Failing Fast? Fail Better!

To win tenure, you should constantly write and constantly seek feedback, without worrying too much if some of the feedback is negative, write Kenneth Womack and Nichola D. Gutgold.

April 1, 2015

Mentoring faculty on the tenure track is challenging under any circumstances. And helping them to succeed under that age-old trifecta of promotion and tenure requirements -- the three variously unequal cells of teaching, research and service -- can be one of the academy’s most convoluted navigations.

Young scholars frequently find it difficult to share their work, to subject their thinking -- often for the first time in the high-stakes environment of peer-reviewed publishing -- to editorial scrutiny. Worse yet, these same novice professors often cite a fear of exposing poor-quality work as a reason for not submitting their writing. Simply put, they don’t want to show what they’ve got. 

And for those young faculty who are unable to get their research program off the ground, this can be a paralyzing fear indeed. On the one hand, they might very well be afraid of damaging their reputation with editors who may see their ideas as half-baked and thusly consider them to be sloppy academics. Yet on the other hand, if a newly minted professor’s work isn’t seeing the light of day, let alone getting published, he or she can count on having to go back on the market to look for another academic appointment. In a climate rife with more Ph.D.s than jobs, not to mention dwindling tenure-line appointments, this is hardly an attractive prospect. 

So how do deans and department heads go about mentoring these young faculty who reveal an understandable fear of flying? How do we assist them in taming their anxieties about professional failure -- the angst that finds them clinging to the same work that, if unleashed upon the scholarly world, might very well enable them to succeed?

We suggest that allowing yourself to fail fast will improve your successful publication record. A fail-fast system is a computer system that is designed to immediately report a failure of any kind. It allows the quick repair and reset of a computer to make certain it will function better going forward. A tenure-track faculty member who is confronted by a loudly ticking tenure clock would benefit from the same responsiveness, because action most definitely beats inaction.

The fail-fast concept can be usefully applied to creative writing and the publication of scholarly articles and books. In our experience as academic leaders, we encourage scholars to embrace the mind-set that failing fast is the surest path to finding an audience for their work and ensuring success on the tenure track. We believe that embracing the power of failure marks the difference between why some academics succeed in producing a body of work and others don’t. 

So where do you begin? Well, for one thing, we strongly encourage young writers to start failing as soon as humanly possible. In the classic 1968 film The Lion in Winter, Katharine Hepburn’s character, the immortal Eleanor of Aquitaine, utters the inconsolable line, “My losses are my work.” In the writer’s life, there are no truer words. Our losses are indeed our work.

In action-movie lore, our big-screen heroes often tell us that “failure is not an option.” For writers trying to learn the ropes and find out what it will take for them to find their way in disciplines frequently highlighted by tradition, adherence to jargon and professional commonplaces, failure is an option worth adopting -- and if only so that young scholars can learn from their mistakes, not to mention the experience of dipping their toes in the adult pool of big-league academics.

It is often valuable to remind young academics that the tenure track transforms us all into working writers and managing editors -- no matter what their discipline happens to be. The sooner that we can embrace these roles, the better. We are working writers, first and foremost, because textual production and the advancement of our scholarly projects will stave off a lot of sleepless nights during those second-, fourth- and sixth-year reviews. That adage -- “a writer writes always” -- is just as true in the humanities as it is for scientists and social scientists alike.

Which brings us to the secondary role of every successful writer: becoming your own best managing editor. If you are willing to accept the premise of failing as fast as you possibly can, then you must find your inner scholarly editor, that person whose exacting approach to creating finished text allows you to keep those manuscripts pressing ever forward into the hands of journals and publishers. And as your own personal managing editor, you find your mettle by learning the ropes of your particular discipline in terms of organizing your scholarly projects, seeking out new and better venues for sharing your work, managing an array of deadlines, and learning how to follow up on the status of your work with the deftness of a true professional.

Since we’ve had some success publishing, we have been getting requests to share our process with other authors and academics. Recently, we went to a writers' conference, only to discover that while many people consider themselves to be writers, many of them haven’t written much, much less published anything.

If you don’t run, how can you call yourself a runner? Likewise, if you don’t write, you are most certainly not a writer. And for professors on the tenure track, you can’t count on your dissertation to see you through. All too often, we find that an inherent fear of failure and the quest for perfection keeps would-be writers from producing any work.   

Fast-failing writing means advancing projects every day, even if what it is you are writing doesn’t seem that good. You may be able to edit bad writing, but you can’t edit a blank page. Sending out your work and receiving feedback is better than keeping a pristine manuscript on your desktop forever. Blogging concepts may also be a way to “rough draft” writing projects and, hence, test whether or not you can build them out. In this way, you can discover whether or not a given work has the necessary legs to stand on its own or whether it needs to be discarded -- for the moment or possibly for all time.

So if you are on the tenure track and in need of publications, here’s our advice:

1. Advance your manuscript every day; ideally this means writing, but if a precious day goes by that includes gathering research material or thinking deeply about your project, then you’ve advanced it.

2. Send it to your journal editor or publisher because -- simply put -- action beats inaction on the tenure track, where forward progress is a clear measure of success.

3. Get ready to fail fast, revise and resubmit. Consider the feedback, use what you think is valuable and keep moving. Don’t get hung up on the rejection. Remember: your losses are your work.

4. Repeat often as needed.

The best advice we ever received when we were on the tenure track was that to be successful, we needed to keep sending our research out. We needed to work feverishly to develop an audience. In short, you have to be ready to respond quickly -- or fail fast. 

Because what is failure? Is it merely a temporary result or a protracted state of mind? Consider the words of playwright Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Oh, and be sure to fail as fast as you possibly can. Because the tenure clock ticks.


Kenneth Womack is senior associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of English and integrative arts at the Pennsylvania State University at Altoona.

Nichola D. Gutgold is associate dean of academic affairs at Schreyer Honors College at Pennsylvania State University and a professor of communication arts and sciences. 

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