Funnel or failure? You should be failing.

Howdy! What follows is a blog post I wrote several months back. I had just returned from a campus interview for my dream professor job. I was certain I’d land it. But, they rejected me. Feeling dejected, I wrote this post. I decided NOT to post it at the time, because I thought it was a bit whiny. But, after reading it again, I see that there are some great insights in this.

And, not to mention, I landed an even better job just a few weeks ago.

Persistence pays off, my friends.


Let me start off by saying that I am sick of failing. Really sick of it.

But is failure a bad thing? I dunno. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the end of this post. (Here’s hoping!)

A History

You might hate me for saying this, but I used to be one of those kids who never failed. I was a smart kid. Despite my dyslexia, I was always top (or near the top) of the class. And it wasn’t just academics. I got every job I interviewed for.

I nailed every interview. I acquired new skills and hobbies with ease. I stood atop every academic class.

I was the man.

And then it all came crashing down.

The Funnel

Somebody done funneled me and my peers. What do I mean? Well, only the top 30% of high school students go to a good college (I’m making that number up, but we’ll go with it). After high school, I leaped into that funnel like a water-slide and flew through the opening with ease. One funnel passed. I didn’t feel the squeeze, man. Not at all. Of course I’d go to college.

Then graduate school came. Only the best college grads go to graduate school. I started to feel a bit of that squeeze, I tell ya. My shoulders were bumping into my peers as we lurched down the funnel of applications into graduate school. But no biggie. I got into the school I wanted (if only barely). But I wasn’t such a smartie pants no more. I was in an environment where everybody was brilliant.

But I felt comfortable. Sure, I wasn’t at the top, but I rubbed shoulders with people I liked and could match wits with. Nice, right?

Then came the job applications. Only the best of grad school grads become professors, right? Let me tell you, that funnel is tiny!

It is so tiny, I’ve tried to pass through it three times and always get plugged with dozens of other would-be professors.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t smart enough. For the first time in my life, my personality wasn’t winning the interviews.

Why? Because other people were just better than me.

I had failed. It was almost a foreign concept to me. Me? Dustin the Fife? Failing? Me not getting what I worked my tail off for?

Wait wait wait wait wait. No. That’s not how it’s supposed to go. Those cheesy posters said it! My high school counselor said it! My parents said it–you can succeed at anything if you try hard enough.

But. I. Failed.

And Failed.

And Failed.

And not just in my job search. I’ve failed in writing too.

So much failure can be hard on a man.

The metaphor

This has really been difficult for me to process and as I’ve tried to process it, I stumbled upon Shawn Smucker’s blog. He was talking about his childrens’ failures and how he as a parent needs to let them fail. One thought led to another, and I remembered something they taught us in graduate school.

But first, let me briefly tell you about my PhD. (I promise, it’ll have relevance). I got my PhD in Quantitative Psychology. Our forte is psychological tests, such as the GRE, ACT, SAT, that sort of thing. One theory of testing is each applicant should get exactly half of the questions wrong.

Sound weird? Yeah. It kinda is. But let me explain. If you give someone a test and they get all the questions right, it was too easy for them. You won’t be able to tell the geniuses from those who are really smart. Likewise, if someone gets every question wrong, we know little about their ability except that they are somewhere near the bottom. (We just can’t tell where).

Now do you see? Ideally, an applicant should get half the questions right and half wrong. Then we know the test is targeted to their ability (barring guessing).

Failure is good.

Once considered in that context, it made sense. My former “tests” were too easy. I was finally put in front of a task that was suited to my ability. And, with horror, I met failure over and over.

But maybe it’s too much? Is a professorship beyond my abilities?

Success and Failure

I’ve been mulling over this blog post for a couple of days. It seems the take-home  message is to seek failure. Well that sucks. Or, it doesn’t seem right.

Apparently, the people who developed the GRE thought the same thing. It used to be that the GRE was designed such that all applicants got only half the questions right (they call it “tailored-testing,” where the test is tailored to their ability). But, they had a major problem: test-takers became discouraged.

And guess what….

Their scores dropped. Like, a lot.

There’s something about failure that damages the psyche. When someone fails over and over and over, they begin to believe not that the test was too hard for them, but that they aren’t good enough.

Boy that sounds familiar.

What does all this mean?

Well, I don’t know. I think the “take-home” message is that failure is okay. Failure means that you are reaching, stretching, striving. That’s better than sitting and hoping success falls in your lap, right?

But at the same time, so much failure can suck. Like, a lot. Sure there are the Thomas Eddisons out there that who keep trying after hundreds of failures. But there are also people out there that can try thousands, hundreds of thousand, or millions of times and still fail.

So how do I know if I’m a Thomas Eddison or a regular ole’ Thomas, metaphorically striving for a Nobel Prize when I haven’t even passed the third grade?

I don’t know. I wish I did.

My Take Home Message.

Here’s my preliminary take-home: it’s okay to fail. Failure means I’m reaching. It’s not you, Dustin Fife, it’s the “test.” Don’t you dare allow yourself to think that failing is a sign that you’re sucking. It’s not. It’s a sign that you’re stretching.

But, it is discouraging. And if the discouragement persists, you might give up, dude. And nobody wants that. So find ways to have small successes. Start applying to community colleges, if you have to, just to give yourself a taste of success.

Obviously I don’t have it all figured out. But at least, I think, I’m going in the right direction. I hope that in a year or two or ten, I’ll look back and say, “dude, I needed to chill. Success was coming.”

Yeah. I hope so.

Yup, I needed to chill. I’m glad I pushed through it. Very shortly after this post, I received an invitation for a phone interview. After passing that hurdle, I was invited for a campus interview at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. Within a few days of arriving at home, the call came that I’ve been waiting for three years to receive.

It was an offer.

Starting in September, I will be the newest professor in the Rowan University Psychology department!

So, my friends, stretch yourselves and you will find failure. But you’ll also find success.

6 thoughts on “Funnel or failure? You should be failing.

  1. Pingback: When you lack the emotional resources... | Dustin Fife

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