Sunday, 6 October 2019


In my darkest times, I have thought of my life as a failure. Everything I've done seemed without value. I believed (and still believe) in the time and care I've given to students and friends and loved ones, the difference I've made, but I have found it very difficult to care for and about myself.

My inner critic, a bit of myself that wears a mask of stern disapproval, has used a big stick - the fear of failure - to drive me on. So the question is: why do I fear failure? Because taken rationally, in my life I have been conspicuously successful. Working class lad, first (and so far only) one in my family to go to university, three degrees (and working on a fourth), different teaching jobs leading to Lancaster, several books, lots of articles... a family, a home, two daughters, cats, chickens...

So why have I thought that I've failed?

Of course, it's very deep-rooted. The fear of failure is attached to shame, to the fear of being exposed as an interloper, a fraud. The fear of losing the respect of one's friends, the fear of losing one's job. I used to dream all the time of being homeless, sleeping on the street.

It's common in academia of course: 'imposter syndrome'. I once thought, as a lad, and rather foolishly, that academia would be some kind of level playing field, where issues such as class didn't really matter! How innocent of me. (But then, I had no-one in the family to tell me otherwise.) I have also been in the strange position of entering university life in the late 1980s, at the very end of the 'old' life and culture of universities, with small intakes and a kind of protection against the forces of competition and precarity which were being unleashed elsewhere in the UK economy.

David Smail, whose The Origins of Unhappiness connects personal unhappiness to wider social issues, especially to do with power and powerlessness, writes:

the remorseless rationalization of heavy industry and the engineering of mass unemployment, the dismantling of the structures of welfare and protection for the poor and the weak, and the deregulation of any system which offered either economic or intellectual privilege of any kind (for example protection against economic competition; professional freedom of self-determination), set in motion the conditions for a radical insecurity more than sufficient to induce the co-operation of the entire population in realization of the aims of the brave new business world.

(Smail, David. The Origins of Unhappiness: A New Understanding of Personal Distress (p. 99). Karnac Books. Kindle Edition.) 

Smail's work is cited by Mark Fisher in his writings on depression, in connecting the workings of personal and psychological mechanisms of depression with wider social forces and formations. I entered university as the 'brave new business world' was starting to have an effect on universities, and since I've been teaching in them (since 1999) this has accelerated, hard, to detrimental effect on the health and well-being of staff and students alike.

In a world of competition, there are few winners. That means that there are a lot of 'losers', a lot of 'failures'. My students and my colleagues, to greater and lesser degrees, inhabit the same fear of failure that I do. No wonder so many of them present signs of stress, anxiety and depression. We are obliged to run races that cannot be won. We all fail.

But really, 'winning the race' is a distortion of what education should be, and the whole system of league tables, awards, competitions for research funding and so on are both symptoms and extensions of that distortion. In my department I have often banged the drum for collegiality, and our department's culture and community is wonderfully collegiate and supportive. (Necessarily so, in these times.) These are practical and in some senses psychological defences against a system that is always telling us that we aren't good enough, that what we do doesn't have any value, that we can always 'do better'. Perhaps that is right. But there is always a stigma attached and ultimately, in the words of REF and TEF and so on, perhaps another kind of stick applied: an economic one.

In 'Worstword Ho', Beckett wrote the now much-quoted lines: 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' But it is difficult to fail even once. 

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