On the International Day for Failure

Four or five years ago, I became obsessed with the topic of failure and the growing efforts on a seemingly global scale to reimagine our relationship to it.

I found countless articles, movements, events, and even entire organizations dedicated to, in a sense, celebrating failure. 

For more than a year, I researched failure.

I began planning an initiative for first-year students at the university where I worked. 

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to welcome these students into an environment that won’t stigmatize failure? After all, approximately 20% of first-year students enter the academic probation process by the end of their first year. 

Students entering college for the first time often struggle with impostor syndrome. So, what if we showed them they were not alone? Showed them that most (if not all) of the people in their new academic environment—their peers, staff, and faculty—had experienced their own failures, too?

I talked to staff and faculty colleagues. Asked them if they would be willing to publicly share a story of a time they failed. Yes, they said. Just let us know the when and where and what and how, they said. 

All of the people I spoke with loved the sound of my upcoming failure projects. 

That is, all but one.

I met with a professor who is Latina.

“That all sounds nice,” she said, “But I couldn’t do that.”

She has always had to work too hard to prove herself.

She stands in front of a classroom and her authority is challenged. In her field, her scholarship on ethnicity and gender is questioned and devalued. “Doctor” is stripped from her name in daily conversations with students and colleagues who know her credentials.

“Being vocal about your failures is a privilege.”

How could I forget that? I knew that. 

I had even recently read Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.

She was a woman of color in academia. And in the world. 

And so was I. 

Presumed incompetence. 

Who is allowed to proudly announce, “I failed!”? To admit that they aimed for a goal and didn’t achieve it? 

Who—when they admit their failure—do we look at with admiration and applaud for their bravery? 

Who, instead, do we look at and say, “See? Confirmed what we already knew”?

I couldn’t move ahead with my failure projects after that conversation. I put away the articles. Ended the thorough internet searches. Stopped adding resources to my Trello board.

I left the work of reimagining failure to the scores of enthusiastic administrators and CEOs who were implementing failure projects within their own spheres. 

My year of research and planning ultimately led to nothing. 

At least nothing tangible.