Commentary on: Editorial Successful failure: good for the self and science. Clark A.M. & Thompson D. (2013) Journal of Advanced Nursing 69(10): 21452147.


A quick glance at JAN's recent editorial by Clark and Thompson (2013) extolling the virtues of failure in academic practice and you might be left wondering if the authors have strayed deep into something silly. It is accepted widely that academics do not fail. Their success may be deferred or pending, but academics do not fail. They never ‘shrink from the task’ or crumble under the enormity of the burden. They ‘stay the course’ and always emerge triumphant. Uncomfortable reminders of their infallibility are in abundance. One has only to examine the boastful reports available on staff profiles of university websites and bulky introductions at conferences for evidence of the products of their endless creative steam. The findings are sufficient to lead the rest of human civilisation to spiral into despair.

Admittedly, many of the said lofty profiles we know can fall short of the trumpeted and instead can be the product of either a subtle airbrushing exercise or a large-scale cosmetic engineering project (Thompson & Watson 2009). But even if its contents are called into question, its authors seek refuge only in the three ‘f's when pleading their defence: (i) a faulty memory; (ii) a fertile imagination; or in extremis (iii) a fragile relationship with reality. But never ever has it seemed that academics should mention the other unsayable ‘f’ word. If they must, then only in hushed tones [whisper] – ‘failure’. A cardinal point, often unsaid, but academics simply never reveal or admit to past failures. Smiles vanish at the very mention of the word ‘failure’ in the academy. It would be a terrible mistake, something short of academic suicide. After all, the unique selling point of an academic is his/her ability to succeed, especially the academic engaged in science.

A second look, however, at Clark and Thompson's not uncontroversial editorial has a very convincing way of refashioning commonly held views and loosening up unhelpful assumptions about failure. Slowly, it is easy to concede from the editorial that academics need not recoil from the word ‘failure’. It is clear that ‘failure’ should no longer be a harsh word ringing in the ears of academics. The idea that academics and scientist should not fail is folly. Instead, those who have failed should be acknowledged as useful idiots to have in the academy. In fact, they would seem to be indispensable, if not desperately needed if a university is to operate at full tilt. If a university is charged with the task of conducting pioneering work or braving new frontiers, then failure should be inevitable. It is clear from Clark and Thompson's editorial that not only an acceptance of failure is necessary in the academy, but that the individual willingness and readiness to be wrong are actually promoted as a desirable personal quality. Those who are not afraid and instead are prepared to be wrong are essential to universities as those afraid to be wrong or of failing will never come up with anything original (Robinson 2001).

The trouble, however, is that universities in the UK are designed in a way that does not readily accommodate failure, let alone celebrate it. Universities are largely managerialist and overly competitive, a legacy of the Thatcherite political administration and policies bent on homogenizing and controlling staff to deliver safe and bland research output. The worst excesses and examples of these policies ensure that university academics are consistent in this skill. Consistency should be avoided as it is the last refuge of the unimaginative. We need to open a space in universities to permit and openly discuss failure and to reward failed attempts, courage and imagination. Instead of becoming crestfallen and shamefully burying our failures, we need to reach back to the spirit of Clark Kerr who on his dismissal as the first Chancellor of the University of California in 1966 because of his liberal handling of on-campus student protests said on his departure that despite his failure to deal effectively with the issue, he felt he left the university just as he had joined it ‘fired with enthusiasm’ (Kerr 1963). Clark and Thompson are to be congratulated for their excellent editorial for offering vision, optimism and reassurance to those of us who have failed so many times and who have felt embarrassed and have beaten themselves up for their failures. We need to value greatly those who following failure pick themselves up and brush themselves down and try again and again as per the truism ‘ever tried ever failed no matter, try again, fail again, fail better (Beckett 1983).