Perhaps it is fitting that I failed to see Cathy Davidson’s post about a talk she gave six months ago on failure and the fantastic conversation that followed. But I’m here now, thanks in no small part to the beautiful new HASTAC design. Demos, Kaysi, Mandy, and everyone else involved—it looks amazing. Thanks you so much for your hard work!
But enough about success. Let’s talk about failure. The topic of failure has been a reoccurring topic of conversation in the PhD Lab. Fellow Lab participant Aaron Dinin taught a class on failure in the spring, I’m teaching one in the fall. As I design my class this summer, Cathy’s talk and conversation afterwards guides my thinking in how to engage with the privilege attached to any conversation about failure. In many ways, it seems like failure—at least in tech circles—is simply the American Dream 2.0. Fail fast, fail big, and maybe you too could be the next Steve Jobs. Perhaps that brand of failure works for one of the whitest and most male-dominated professions. But what about those who cannot afford to take these kinds of risks?
I believe everyone deserves a safety net to be able to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward better and stronger. That’s what’s at the heart of my commitment to studying and promoting a particular kind of failure—one that is productive and collaborative.
I owe this language to my colleague, Aaron. At a recent meeting, we failed to nail down any deliverables. We did, however, think together about why we were interested in exploring failure. Aaron drew out the distinction between productive and unproductive failure. This is a crucial point. Is failure the end or the beginning? Experiences of failure can shut us down or shut us out. This can be due to internalized anxieties, external consequences, or both. Failure can also be the spark that lights the fire for creative inspiration. It can be the source material to move us away from ground that was never made to nurture our hearts or minds.
“It’s about failing together, that’s what I care about,” Aaron said. That, to me, was our deliverable—the idea that we can move failure from a stigmatizing and internalized label towards a space of productive and collaborative possibilities. This requires creating safe spaces in which failure is something we can learn and grow from, together. That starts with examining failure in our own professional and personal lives.
Full disclosure: I went to hippie preschool. We played collaborative games. The win/win is hardwired into my psyche. So too is the crippling perfectionism of what has been described as an A+ personality. I avoid failure like the plague. Teaching a class on failure is
probably partly therapeutic. I’m okay with that. Anxiety has prevented my own productivity as a scholar and a teacher. I know I’m not alone in that respect. Which is why I’m looking forward to failing together with my students (and whoever else wants to join in the conversation). Because it’s never too late to go to the places that scare you and realize what was waiting there wasn’t so bad after all. It’s never too late to identify the inequalities embedded within our social structures and slowly try to chip away at them (or make a full frontal assault). And it’s always better to make these efforts together.