Nothing fails like success

Academics love failure, kind of. I say this not only to avoid the stack of undergraduate papers I’m supposed to have graded already and the even larger stack of manuscript pages I’m supposed to have reviewed, but also as a reflection on the runaway success of Princeton psychology professor Johannes Haushofer’s “CV of failures.” This list of grants not granted and jobs he didn’t get has been doing the rounds on social and now traditional media for the past few days, garnering lavish praise: a brave intervention, an inspiring reminder, and so on. Not only is this his most widely-read work, Haushofer claims, but he’s not even the first to do it — the idea was Edinburgh scientist Melanie Stefan‘s, and Haushofer provides links to her work and other examples. Obviously there’s a market for tales of (limited) academic woe.

Nevertheless, it’s Haushofer’s anti-CV that has sparked a wider discussion now. Some pointed observations on the phenomenon have begun to appear, including this one in the Guardian and several shorter, sharper ones on Twitter (some of which Haushofer himself has retweeted). For what it’s worth, I think that what most have understood as Haushofer’s purpose — showing others that such failures are a routine part of the game at every level, not final verdicts on one’s prospects or capabilities — is an important one, especially for students and people early in their careers. Still, something about the exercise sticks with me, so a few points seem worth making just the same.

The most obvious is that we’re all reading this because it is the CV of a widely-published, thirty-something Princeton professor‘s failures. Without this backdrop of what most people would regard as stupendous and rapid professional success (terms that seem equally justified in Stefan’s case, to judge from her real CV), the list of what he didn’t get would not be nearly so inspiring. No one wants to read about the failures of someone who never made it. Though publishing that CV might be rather braver, it would serve no obvious purpose.

Another point, related to the above, is that the purpose of the CV of failures is not quite as clear as it initially seems. Stefan’s original Nature article describes the practice of keeping a running tab of unsuccessful applications as something that came to her in the wake of a failed grant application. It works, first, as a sort of private therapeutic exercise, to exorcise disappointments by putting them in perspective; and, second, as a hopefully inspiring reminder to colleagues (that is, “if you dare — and can afford to — make it public”) of “what it means to be a scientist” — that is, to take a failed attempt for what it is and “start again.” I’ve failed; you’ve failed; we all try again; that’s what it is to be a scientist.

Haushofer describes the goals of his own anti-CV in similar-sounding but subtly (perhaps unwittingly) different terms. He is prompted not by a moment of self-doubt, crucially, but rather by the observation that his actual CV gives people “the impression that most things work out for me”, and that “As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.” That is, the CV of failures as narrated here is a device not for overcoming self-doubt but instead for restraining the damaging effects of his real successes on the self-esteem of those around him. It works both by setting his successes in context, and by encouraging others to see their failures as random. I’ve succeeded; you’ve failed; the world is stochastic. Cold comfort.

And also not entirely true. Because finally, and most importantly, “the world is stochastic” doesn’t really cover it. Jobs, grants, and fellowships can be a “crapshoot” in the sense that there are more qualified, deserving applicants than there are prizes to be won. But they are not awarded at random. Rolling the dice any number of times does not by itself make getting a job more likely if one’s degree or letters of reference bear the wrong names, if one’s research interests fall out of fashion, or if the wave of retirements creating openings in one’s field has passed. Referees and committees have bad days; but they also play favourites, ask inappropriate questions, harbour conflicts of interest. Prejudices and glass ceilings exist. I’ll share my failures with my students; but I can’t pretend my successes are just dumb luck.


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