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Transcending failure and labels

You may have noticed a theme running through each of the challenges in the last two sections: they can all be triggered by failure. If you have ever submitted a journal article, book proposal or grant application, you will know that failure is an integral part of academic life. It is therefore important to consider how you will deal with your next inevitable failure, if you want to avoid it triggering people-pleasing, perfectionism or imposter syndrome.


I want to suggest that you can do much better than simply coping with failure. You can embrace and thrive in failure, feeling more fully alive than ever before. I want you to stop running from failure (it will always catch up with you anyway), and instead, I invite you to make friends with it and start listening to what it has to say to you. If you can hear what it has to say, you will learn something of vital importance to your resilience as a researcher.


How pessimism can teach us to value failure

I’d like to start in an unusual place; a school of thought known as “philosophical pessimism”. In his 2009 book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, Joshua Foa Dienstag said, “that time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd”.


He is suggesting that time is the primary cause of psychological pain. There are two reasons for this. First, we suffer as human beings because we have the ability to look forward, and this ability means that we worry. There is an existential dread built into us from the moment we become conscious of the inevitability of our own death. Second, we have the ability to look backwards, to remember. We can get caught up in our own history and the mistakes we have made. As human beings we have a unique ability to both worry and regret.


The solution, at the heart of philosophical pessimism, is to simply step out of time, and practice “the power of now”, as secular Buddhist, Eckhart Tolle, put it in his 2001 bestseller named after this phrase. From my own tradition, I love how Jesus poetically suggests we model ourselves on the behaviour of animals or “the flowers of the field” that live in the moment. I believe that this is the mechanism that explains the now well-evidenced link between mindfulness and meditation practice and positive mental health outcomes.


But there is a still deeper philosophical insight that lies beneath this process. The German pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) described life as a pendulum that constantly swings between depression and disappointment. Depressing as this outlook might appear at first glance, it is a worldview that offers a surprisingly positive approach to dealing with failure.


This view of life suggests that we all have an in-built drive to find our “object of desire”. This drive is of course regularly exploited by marketers who will try and make their next product the object of our desire. For researchers this might be getting your PhD, getting tenure or becoming a professor. In your personal life it might be finding a partner or moving into your dream house. The problem, however, as you will no doubt have discovered already, is that you are rarely satisfied when you reach your goal. The new job comes with unexpected new pressures and the new house comes with unexpected new bills. Behavioural psychology has shown that people who become paraplegic are just as happy as people who win the lottery, a month or so after their life-changing experiences. This is the concept of “hedonic adaptation” where people typically return to a previous “set point” of happiness after either positive or negative experiences. Achieving the object of our desire does nothing to alter that “set point” and make us any happier in the long run, and so we experience disappointment. This turns to depression (“if that wasn’t the point, then what is?”), until we find a new object of desire. Maybe it wasn’t just about becoming a professor; I need to apply for a Chair position at a more prestigious institution. Perhaps the problem wasn’t where I was living, but who I was living with? So we live for another future until it in turn disappoints us, and in our depression we find a new object of desire.

Stepping outside the pendulum swing

The way out of this trap is obvious: we need to realise that the search for a new object of desire is futile and stop looking or striving. What are your objects of desire? To what extent does your current happiness depend on how far away you are from those things? What if your ultimate goal, to reach a place where there is no suffering and you are completely happy, is unattainable? What if the journey is all there is, and the point is simply to experience that journey fully, with all its mingled suffering, boredom and cruelty, shot through with laughter, joy and moments of peace? Might you experience life more fully each day and remember that it is in your darkest times, often as a result of failure, that you gain your deepest insights and can feel most fully alive?


You can validate this easily with your own experience. When you look back on your life, what are the experiences that have shaped you most deeply, for the better? While some of these will be positive experiences, I expect that many of the parts of your identity you treasure most have been born of suffering in some shape or form, and many of the values you hold most dear have been discovered or become clear in adversity. To have a life with no suffering or challenge means that you would not be the person that you are today. When you see the value of failure and challenge like this, you will stop running from it and realise that your failure is inviting you to stop and listen to what it has to say, because it has lessons for you.


Embracing failure is an essential step towards authenticity, which Brené Brown defines as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be, and embracing who we are”. If you want to be part of a new, more compassionate culture in institutions that actually change the world, you have to start by being fully human and fully yourself.


