The Privilege of ‘failure’ in the precarious economy

1 May

I sat tensely with the search committee in a conference room for the final interview for an academic tenure-track position.  I really needed the job, having been on the job market for three years and having only been able to find part-time, contract, or adjunct positions for the past two.  This was the first interview I had gotten as a finalist in all that time. One of the committee members turned to me and asked, “We noticed that ten years ago, you left your position [as executive at a non-profit] after less than one year.  Can you explain to us why you left that job after such a short time?”

I was prepared for the question so gave it my best spin.  I had had a conflict with the board president, I had made all these innovations and had measurable successes in that position, successes that were recognized within the larger community, but the board redefined the position, demoting it from executive to office manager, because they decided to retake control over the day-to-day operations of the organizations.  Any way I spun it, and without independent corroboration, left open the possibility I was difficult to work with, uncompromising, a poor communicator, or even incompetent.  And for all this to emerge in less than a year on the job indicates either a disastrously bad tenure, or an unforgiving board with no patience for disagreement.

Though one can never know if there is one definitive reason, needless to say I didn’t get the position for which I was interviewing.

I have never used this blog for trolling, settling scores, proving my political correctness, or sour grapes.  But I think it incumbent to point out that I’m willing to bet Johannes Haushofer has never faced such a question in any of his job interviews.

The reason I’m posting this entry is that no fewer than four people I greatly respect have re-posted Princeton University Assistant Professor Haushofer’s so-called “CV of Failures” or articles about it, on Facebook, which garners the predictable number of ‘likes’ in response by students and other academics. Even NPR, as it is wont to do, made a lighthearted report on the topic on Morning Edition.  One reporter wrote that the takeaway lesson from this is that “The real tragedy isn’t these failures — it’s when these failures convince people to stop trying.”

Even the professor who wrote the original article on which the idea was based, Melanie Stefan, drew two conclusions: this same one (“we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected”) and what I think is a more valuable conclusion that even the most successful scientists, and academics, face a ratio of about six failures to every major success. That latter point is a valuable, and encouraging, insight.

But from their lofty positions at Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, Cal Tech, and Edinburgh, both Haushofer and Stefan miss the economic context.  And that’s what makes, to me, this approach so infuriating.  Both are writing from positions that reflect an inevitability of ultimate success and security, the uppermost echelons of academic success, especially for such young, promising scholars who got top positions right out of grad school.  But the adjunctification of higher ed (not to mention global poverty and the precarious economy) guarantees no such narrative of success for most of the people taking part, even from top tier graduate programs.  If you fail six out of seven times, but still end up with a position at a university in the ranks of Harvard or Princeton, then yes, by all means, teach younger people not to give up or get discouraged.  But be careful to avoid an error in logic.  There’s a big difference between the lesson “you’ll never get a position (or anything you want) if you give up” – which is logically true – and the lesson that “if you never give up, eventually you will get a position (or whatever you seek).”  The latter is a logical fallacy.  There is no demonstrable guarantee that refusal to give up will lead to success. Or put another way:

Giving up —-> No success

but the inverse is not true:

Not giving up –/–> [does not lead to] Success.

The other moral and practical part of the lesson that they leave out is that it’s not enough not to give up, but that learning from one’s failures is a central ingredient in overcoming them.  Picture the analogy of the fly trying to get through the glass window pane, or better yet, the sperm trying to fertilize the egg, because in this day and age, there aren’t enough eggs to go around. You not only have to figure out a way through or around the glass you can’t fully comprehend, but you have to do so in competition with dozens if not hundreds of others.

The narrative of inevitable success is also based on a fallacy of logic. The 6:1 failure-to-success ratio of the most successful scientists may be true, but in an age of declining positions for full-time academics (not to mention other industries) and economic precariousness, that ratio is much, much higher even for those like myself who nonetheless have ended up with great tenure-track academic positions.  And for many, the ratio is infinity, since they may never get the full-time position they seek.  Two successful tenured faculty told me during my job search, “Oh, you’ll be just like [so-and-so], who did great academic work but never had a permanent position.”  I could take that to the bank as I was fighting to make a mortgage payment (and went three years in middle age without health insurance).  For those who are fighting to find such a position, competing against literally hundreds of other applicants, being able to release a “CV of Failures” is unrealistic – they’re too busy trying to conceal them from the search committees.  It may not be a rejected fellowship or grant proposal, but not having any successful ones, or having been fired, or having poor evaluations, or gaps in employment.

