I’m writing a book. Well, I’m actually writing two books, sort of, but I’m not ready to talk about any of that right now. Mostly, I want to talk about failure.
In the process of looking through notes of projects past for one of these books I’m working on, I came across the second revision of my dissertation. Following my grad school career, I re-wrote, almost from scratch, my dissertation for publication twice. It was twice rejected. Following the second rejection, I decided it was time to let that one go and move on to other things. I was as happy as one can be with the dissertation; I was less happy with my re-writes. I had the sense that I was cramming too much into them. The immediate years following graduation were an awkward time for me, academically, and while I know I produced some good work then (or at least did some good research that lead to better work down the road), I don’t think those dissertation revisions were my best work. Not by a long shot.
Nevertheless, skimming over some of the stuff I wrote for that second revision, I had that moment of, “huh, there’s some interesting bits in here. I wonder if I could revisit this, spruce it up, and see if I can resurrect it from the dead.” That thought was short-lived. I then looked at the peer review feedback I got when it was rejected and was reminded how much work would be required to do the resurrecting. Pro tip: once you’ve let a project go, don’t go back and read the negative criticism. It’ll just depress you.
I’m a believer in failure. By that I mean that I think there’s some value in working your ass off on something, putting it out there, and then falling on your face. You might learn something. You might discover what you’re capable of and what you’re not. You might be able to take some of that and pour it into another project.
But let’s be honest. It also blows.
I really have no sense of what being a “success” in this field would look like. I recognize that, from a certain point of view, I have some sort of success. If anything, I have a job, which is a lot more than some of my friends and colleagues can say, trapped in adjunct hell. But does “having a job” count as success? Shouldn’t there be a book out there with my name on the cover? How about tenure? Or, on those rare instances when Buddhism pops up in the news, would those who get reporter phone calls be considered successes? What about keynote speeches at flashy x-Buddhist conferences? This kind of stuff can drive a person crazy, and I’m fairly convinced that being driven crazy is an occupational hazard. Not one unique to academia, to be sure, but it seems to be an important part of being an academic to the extent that the filed is defined by intellectual output and achievements that are all relative, arbitrary, subjective, and unevenly applied. Success, whatever it might mean, is fuzzy.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that since one’s success is based on sometimes unknown or arbitrary criteria including intellectual output, and since intellectual output is accomplished by some fuzzy combination of personal effort and the vagaries of the publishing world, when you fail, if you’re like me, it’s hard not to let that failure in some way define you.
I’ve read such confessional literature as this from folks in other fields — mostly creative or artistic — confessions that speak to the way in which failure turns into self-doubt. In my case, this manifests itself as an inability to get stuff done, turning into a proverbial deer in headlights while sitting before the blank page. Whatever successes I’ve had in my career, they are crowded out by voices born of failures and rejections.
I really want to be clear here that I’m not writing this as a confessional, per se, and I’m really really not writing it looking for sympathy. I’m not feeling particularly “woe is me” today, nor do I need the support or encouragement of “the Internet” to see me through the next bought of writer’s block. I’m mostly writing this to reflect on how weird this career of mine is, and to put into words something that I’m sure is a shared experiences, even if it’s not expressed by people very often. An academic career is weird in that you are judged by your intellectual output, and as such there’s a pretty clear connection between one’s sense of self and how one makes a living. If I assembled boxes for a living, and made some particularly crappy box one day, whatever. (No disrespect to box workers.) If I write a particularly bad book (which I did, apparently, twice), then I’m an idiot. And I suspect that a lot of folks in my field have this experience, that despite our usual type-casting as arrogant, pedantic, asshats, we are at times not only wrong, not only spectacular failures, but we know it. And it sucks.
And when that happens, there’s only one thing to do. Get back to work.