Recently, I presented my PhD proposal before a review panel at the university where I’m currently studying and teaching. Those who have been through the process know how gruelling it can be to have your ideas placed under the microscope. For those who haven’t, a proposal review it’s a process that’s almost a cross between making a sales pitch, delivering a carefully-scripted monologue of Shakespearean proportions (not quality!) and being prepared to unpack the whole process when asked questions about your understanding of the research, the design, methodology and instrumentation of your study proposal and your personal beliefs about education and what brought you to being where you are at this point in time.
My review was a particularly valuable experience, causing me question how we define, through the discourses in education, our socially constructed versions of success and failure.
On one level I “failed.” My reviewers quickly picked up my selectivity and partiality towards a particular area of the research while neglecting other areas that were, upon reflection, closely related. I made quite a number of oversights in the design of my study, thinking in grandiose dimensions and answering carefully composed questions with big picture statements that didn’t address the issues raised by my supportive audience. I now have a list of areas to address that’s literally as long as my arm! It’s a typical “revise and resubmit” result that is often inferred in academic circles as a gentle way of saying “go back to the drawing board.”
Yet, I’m reminded of my parting words the day I left my last school. I told the teachers there – many of whom I’d worked with for nearly a decade – that what would always stay with me is the sense that I was able to embrace my many failures and to be supported by those around me – by kids who realised that I was human and colleagues that struggled with the same stress, workload and self-consciousness.
In this light, I think that embracing failure is ultimately a form of success. For my proposal, I had some of the best minds in Education who had spent a lot of time reading through my thirty-something thousand words, helping me to structure my thoughts, willing to listen to my ideas over a coffee and, when the time called for it, willing to tell me that I what I have done wasn’t to the mark and that I needed to rethink my ideas and approach. As a result, I’ve spent a week or so with the same research and realised that there’s much more that I don’t know; I’ve begun to learn with a renewed passion what I otherwise would have left aside. Many of my doctoral peers were able to see me make my own mistakes – publicly as it just so happened – and learn from them (particularly as several of them present next month). They probably respect me just as much (if not more so) for making these mistakes as they would if the whole proposal had gone smoothly without a hitch. In way, I’m glad to have made these mistakes – and glad that I can once again embrace failure. That’s the best recipe for success.