Bill Vallicella has posted a short, humorous, fictional obituary of a failed academic (here), and this got me thinking–not for the first time–about academic failures, and about failure in general. Many years ago, I was listening to a president of this university as he made expansive remarks about the innumerable ways in which the institution “prepares our students for success.” Even in that stage of my sunny youth, when the road of life gave no indication of descending into the bog of failure, his words struck me as shallow. Success is certainly hard, and most often comes to those who are prepared; but failure is also hard, although in an entirely different way. And because failure is hard, it is also something for which the wise prepare.
This is because every one of them will fail, sooner or later. They will succeed, until they don’t, and then that will be hard.
The fictitious academic failure of Vallicella’s post was, obviously, academically successful, until he wasn’t. As he was making his merry way through his schools and universities, collecting laurels and accolades, other students were failing on every side. Those whose failure was out of sync with the academic schedule were branded as “dropouts,” and those who managed to fail at one of the designated dropout points were called “graduates.” Of course, some small portion of these graduates moved to the next heat of the academic race by advancing to college, or graduate school, or an academic post—but most graduates “threw in the towel” and “closed their books” at one of the approved dropout points, and turn their mind to other things.
Vallicella’s failed academic is simply a late-stage dropout who has “thrown in the towel” and “closed his books” after advancing to the semi-finals of the academic race, which is to say to the rank of a tenured professor. And like all dropouts, once he was eliminated, he turned his mind to other things (woodworking in Vallicella’s example).
Every one of us has dropped out of any number of races, and in most cases I believe this is entirely rational. Men very seldom fail because they drop out of a race; they most often drop out because they correctly perceive that they are failing. They see that they have almost no chance of further success, so that further time or effort will simply swirl “down the drain” to no purpose. They therefore turn to other things.
Vallicella’s failed academic failed in the struggle to possess the prizes at the very top of the academic system. These are pages in top-ranked journals, book contracts, grants, and the very best honors, titles, and positions. I’d venture to say that he did not fail because he spent too much time on his woodworking, or with his family, or even on his teaching. He decided to spend more time on woodworking, family matters, and teaching because he failed, which is to say because he had reached the limits of his ability.
That’s what failure is, after all. Failure is what happens to a man when he reaches the limits of his ability, and since every man’s ability is limited, every man fails.
And when he does, it is best if he is prepared, since failing is hard. Not hard to do, but hard to accept. Why is this so? Well, I suppose it is hard because every failure is a little death, and therefore has to it some of the odor of death itself. Failure marks the terminus of some line of growth, some shoot of life, just as death marks the terminus of all natural growth and life. This is why we should come to failure (as we must), as we should come to death (as we must), prepared by some sustaining philosophy.
We recognize that there is such a thing as a “good death,” which I take to mean death accepted graciously—without terror, rage, or bleak despair. Shouldn’t there also be some notion of a “good failure”? By “good failure” I mean the failure of a man who is good at failing. I don’t, of course, mean that he is a “screw-up” or a bungler, but that he is a man who has mastered the art of dropping out.
The art of dropping out is, I’d suggest, a matter of dropping out without envy or despair. The academic dropout who has succumbed to envy will spend his time tearing down the academics who are still in the race. He will stand on the sidelines jeering that the race is rigged, or stupid. Some of what he says may be true, but his saying so won’t change matters because no one listens to what he has to say (which is both the cause and consequence of his being a failure). The academic dropout who has succumbed to despair allows his academic failure to overshadow his entire life, so that he seems in his own mind to be a failure at life.
Envy and despair are, of course, related; and both are common among academic failures. They are related because envy is a desperate defense of the ego, and despair is an abject surrender of the ego. They are common among academic failures because the ego of most academics has grown up in a long string of academic successes, and failure after a long string of successes is always hard.
You might say that the problem is not dropping out badly, but dropping out in the first place. You might say that the failed academic should simply continue to write papers, and not be discouraged when these papers are rejected, obscurely published, or never cited. For this is what happens to the output of academic failures who beaver away doggedly, perhaps sustaining themselves the fantasy that they are “ahead of their times” and will one day “be discovered.”
The academic dropout making bookshelves in his garage begins to look a lot better when we set him beside these other varieties of academic failures. He is happy because he is enjoying success (growth, life) in some other line of activity, and he is honest because he knows that, so far as academics is concerned, he has reached his limit. He is not consumed by envy of the academics who are still in the race, and he is not crippled by despair that his entire life has come to an end. And he is not engaged in sustaining elaborate (and morbid) fantasies of his own intellectual importance.
None of this should be taken to justify an academic dropping out entirely, or as arguing that universities should continue to employ professors who have failed on every front. But absolute deadwood professors are, in fact, rather rare.
To close, I’d like to say a word in favor of discouragement. Discouragement means, of course, loss of “heart” or failure of will. It is true that I should not allow myself to be discouraged by minor setbacks, particularly when I am young; but discouragement is also part of what Freud called the “reality principle.” More often than not, I grow discouraged when I perceive that I am approaching my limit, and that no amount of positive thinking or extra effort is going to carry me past that limit. In fact, we all routinely “discourage” others from pursuing lines of activity in which we believe they are bound to fail. What I have called the art of dropping out may be largely a matter of facing up to discouragement, of accepting its meaning without self-deception or despair.