On Failure

My kids are on the swim team this summer, for the first time in their relatively short lives. They both love the water, and have taken swimming lessons occasionally on our various stops to here, alongside my attempts at teaching them how to swim (a total failure, despite my continued instance that I USED TO DO THIS FOR A JOB AND WAS REALLY GOOD AT IT), but the first few practices have revealed that the lack of consistent and formal training has left them literally and figuratively behind just about all of their teammates.

This has been hard on both the kids in different ways. For my son, who taught himself to swim when he was two, it has been tough on his ego to know that, no, in fact, he doesn’t know everything about swimming and may still have something to learn from someone else. For my daughter, who needs to be the best at everything and often is, she has been confronted with the reality that sometimes that isn’t as easy as it has been.

As a parent and former swimmer and coach, this has been challenging for me, too. I want them to excel and I feel badly that I didn’t do more to prepare them (admittedly, I feel the same way when I watch my son play soccer). I want them to enjoy swimming, because it brought me so much joy for so many years. But I also know that being last and lapped and struggling isn’t fun.

And so, I told my son that anything he has ever accomplished hasn’t come without some work and some effort, even if that work was unpleasant, and that those struggles happen in public. He has never really embraced the public struggle, in anything, always waiting to do things on his own time, in his own way, and only sharing with others once he had it perfect. It’s a process, and you will get better. Nobody starts from perfect.

I told my daughter that she just needed to keep working, working on her technique, sticking with it, and not being so worried about being the best, but instead just making small improvements every day. They will make a difference, and one day –

“I’ll win! Just like you did!”

I laughed. Honey, I told her, I never really won anything the entire time I was a swimmer. But the trophies, she said. Those trophies were for most dedicated swimmer, the one who was there the most, not the one who was the best. I never really won first place, individually, in all my years of swimming. I even stopped improving my times for the last four or so years I swam.

She looked at me incredulously, like I had just poked a hole in a long-held view of who I was in her mind: Champion Swimmer. Nah, I said, failed swimmer who wouldn’t give up. Failed swimmer who wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world. I can have “failed” and still find satisfaction, and even joy, in those experiences.

I just finished writing a piece for Women in Higher Education on that recently-viral Failure CV. I didn’t have a hot take to share in the moment because that last thing I needed or wanted to focus on were my failures as they compared to the (supposed) failures of others. And, besides, I couldn’t take another person (read: white male) being celebrated for things I had done previously and been vilified for.

Because so much of my old blog(s) were about failure. Repeated, crushing, trivial, self-inflicted, systemic, personal, social, public, private fails. Going back over some of them, I a) can’t believe I ever wrote about them in such a way and b) can’t believe I haven’t learned anything from it. Going back over the comments, I understand why I never went back to re-read the posts; I don’t remember the lessons I learned through writing those posts, I only remember the lessons that were taught to me from those comments.

Of course, I also cringe at how naive I was, how uninformed, how gullible, how ridiculous so much of it sounds now. Not that I stand before you today hardened and jaded, but instead just more aware of the larger conversations I was desperately trying to be a part of. And thinking about how much of it, seemingly failed. I learned the wrong lessons, I failed to have the kind of impact I dreamed of having, I failed at even improving as a writer.

Which is, of course, the wrong lessons, once again, to learn.

But failure, as a result, is clearly on my mind. And success. And how terrified I remain of both of those things. Or that I’ll even know the difference when they happen.

But the kind of failure my kids are grappling with is a very different kind of failure that I was grappling with. And how they deal with those failures, how I dealt with my failures, are very, very different as well. I think what I am writing about is actually anger and frustration in the face of failure, and how that reaction is perceived and received.

Roxane Gay recently wrote a piece in the New York Times, Who Gets to Be Angry?  Rightly, she points out the gendered and racialized differences on how anger is received. And in her conclusion, she points out:

But anger is not an inherently bad thing. Most of the time, it is a normal and even healthy human emotion. Anger allows us to express dissatisfaction. It allows us to say something is wrong. The challenge is knowing the difference between useful anger, the kind that can stir revolutions, and the useless kind that can tear us down.

The anger and disappointment that I expressed in all of my posts on failure, on my failures, on higher education’s failures, was dismissed and disparaged in all the ways Gay describes (“When women are angry, we are wanting too much or complaining or wasting time or focusing on the wrong things or we are petty or shrill or strident or unbalanced or crazy or overly emotional”). I did not meet these failures with stoic acceptance or strengthened resolved; no, I met them with anger, which is the cardinal sin of a failed female academic.

I’ve tried to channel my anger in productive ways, like blogging for those who couldn’t, by being a part of a community of fellow disenfranchised “failed” academics online, by speaking out and speaking up every chance I could. But for so many of us, that anger hardened and we turned away from teaching in academia, in a lot of ways accepting the failure, not ours anymore, but more systemic, and finding new, more successful paths, but still mourning the academy we idealized and wanted to desperately to be a part of.

The failure that my kids are struggling with is one that is not career-defining or life-altering. They are young, and if swimming isn’t for them, so be it. I failed at an awful lot of sports before I finally accepted that I was a swimmer. My daughter is a dancer, ballet to be precise, and she has already shown a great deal of dedication and determination to that particular activity, one that she loves. My son has not yet shown any sort of interest in one activity or another, but when he does, I’ll talk him through the bad days, reminding him to channel his anger and frustration in positive, constructive ways.

And maybe, like all too often does in my writing, it comes back to love. My greatest frustrations and moments of anger generate from those things that I loved and cared for the most: teaching, higher education, scholarship. My daughter loves learning and ballet, so her greatest frustrations come from those two areas of her life. We have flashes of anger when we are momentarily thwarted. We have deep-seated anger when it involves those things and people that we love.

To bring back Gay’s essay, so much of the anger from the current election cycle comes from a place, unfortunately, of love, misplaced though it may be. Who or what do you love more? Who are what are you most afraid of hurting that thing or that person that you love most? And what, if anything, are we willing and able to do about it?

Of course, how we express that love, and the anger it can fuel, or at least how we’re allowed to, differs. There is so much anger in me right now generally about the state of the world, the state of affairs, the state of politics. I am powerless, in a lot of ways, unable to vote and participate in the political process. I am largely removed from the classroom where I used to be able to teach in such a ways that may make a difference, channeling my anger in somewhat productive ways.

And so I’m back here, at my keyboard, blogging. We have failed each other in so many ways, out of love, out of desperation, out of anger. I don’t see that ending anytime soon. My heart breaks every day my daughter comes home, worried that her dad and I, as well as many of her friends, will be deported, sent away. Getting angry doesn’t serve much purpose, to me, to make my kids as needlessly and unproductively angry as the parents who are telling their kids that this is a good thing. Because the potential is there, as the people they love most in the world are being threatened.

And maybe that’s another failure of mine, but it’s one that comes from love.