How to Fail

Earlier this week we shared that a crucial part of making progress on your dissertation isn’t just letting go of perfection but actively giving yourself the freedom to fail.

Today, we’re going to share our favorite ways to fail.

If you take lessons in acrobatics, stagecraft, or tumbling, one of the first things you will learn is how to fall. While we’ve all been challenged by gravity a time or two there are better ways to fall than others. There are ways to fall that you can recover from so the routine goes on and, if you can’t recover, there are ways to fall that minimize the possibility of injury.

In the same way, there are better and worse ways of failing.

Trying to prevent failure in the dissertation process is futile. The only thing you can do is learn to fail forward.

If you’re in a US institution then you are in a culture were we are discouraged, in numerous ways, from talking about our failures.

Beyond this broader cultural taboo, however, is a problem peculiar to academia: most of us chose to be in academia because we’ve always been good at learning.

We were the kids who got “A”s on most of our school work. We are better than average at testing of all kinds, at reading comprehension, and writing. We like making nuanced arguments. Many of us were encouraged to go to grad school because we are good at these things.

We choose graduate programs that play to our strengths. For instance, I find media and culture incredibly interesting so I picked a PhD program that would allow me to focus on cultural critique and media analysis. Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents. I love analyzing documents. I’m very good at it. I conducted exactly one interview during my MA program and learned that I hated it.

My story is not uncommon. Most of us, particularly in the humanities, are blessed to be able to choose our programs and projects according to what interests us and what we are good at.

This will serve you well in coursework and even through your prospectus writing.

It will work against you in writing your dissertation.

You see, for many of us, pursuing a career in the academy has kept us safe within the bubble of our skill where we rarely have to fail. But writing, like most successful ventures, is a process of failing until you succeed.

I think one of the reasons a full 50% of PhD students drop out is because writing an original manuscript like a dissertation requires them to fail and it feels indescribably yucky.

You are not going to complete a dissertation without some version of what feels like failing and when you’re not used to it “failing” can feel like dying.

I put failing in quotes there because what grad students count as failure often wouldn’t count as failure in a different workplace.

I passed my prospectus defense with revisions and I counted that as failure.

Every time my advisor gave me back a draft with extensive notes I felt like I had failed.

If I hadn’t been so used to turning things in and getting “A”s on the first try I might have had a better adjusted sense that revision is a normal, inevitable, vital part of writing.

In my workplace now it’s normal for most projects to go through several stages of revision and it’s not failure; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just work.

Beyond that, most graduate students I know, particularly those in the humanities, hold themselves to an impossible, invisible standard known or cared about by no one but themselves. That standard is often simply, “be perfect.”

No one can be perfect but when you’ve always been close to perfect, an “A” student, being less than perfect can feel like failure. When the only way forward is through imperfection and failure and you’re terrified of failure then you may find yourself standing still. I’ve known people who have stood still, doing nothing on their dissertations, for years. I know people who have left their graduate programs rather than face the sort of failure inherent in the writing process. If you want to finish your dissertation then you have to give yourself the freedom to fail and you have to learn how to fail forward.

Write Badly. Write as badly as you can. Instead of worrying about how to write a good sentence or how to succinctly state the significance of the problem do those things as badly as you can. It’s always easier to edit than to generate original content. The most intimidating part of a blank page is the pressure we put on ourselves to write something brilliant. Set that aside. Write as badly as you can. You can always make it beautiful later.

Writing Is Not Cooking. My aunt taught me that, when I was cooking, I should always add less salt to a recipe than I thought was warranted because, while I could always add more at a later stage, I couldn’t take the salt out once it was in the dish. This is a good principle in cooking and a terrible principle in writing. You can always go back and erase what you’ve written if you decide you don’t like it or it doesn’t fit. Don’t stop to think or critique your work while you’re producing it. Don’t worry or wonder if what you’re writing is good. Just let it all flow out and trust your inner editor to clean it up later.

Create a”Pieces” Document. I suggest doing this for every part of the dissertation: each chapter, the introduction, even the acknowledgements. A pieces document is an intellectual security blanket. When you know that a sentence or a paragraph or a section doesn’t quite fit where you want it to but you don’t want to delete it because, damn it, you worked hard on those words, then you can copy and paste it into your “Pieces” document. Chances are you will not actually go back and use these pieces in your dissertation. If you’ve made the decision to take them out then they probably need to be out. However, reading through my old “pieces” document has often worked as a great way to get over writer’s block.

Follow Bunny Trails. One of the most defeating experiences as a writer is when you spend all day (or week or month or year) chasing down a lead. Sometimes all you have is the name of a scholar who said something you know would tie together your whole argument in this one place. Sometimes you remember the gist of what was said but not who said it or where. Sometimes, you find what you’re looking for but once you find it it’s not obvious why you were so sure it would fit. Sometimes, you spend all day looking and you don’t find what you’re looking for. Either way, at the end of these days it’s easy to feel frustrated with yourself for wasting so much time chasing down a bunny trail. But those bunny trails are actually an essential part of the writing experience and help prepare you for your dissertation defense. In your search for whatever piece of scholarship you are looking for you are acquainting yourself with the literature of your field. If you find the thing you were looking for and it doesn’t fit then you’ll be prepared to articulate to your committee or a job search committee why you rejected it because you made a conscious decision to do so. Mostly, you have to trust that you’re not an idiot and if you have a hunch that you need to hunt something down then that work will pay off sometime, somewhere. It always does.

This is the last entry in our September series on letting go of perfection and embracing progress.

For October we’ll be focusing on how to spend less time teaching and create more time for your dissertation without short changing your students. This is one of our favorite topics and we can’t wait to dive into it with you!

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