When high achievers fail to make the grade

Shahidha Bari on academics’ strange relationship with the idea of failure

August 20, 2015
Shahidha Bari columnist illustration

A few weeks ago, my friendly department gathered to wave off into the sunset the seasonal parade of cheery new graduands. The students were, as ever, a gleaming vision of accomplishment, swishingly cloaked, mortar-boarded and freshly minted with BA honours. Success has an aura, enveloping us all in its warming glow – except, of course, those students misfortunate enough not to graduate.

There is a kind of habitual evasiveness in the ways we talk about those who fail. They are the low number tallied at the far end of a table of grades at an exam board: the ignominious few by reference to whom universities calculate “retention figures”. On graduation day, they are the mortified spectres at the feast.

Ours is an industry that trades in “passing”. Success is the picture we splash across our prospectuses, gleefully reciting the famous names among our alumni. And yet academics, I think, have a strange relationship with the idea of failure. How could that not be, considering the high-achieving cadre of people that make up the teaching personnel of any given university? We are a positively twinkling constellation of former A* students, with a distinguished alphabetti spaghetti of letters after our names. (As an aside, it strikes me that we might amusingly collate a list of our least distinguished educational achievements – letters to the editor please. Mine’s a D in GCSE PE.)

I suspect I have softened with age and am more forgiving of failure and those who fail than I was once. A devoted Steffi Graf fan as a child, I had no truck with the dribbling mess that was the defeated Czech player Jana Novotná, sobbing on a royal shoulder at the end of the 1993 Wimbledon final. I was an unforgiving, faintly contemptuous little soul, and I regret to say that I’ve always remembered Novotná forever after for her runny nose.

I was a little more divided during the “great” battle of grandmasters later that year when the furrow-browed Russian chess maestro Garry Kasparov took on bespectacled Brit Nigel Short. My faithfully British sympathies were guiltily displaced by the sheer exhilaration of Kasparov’s satisfyingly comprehensive demolition job. Winning and winners are joyful, and they invite company.

But life isn’t sport (or chess). And it is, perhaps, a symptom of a more grown-up politics to be uncomfortable with triumphalism. My conscience is certainly pricked by the all too ready ways in which we attribute success to hard work and associate failure with fault. We rebut the fantasies of neoliberal individualism and restate the fact of inequality when we question the meritocratic ethos that seems to permit such easy equations. Success and failure come of opportunities that are distributed unequally between people of different classes, races, ages, abilities, disabilities and genders – how else do we account for the demographic discrepancies in the higher ranks of our own profession? For women in particular, it strikes me, there are other, equally stressful measures of achievement (beauty, youth and motherhood, for instance) that sit alongside the career-related criteria against which we are additionally assessed.

The more my own senses of failure tot up, the more I think how stupid the consoling sentiments are that accompany it: the platitudes that encourage resilience after rejection, or positivity in adversity. How asinine is that sympathetic “try again next year”, and that doltish truism “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. (Really? Why should we be OK with anything that tries to kill us in the first place?) Worst of all is that inane, regularly mangled edict prised from Samuel Beckett, urging us to “fail again, fail better” – the exact meaning of which I have never quite managed to discern.

I cannot bring myself to believe that there is comfort in failure: not even the quiver of an ironic existential frisson. In philosophy, we talk of Nietzschean superhumans (literally, the “over-man”), capable of tolerating “eternal return”: that infamously evocative thought experiment by which you are challenged to relive your life’s glories and disasters again and again. Nietzsche, for whom the notion of regret seemed utterly wasteful, extols the strength of a creature capable of such a thing. But there is a perversity in the idea that we should brave the agony of our failures, and perhaps even triumph in our managing of them.

Perhaps academics have a particularly strained relationship with failure. Perhaps, because we are cosseted by our educational success, we are slow to come to terms with our limitations. Certainly, we remain in thrall to externally awarded approval, our self-worth attached to the validations and verifications of brilliance we hungrily seek out. And the merry-go-round never stops: we are always awaiting the success of the next job interview, book proposal or funding bid. We work in a culture of peer review and research assessment in which we are never truly permitted to work out that failure is relative and that we might measure ourselves by our own standards.

When we fall short of an objective, we can be unsparingly self-punishing, despite the fact that a painful part of our day-to-day jobs is sometimes to have to watch decent and hard-working students fail: to witness their dawning realisations that failure isn’t fair and that it happens, ironically, to the best of us. At such moments, it’s difficult not to launch into a stream of sententious “if at first you don’t succeeds”. Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, at least lends it a little romance: “Failure is the key to the kingdom within.” Losers rule, basically.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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