What does “failure” mean to you?


If you have been trained to pursue an academic career–or trained for any highly specific career path, honestly–then it’s easy to feel like a failure if that doesn’t pan out. But there are many reasons why people wind up choosing Plan B (or C or D or M), and oftentimes it has little to do with incompetence. I have a sibling and an uncle who each studied piano performance. One is a VP at a major tech corporation you have definitely heard of and one is an SEO specialist at a Madison Avenue firm and lives in Central Park West. Neither of them are playing at Carnegie Hall right now, but both of them are winning at life by every measurable standard.

By going international, I’m stepping a bit to the left of the traditional career path for someone in my field and have been told by one colleague that it could make things additionally difficult if and when I try to get an academic job in the U.S. However, in many respects, I am pretty much living the dream. I am get to teach literature and will have time to do research. But it certainly looks different than the dream I had in mind 8 or 5 or even 1 year ago.

So as trite as it is, I think it’s important to remember that success and failure are contingent categories, though often our training teaches us to adopt a very narrow understanding of what success actually constitutes, implying that anything that deviates from that is failure. But failure, I think, really depends on what you want to get out of life. So here’s what it would constitute for me:

  • Failure is being in a job I hate even if it provides security.
  • Failure is staying in Texas (no offense to Texas, but I’ve lived here 26 of 30 years, and I’m ready for weather that sucks in at least a novel way).
  • Failure is not growing as a human being.
  • Failure is continuing to beat myself up over shit that doesn’t matter.
  • Failure is never getting relief from depression.

It would have been possible (and seemed, actually, very likely if I had gotten this one job I interviewed for) to have gotten the golden ticket–the tenure track offer–and still “failed” myself on all four counts. This is getting awfully self-helpy, so I’m going to cut it short, but with all the job market and post-job market angst, it helps to remember that the whole point of job searching is to create a life for yourself that you enjoy living and that allows you to contribute something to the world. And it’s possible to do that without the title “Professor.”

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