At this point, I invite you to become aware of identities and values that you may have previously disowned because of the suffering they remind you of. In the final section of this guide, I want to look at the opposite problem: parading professional identities that your real self can hide behind. People have a way of detecting inauthenticity instinctively in the people around them, but while we can detect this easily in others, it is much harder to detect our own inauthenticities.

Transcending disciplinary labels to express your authentic self

This is uniquely challenging for academics, who are paid to become known internationally as “the expert” in what they do. “Expert” and “international leader” are comfortable labels to inhabit, and they are given freely to us by the world when we reach certain milestones in our careers. However, without realising it, we can inadvertently become our labels, and lose touch with our authentic selves.


According to Google the most popular search term that accompanies my name is “impact” (if you want to try this for yourself, just put your name into a Google search and press the down arrow, rather than hitting return, and skipping over the terms associated with famous actors and the like). This is a relatively new label for me. Had you asked me what I did twenty years ago, I would have told you I studied deserts. Ten years later, I would have told you I studied peat bogs. More recently, I might have told you I was a conservationist. Throughout this period, I would have valiantly defended myself against any attempt to pigeonhole me in any single discipline, and told you I was an interdisciplinary researcher. Of course, I would have said something subtly different depending on who was asking. To the parent at the school gate, I’m “a researcher” and when asked what I research, I will usually just say “environmental stuff”. To the natural scientist, I will explain that I do interdisciplinary environmental science, and to the social scientist, I’m an environmental social scientist.


Am I being misleading or manipulative in presenting myself in these different ways? No, they are all authentic descriptions of what I do. We are all multifaceted, with multiple different parts to our identities and roles, and whether we realise it consciously or not, we are likely to emphasise the parts of ourselves that are most similar to the person we are talking to. We create labels for ourselves that help others quickly understand what we do or who we are, and we adapt how we label ourselves to our circumstances to create connection.


This is all normal and healthy, but at what point do these labels become too important to us? Do you sometimes find yourself hiding behind your labels, puffing them up like a protective shield, as if to say, “I’m important, so don’t mess with me”? Do you find yourself digging out your CV or rereading your publications when you feel like you’re not good enough, so you can re-inhabit a label that makes you feel good enough? Do the labels you hide behind reveal something about your dependence on achievement-based esteem, and do the ways those around you respond to your work identity give you relational esteem? Is there any intrinsic esteem underneath the labels? Sadly, most people don’t find out until the labels are peeled off for them, when things go wrong in their career or personal lives, or they retire and discover their achievements and networks don’t move with them into retirement. I don’t want you to have to experience what I went through to learn this lesson, but I want you to be able to transcend the labels you currently inhabit.


My most recent reminder of this lesson was when I attempted to introduce myself as an interdisciplinary researcher to an Australian professor last year. He had looked me up before our dinner engagement and concluded that I was a “fucking social scientist”. It wasn’t a great start to the evening, and he added insult to injury after we swapped business cards, when he told me that if he had a Chair title like mine, he certainly wouldn’t put it on a business card. While we were waiting for our food, I challenged him to explain his objection to social scientists, and he told me that “they let the side down with their weak CVs”, by which he meant citations (as it happened my H index was higher than his, though I didn’t know at the time).


I tell you this story because experiences like this make you interrogate the labels you use and think more critically about how others perceive them. The experience also made me realise how I depended on certain labels to get respect from others. If I was genuinely secure in my identity as a social scientist, which is a big part of what I do, then I would have been happy to have owned the label he gave me, and might have been able to laugh at him. But I was offended. Really offended. It didn’t help that he told me he had tried to watch one of my videos and had been so bored he turned it off. My pride was hurt, and so I reacted. The week before I left for Australia, my 12-year-old daughter had been teaching me how to do a teenage death stare. She claimed that I was terrible at it, but I wasn’t really trying. That evening I tried. I gave him my most withering stare as I sat in silence, watching him dig his hole as we waited for our food. I admit that it was childish, but it felt good at the time. As I reflected over the following days, I remembered other similar experiences where my professional pride had been wounded. The most common was being introduced to fellow academics at the start of a training day as a “consultant”. Why could I not just let it go? No, every time it happened, I started with my own introduction, making it clear that I was a professor. Had my professional pride really become that important to me? I was cringing at myself. The labels I gave myself had become a crutch for my self-esteem, and I needed to do something about it.