Having been on both sides of this, I can say it’s a lot easier to stomach rejected grant proposals when you have a reliable batting average such that you “know” you will get some.  Many people are not in a position to get any grants.  Or, for example, the last NEA proposal I ever wrote – and, in my opinion, the best – was never considered by the panel because I was fired from my job before I could send in the required artistic samples to complete the application.

In a market economy with a high level of precariousness and underemployment, in which at this point a small minority of qualified people will be getting the academic positions for which they have trained (unlike, say, the medical or legal professions), any real failure, any real negative mark on your CV, is going to be enough to disqualify you permanently – or you may at least have the very real fear that it is so, even if you never give up.  That’s why only those who have reached a certain level of the highest academic success will dare to display their so-called “failures,” because they are in reality failures without consequence. And being able to have failures without consequence is a great privilege.

Irony of ironies, one of Professor Haushofer’s research areas is the psychology of poverty. And it is here that he shows himself to be tone deaf.  In the abstract to one of his articles from 2013, Haushofer notes, “low incomes predict lower intrinsic motivation and trust, less prosocial attitudes, and more feelings of meaninglessness…Income inequality is an additional predictor of psychological outcomes across countries, and is associated with loneliness, short-sightedness, risk-taking, and low trust.” Presumably, adjunct professors would fall into this category of low-income workers. So wouldn’t people with that psychological profile be more vulnerable to failure and frustration? In another study co-authored with his thesis advisor, they demonstrate that poverty leads to stress, other negative psychological feelings and feedback loops that reinforce behaviors that maintain poverty. The causality is in fact well-established.  Interestingly, in one study they cite, farmers worried about their economic status have been shown to perform worse in cognitive tests when reminded of their financial woes, and if that finding holds true across professions, it could easily lead to the feedback loop that those in low-paying academic positions face greater stress about success and are more likely to be affected (i.e. underperform) throughout all stages of the job search process. So while not giving up would be good advice even for them, he should know from his own research that such a pep talk (let alone listing one’s failures publicly) is not going to be enough to overcome the psychological effects of years of low income in underpaid, overworked adjunct teaching positions in which one also fights against feelings of “meaninglessness” especially in terms of unsupported or self-supported research.

As for me, I can encourage my students and friends not to give up and to tell them privately that I faced many setbacks in my job searches, but that I always tried to learn from each setback.  As for listing my failures publicly, I’ll wait until I have earned the privilege of tenure, a level of protection and job security that also happens to be under threat from an ever more precarious economy.

Addendum (24 June 2016): Here is another example of the parade of failure as a status symbol by the highly successful and privileged.  The idea that “a stressful and potentially embarrassing experience [can be] spun it into an opportunity,” or that as “Any TED talker could tell you, failure is so hot right now,” refers only to the most securely successful and well-paid in our workforce. For most people who lose their jobs, in this precarious economy (jobs that pay considerably less than $300K a year, a sum that if he saved any money, he never really needs to work again), losing one’s job is a disaster– financial as well as economic and psychological (if you’re not so cocky to know someone else in that same social class will snap you up).  For most people, even most professionals, who lose their jobs, this is no laughing matter.

One Response to “The Privilege of ‘failure’ in the precarious economy”

  1. Karen Mittelman May 1, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    Love this piece. What is implicit here but not quite said out loud is: the “don’t give up” narrative has strength and staying power because it preserves the myth that we’re all living and striving in a meritocracy. Those who sit in comfortable positions of power often can’t help but believe that they achieved success because they are more deserving – or, in this case, because they never gave up and were able to re-cast failures as simply steps along their path. The myth of meritocracy won’t die easily – the U.S. is economically and politically invested in it, but perhaps even more important, so many of us are psychologically invested in keeping it alive.
    thanks for this thoughtful essay.

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