The Club of Failure

Sophie Harman

Nicki Smith’s recent post ‘Doing Failure’ has got me thinking. It cropped up on my Facebook feed when I was thinking about how Facebook used to be a way to look at people you went to school with and share pics from a fun weekend, but increasingly had become a way to push your work successes, which is way more boring than throwing shapes on a dancefloor. I am guilty of this, if I get something published – I share, if there is a new blog post for my film project – it shares automatically, if somebody has been nice to be at work – I’m going to tell my friends about it. Success – or at least the portrayal of it – is coming to define me and not in a strutting around like Anna Wintour sort of way, but more in a bore way, as Nicki puts it, ‘Success’ is not, for that matter, an identity or attribute of individuals. It is a state of being-through-doing, or put another way, it is the state of not ‘being’ without doing.’ I am a do-er but does than make me be? What a big question for a blog post, I may sit with that one for a while, as how can I be without my comfort blanket lists?

If part of the answer is achieving failure, then this gives me the perfect excuse to launch something I’ve been thinking about for a while – a Club of Failure. This is not my original idea, but one that struck me after attending a life-changing (yes I said it!) panel at ISA a few years ago, on Women Don’t Ask, Women Don’t Say No. If you have met me in the last few years, I would have bored you endlessly about the wisdom and insights from this panel. One of my favourite snippets was when one panellist said she and a friend had a competition for who could have the biggest failure – this started with your standard journal rejections but escalated into applications to be Mike Tyson’s tutor etc. Needless to say I wanted to be in their club, but failing that (the fail has already begun!) why not start my own.

The Club of Failure shows that failure, like ridicule, is nothing to be scared of. If you fail you are not an imposter. Failure to publish, win a research grant, get a teaching award does not mean you are a lousy academic or in the wrong profession. Failure should be worn as a badge of honour, otherwise we would all have a regular little cry at work – I can think of no other profession where ‘reject’ is a commonly accepted word. Also it’s exam season so I think it only right to pitch in on the topic.

So in the process of openness here goes:

I failed my driving test twice. A fact my brother never lets me forget. After each time my mum met me with a celebration box of chocolates. On the third test she didn’t buy any, so as not to jinx it.

I have more failed grant applications that successes. Really the ESRC, ERC, Wellcome Trust, Rockefeller Foundation and Leverhulme should have all seen my potential and really KNOWN BETTER and given me the money.

I failed my 12+ but my primary school told my secondary school that they should let me in as I was smart but shocking at exams. Somehow this worked. Go *** **** School! Name of School redacted as parents in South Bucks are COMPETITIVE and I don’t want to launch some sort of inquiry into the 1992-3 12+ that year (because, yes, I am that important).

I got two C’s for my combined science GCSE, which I have lied about on my CV (changing to a more aesthetically pleasing two Bs). But don’t take away my PhD! I only lied about this on CV for part time work, I was too much of a scaredy cat to actually lie in a system that can check stuff.

I failed my Quantitative Methods module so badly during my masters that the exam board thought I must have cheated on my other modules as they couldn’t understand how someone could be really really good at some stuff and really really bad at stats.

I got a C for my English Literature A Level that my school then got remarked and it changed to a B.

I – and I am hoping like most other academics – have a rejection paper. The paper that I think is amazing but loves to get rejected by every journal. Repeatedly.

Entry to the Club of Failure is free. You don’t need to be an academic or be a major failure (some of my good friends have not failed at anything – seriously, I worry for them because imagine the meltdown when they do). Share your failures below the line in the comments section. As for Facebook, I’m going to stick with it for now, it is Eurovision this weekend after all.



11 thoughts on “The Club of Failure

  1. Flunked History A’ level (got a C) and don’t even put it on my CV after an Oxford college opened my interview with, ‘so tell us about your History grade’! On which, failed at Oxford interview – two years running.

    But aced the 12+ at *** **** school…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank God I’m not the only one who failed bloody quantitative methods in their MA year….that module was hell on earth. I retook some assessments SEVERAL TIMES, much to the amusement of everyone around me, but SPSS just killed me.

    Is a “C” really flunking anything though? I am quite proud of my C in GCSE French.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. PS – my rejection paper was rejected at one journal and I’ve done nothing to it or even submitted it elsewhere because the reviews were so crushing. For the last 28 months (who’s counting?) it has been buried deep in the folders inside a cupboard. Every now and then I think I should do something about it, then think the better of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Take it out of the drawer and get it published! My funny paper was finally accepted. Do you know Martin Burch? He used to be a Professor at Manchester – gave the best PhD skills seminar where he said ‘one day you will submit something to a journal and the journal will reject the paper. Simply take the article out of one envelope (this was 2004 – ANCIENT TIMES) and put it another addressed to a different journal and do not think twice about it.’ Best advice ever.


  4. Grade 6 Piano and Grade 7 Violin, exams I took on the same day in the middle of my GCSEs. D for German GCSE at the same time as trying to take my A’Levels. Anyone spot a pattern yet? French translation exam during UG degree. Only passed my Masters Stats module because I had substantial help from someone else! Grant failures: ESRC, ERC, Leverhulme. Don’t let me start on all the academic job applications that failed to convince those esteemed institutions what a great investment I would be, wait did they somehow know about the stats help?!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Failed at P.E. over and over again. Always came last in the annual school cross country, crossing the line to background laughter and jeering of cruel pre-teens.

    Failed to get three A’s at A-Level, which would have secured my conditional Oxbridge place.

    Made a proper hash up of my dissertation for my Masters.

    Failed at friendship repeatedly over the course of my PhD due to putting work first.

    Just had a paper rejected with one quite stinging review.

    Can’t sing.


  6. Failed at P.E. over and over again. Always came last in the annual school cross country, crossing the line to background laughter and jeering of cruel pre-teens.

    Failed to get the 3A’s I needed at A-Level to secure my conditional Oxbridge place.

    Made a proper hash up of my dissertation for my Masters.

    Just had a paper rejected with one quite stinging review.

    Can’t sing.

    Liked by 1 person

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