The real reason the Australian professor had offended me so deeply was that it felt like he was reading a label my mother had stuck to my forehead as a child, which read “stupid little boy”. I was just as clumsy and forgetful then as I am now, and I regularly felt humiliated by her reactions to my mistakes. Effectively, I had stuck a “professor” label over the “stupid little boy” label, to tell myself and the world that I wasn’t a little boy anymore, and I wasn’t stupid. But the old label was still there, underneath the new one. In fact, there were multiple labels stuck over the original “stupid” one. “University student” and “youth group leader” covered it up first, and then it was “PhD student”, “lecturer” and “research centre director”.


Done adaptively, with emotional intelligence, relabelling yourself in different contexts can create connections with others. Done pathologically, to cover something up, relabelling was driving my imposter syndrome, because no matter what position I acquired, I still felt like the same stupid little boy underneath it all. Ultimately, I was my labels rather than myself, and I was unable to be authentic. I didn’t realise this, however, until I was pushed over the edge into depression by workplace bullying and a failed police investigation into the person who had sexually abused me throughout my childhood. I deconstructed who I was during that time, and was disgusted by what I found beneath the labels. I realised then how dependent I had become on achievement-based esteem, and how meaningless all my achievements were. Any vestige of relational esteem I had used to build my self image was in tatters too, as I realised that those who were supposed to love and protect me had damaged me or turned a blind eye. Without any sense of love or respect from family or colleagues, I felt psychologically naked, with no intrinsic esteem or sense of self. Beneath all the affirmations I had clothed myself in, I discovered a hollow skeleton.


In the months that followed, I slowly began to build a sense of my intrinsic worth by giving, rather than seeking love, starting with compassion for the hurting boy that will always be part of me. I will always be grateful for those dark years, for peeling off the labels I had stuck over my wounds, enabling me to become aware that they were still hurting. I don’t think people ever truly heal from wounds like that, but by accepting and living with my vulnerability, I am able to be authentic. Now, remaining authentic is a daily process of being myself, and being aware when I use labels to hide my vulnerabilities. My car crash dinner engagement reminded me that labels shouldn’t matter. My goal, which is a work in progress, is to transcend all of the labels I have chosen for myself or been given by others, to have a daily experience of simply being me, and being okay with that.


By holding the labels loosely, it is possible to connect more deeply with people because they are connecting with you, not your label. You are able to open a channel of empathy with another person because it comes from you, not your label, and while you might come from different disciplines and backgrounds, when you are authentically yourself, you are being fully human and so there is always common ground with the fellow human you are connecting with. As a result, I might now connect with someone as a fellow parent, as someone who loves nature or the same music, or someone who is deeply creative or inventive. I'm not hiding behind labels and I'm not forcing my labels on someone else who doesn't understand what that label even means.


By holding the labels loosely, it is also possible to be more resilient when you are disrespected or misunderstood. If calling me a “fucking social scientist” helps you feel good about yourself, then I’m not going to pick a fight with you or let you get to me – it just isn’t relevant. If you want to call me an impact consultant and that works for you, then that works for me too. Whatever. It's really not a big deal. If the labels help you understand me in your own way, even if that’s a bit of a misunderstanding in my opinion, then great, but I'm not going to hold my own view of myself so tightly that I need to correct you. Increasingly now, I no longer see myself as one label or even as multiple different labels I can pick and choose from. I'm trying to go to a place in my mind where the labels are just not necessary, because I see myself in my internal world as an integrated and mysterious whole person.


Can you embrace the unknown depths of who you are and be content being who you are without the need for any labels? I would argue that transcending labels requires a deep level of inner confidence and security. Typically, you need to inhabit a label fully before you can transcend it. Only after understanding fully what it is to be a person like that, or gaining a high level of expertise under a particular kind of label, are you able to walk away from that identity. When you are at the top of your game, you don’t need to prove yourself any more or stick a label on yourself to advertise your expertise. And that means you can step out beyond what everyone expects of someone in your position or role and do things differently without fear of ridicule. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud of your PhD and everything you’ve worked for. Own that, but don’t let it own you. If you allow yourself to be defined by your labels, you’ll be trapped by the tyranny of everyone else's expectations and the weight of your own ego’s demands.


What would it take for you to transcend your labels and be more authentically you? After all, the first step towards transforming the world is transforming your own world.

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