Do You Ever Feel Afraid? And Other Questions about Failure

I was a guest in an undergraduate class this week, and the students got to ask me questions, both about my work and about how I do my job. I received a number of questions, but one student’s question made me think twice.  The student asked if I’m ever overwhelmed by the process of writing, and just do not want to do it anymore.

And I thought – almost everyday I’m writing. I mean, some days, the writing works and flows. Other days, its 1am and I’m still plugging away at the to-do list or writing quota. Some of those days, its because there’s too much to do or life just gets in the way. But other days, its because there’s some time that I spend in a sense of fear or paralysis about something that I’m probably perfectly capable of writing.

Many will make jokes that my productivity suggests that doesn’t really get in the way; fine, fair enough. And others will suggest that my professional behavior is overall pretty fearless. Also, fine, fair enough. But perhaps it is because it is not totally debilitating to me that I can talk a little bit about that fear.

When the student asked the question, my first thought was about the recent decision of a Princeton professor to post his CV of failures. I thought about my failures. There are the things like that Princeton professor discusses – schools you did not get in to (ironically, for me, that was Princeton), jobs you did not get (I’ve applied for, by my count, almost 1000 academic jobs in my career. I haven’t gotten 1000), articles that were rejected (one article I wrote was rejected at 7 different journals), grants you didn’t get (ever tried to convince NSF that poststructuralist feminism is science?), teaching fails (I once slipped on four-inch heels in a classroom of 400 students), poor professional decisions (remember when I mentioned the kegstand in the last post?), and the like. But, to me, those failures kind of feel like bumps in the road. I’m not afraid to apply for a job I won’t get, or submit an article that will get rejected or a grant that will not be funded. I know that’s itself a privilege – a lot of people are afraid of that stuff too, and feel a very serious sense of failure around it.

For me, my CV of failures would be more of a narrative. It would tell of all the times that I sat around watching reality TV paralyzed and afraid to write something that if I just applied myself I could have. It would tell of all the emails that I leave in my inbox for like six hours for no reason except an inexplicable fear of typing whatever words I would type in response. It would talk about how I actually hide from the “send” button as I hit it sometimes when I send important or risky things. Not metaphorically hide. Actually hide. It would tell about the six weeks one summer I spent doing nothing productive except assembling jigsaw puzzles upside down while I felt insecure about my work. It would talk about how deeply personally I take personal attacks on me by people who don’t know me except professionally – how all of their accusations literally repeat in my head over and over when I am trying to write something that carries with it any professional risk.

I’m pretty sure I zoned out for ten minutes while this entire thought process went through my head, completely forgetting to answer the student’s question. When I snapped back, though, I tried to answer it honestly – yes, I’m terrified – sometimes more than others, but a lot. And I don’t think I admit that very much. I usually just humbly demure to questions about productivity, and provide professional socialization advice when asked how I accomplish this or that. I don’t know whether it is that scholars as a profession are trained not to show vulnerability or if it is just something I am not used to doing – but I do know that this is a very solitary profession with a lot of vulnerability, yet vulnerability is rarely discussed. So I admitted (and emphasized) that its not about whether you are vulnerable or not – its about how you cope with the vulnerability.

Either the student asked or I imputed a second question – so then what do you do to overcome it? Like no two people’s fears are the same, no two people’s coping strategies are the same. Mine are a set of elaborate incentives. Each day, there is a writing quota – how many words depends on the difficulty of the subject matter. It can always be accomplished, with due diligence and when nothing goes wrong, by 5pm. When that happens, those are the sane days- the ones that are functional. But most of the time it doesn’t happen directly – it gets delayed a bit, or it gets delayed a lot. That’s fear and paralysis as much as it is anything else. So, to force myself over the fear of putting the words on the (figurative) paper, I don’t let myself go to bed until the quota is done. Some days, I am done at 5 and go out for a nice dinner. Some days, its 3am. Those days, I learn – both how to keep my psychological composure in a field that lends itself to constant self-questioning and how to manage my time and overcome my fears more efficiently.

I have a lot of other tricks – small writing-windows (15 minutes at my most scared), a less desirable task set up if I don’t keep writing, accountability schemes, and, of course, the Facebook hive-mind. Some or all of my tactics might work for you; others might not. But I do think it is important to recognize that time management isn’t the only barrier to professional productivity: fear matters too,

And, for those of you who this irony is not lost on, it is 1:24am, this is the second-to-last-thing on my list, and there’s a good chance I’ll need to wait until tomorrow to wake up and send the email I’ve been afraid to send today. Or this week.

  • Cameran Clayton

    In the first semester of my second year of graduate school I commented on an online discussion forum and was shot down.The substance of my critique was not engaged with; rather, my snide handler simply reminded me that I should know better than to “bite the hand that feeds.” I was too bold, apparently. I’ve been afraid to participate in online discussion forums ever since.

    I think it is built into the profession that people feel the need to portray themselves as flawless to get ahead. And the vulnerability encourages people to protect their hard earned reputations. Also, people have egos.

    Fear does matter and it can be debilitating. Scholars are supposed to inspire people. Discussion forums inspire me–I shouldn’t be afraid to say what I think. What you’re doing here is not just inspiring–it’s an act of compassion. You don’t have anything to gain by admitting that you aren’t perfect. But others do. I have. Thank you!

    • relationsinternational

      Thank you for sharing. Maybe we’ll start a trend 🙂