I have been thinking a lot about failure recently.
It started when a paper I had submitted to a conference that I was really hoping to present at was rejected. This actually wasn’t so surprising – I was aware of the major issues with the paper’s methodology, and the competitiveness of this conference’s acceptances. Moreover, I knew that my paper would drastically differ from the other papers the reviewers would be reading, with my humanities perspective in stark contrast with that of the harder sciences. I wasn’t expecting to get accepted to this conference, but was nevertheless hoping that my submission would be welcomed.
Well, it wasn’t, and that sucks.
But it wasn’t all bad. When I received my rejection email, I was at a week-long conference in Montréal, and was knee-deep in a feeling of travel exhaustion. There was one plus: getting rejected from this conference meant that I didn’t have to travel for another week.
As my sense of disappointment slowly shifted to relief, I scrolled through the rejection email to see that the paper’s three reviewers had provided comments about my work. Long comments, that demonstrated quite deep engagement with it. They complimented me on my writing style (not like I’m bragging or anything). They pointed out the precise places where my methodology was flawed. They offered concrete suggestions about how to fix these flaws, and potential avenues for future research.
My paper hadn’t been accepted for the conference, but it had nonetheless received a kind of peer review that has helped me better understand my own work. The reviewers’ comments have, in a way, served as their own kind of success; I’d gotten some of the expert feedback that I had been hoping to get at the conference.
This isn’t to say that I’m completely over not being able to go to the conference. I still want to go, but know that I’ll have to skip it this year. However, I’m now able to take a step back and recognise that this rejection doesn’t mean that I’m a failure – it just means I have some more work to do to ensure that I get accepted next time.
I don’t want this to be a post about how every failed attempt is somehow an underlying success. It sucks to not get what you want, and it sucks even more when someone tries to convince you that ‘every moment is a learning opportunity’ or ‘you’ll be a better person for this’. What I want this post to be instead is a reminder to those reading that your failed attempts do not make you a failure. Not getting accepted to a conference isn’t personal; if it is, you may want to reconsider why you want to go to that conference in the first place.
PhD students are, generally speaking, unfortunately familiar with feelings of failure. Conference and paper rejections, unjustly mean criticism, unrealistic expectations from the powers that be… We often feel like what we are doing is not good enough, if they even enough. Our peers’ successes make us feel inadequate, regardless of how happy we may be that our friends are doing well.
What I have come to realise, though, is that those peers – who get accepted for everything, who are constantly publishing, who are completely nailin’ it – actually seem to face rejection more than anyone else. These people try, try, try, and just keep trying until something works. They get their rejection notices, and then they keep going.
And here is the crux of this post:
You’re only a failure if you let your failed attempts eat away at you. Accept your rejections, and then keep trying. Take any feedback you’ve been given, and apply it (or don’t). Move on.
This is something I have only just learned, and am working on internalising. I am more than my work, even if I have put my whole heart into it. A rejected paper (or two, or a million) doesn’t make me a failure. It just means that there’s room to grow.
Now, don’t let anyone – including yourself – get in the way of your growth.
Seriously, when can I get my TED Talk?!