fb wall every day, but when I think it’s appropriate, I will delve into my own list of failures to try and capture the tone of a conversation.

Not every occasion is as well received when discussing failures. I’ve gotten the “bueller? bueller?” response before and other times, it has sparked another train of conversation that has been productive and helpful for everyone. In the end, reflecting, discussing, and reminding myself of my failures is a great and humbling way to help me stay grounded. For every article I publish, I’ve been rejected twice as many times. For every success I have with a student, I see that many students lose interest.

My true strengths have been revealed during my weakest moments and over the years, I’ve learned my own life ‘truth’ for myself. It may not always align with others, but I know it’s there. As a new faculty and more importantly, as a human being, failure is something I could not live without. I wouldn’t want to always know the sweet smell of victory because I know it would get boring. Some of my own personal victories were often the ones I worked the hardest at. They were fraught with struggle and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

What advice would you give grad students, undergrads, or other young professionals about the importance of failure?


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One thought on “Failure is an Option

  1. PhD Dropout says:

    “P-H-D dropout, No graduation day for you…”

    I failed my prelims last year.

    I was given the choice to either retake my preliminary exams six months later (with the risk of failing again and being immediately terminated) or withdraw from the doctoral program at the end of the semester without prejudice. I was given several weeks to decide and made my decision not to retake prelims. After telling all my family and friends, their support helped me find the confidence needed for job interviews as I began the journey of discovering a new career in “the real world”. Now I’m starting a new career in health informatics. 🙂

    My advice to my friends that are still in graduate school has been that failure is not the end of the world. You can overcome failure by being resilient. As J. K. Rowling told us through Albus Dumbledore, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

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