Why Failure Is One of the Greatest Gifts Academia Gave Me

Early one Friday morning, I was driving into the east end of London, Canada. The sun was in my eyes as I cranked Death Cab for Cutie—Marching Bands of Manhattan, and I was shaking with a mixture of nervousness and excitement. After months of studying I was going to write the GRE, and my life was full of possibilities. I sang along to the lyrics and imagined that I might be listening to the same song the next year while I LIVED IN NEW YORK—since one of my top choices was Columbia.

That moment of pure euphoria was crushed months later when I got the small envelope from Columbia—“We regret to inform you…”

My failures started before I ever got into a PhD program.

I applied to 8 schools, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. I failed to get into any of these.

I got into the University of Toronto and Cambridge. I really wanted to go to Cambridge, but I failed to win any funding and couldn’t imagine taking out mountains of debt to live in England (still don’t regret this decision BTW).

Once I entered the program, I failed again and again. Major grants, fellowships, journal submissions, all are things that I have lots of experience failing at.

The last and final failure was the 20 or so academic job applications that I worked on for months and sent in. I never even got an interview.

In the last few years, failure literature has even started to be a bit of a trend in academia.

You can read one Prof’s CV of Failures here.

Failure is a gift

I think that all this failure is actually one of the greatest gifts that academia gives us.

The failures hurt a bit at first, but people who do advanced degrees have learned to shoot for the moon and, when rejection comes, to pick themselves up, dust off, and keep going. We develop an internal system that lets us grieve the failure for a bit, but then move on.

Some people might call this “thick skin.” But it doesn’t mean the failure doesn’t penetrate deep to our hearts. Yet still we keep going.

Do you know how rare this is in the world?

Failure means you were brave enough to try. Brave enough to imagine you could do it—even if it was a long shot. And maybe next time you will.

So many people live their lives in safe zones, never taking any risks. Us academics have failed spectacularly, and on an international stage. Because we were brave enough to try—even for the things that were long shots.

Keep on failing

I have kept on failing since leaving academia. Job opportunities I’ve missed. Interviews that led to a “no thank you.” Companies I wanted to start.

Each one hurt like hell for a minute. And then I kept trying. Because academia trained me to see that the hurt lasts for a minute, but successes will come when you least expect them.

Don’t let that spirit die once you leave academia. The world outside will give you many failures. Just as in academia, it’s vital to brush yourself off and keep going. Accept them as a gift that’s going to bring you to the place you’re meant to be.

If you can handle failure, you’ll be brave enough to apply for management positions, to launch a company, or to take the first step and cold call someone.

It’s a superpower.

So fail frequently, my friends. And fail well. Because all that failure is leading to more success than you can imagine.

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