imagesAre you scared of failure? Tried and failed in your education or career? Or are you one who has failed far too many times you have given up trying or about to give up? In today’s post, Dr Viv Rolfe generously shares her experience and tango(s) with failure at several points in her career and how to attain success from failure whilst offering practical steps on how to become a successful failure.

 I read the superb article on ‘Dealing with rejection’ on the Aspiring Professionals Hub and it made me think there might be value in adding a longer-term perspective.

As much as I hope that the author had not been writing from personal experience, it is something that we need to think about, especially those of us in science and academia who have been around the rejection block a few times (mind you, this applies to people in the non science areas too)

Don’t go switching off from this blog post. It is not a depressing rant. Being a successful failure is what we all aspire to be surely? After all JM Barrie said “we are all failures, at least the best of us are”.

Actually I think I am a pretty successful failure with a pretty impressive track record. I started early too. Failure of A levels led to an extra year at college, and once I’d made up my mind what I wanted to do at University, I ended up with plenty of A’ levels (Seven of them). Once at University studying Physiology I managed to catastrophically fail my subject in the first year. Fortunately, Dame Failure left me alone for the next few years and I trotted off into the sunset with a good degree and into a career in physiology.

I’m thinking about failure again right now because in my current job that I’ve been doing for just about two years, I’ve ‘not succeeded’ in five job interviews and eight funding applications. That has to be quite an impressive track record of failure in a short space of time and I think how we react is important.

How should we react to failure?

The natural response is to be upset, depressed and despondent, and that is quite fine and natural.  We absolutely have to give ourselves time to recover and gather our thoughts. Sometimes when I’m rejected from funding or a job application, I actually have a quiet chuckle to myself and think, as if they would fund or employ me! But perhaps my response means that I lost the edge of being a candidate with full conviction. Maybe this comes across?

What is a successful failure?

So how do you become a successful failure? I don’t think you can very easily as failure can be a hard blow. I think we become more resilient as we get older and experience life’s knocks. We are able to dust ourselves down, mend our dented pride, and move forward. I think there is something in the personalities of those prepared to fail, because the important thing is to view it as a learning experience. I think those with larger egos and who place much self-importance on themselves, take longer to mend. I do think the other end of the spectrum and being flippant is also not useful, we do need a certain amount of passion and enthusiasm. As I was told when I previously failed: “We appreciate the passion and commitment to social change that went into your submission”.

How do we make that transition?

So how do we make that transition from failure back onto the path to success? I think we must learn to put the emotion behind us and use various approaches to gain the best possible feedback. As difficult as it might be, writing for feedback or braving a telephone conversation might be the best thing you ever do. Then thinking how you can put that feedback to good use, perhaps that you need to gain some more experience or some more relevant skills? Of course, it is also possible that a research paper might be rejected for quite the wrong reasons. Peer review is not always a robust exercise. We absolutely must develop our critical views of ourselves so we can move forwards.

Let’s think of some examples?

I’m thinking of job application in 2014 in my present institution where I was led to believe it was a foregone conclusion that I would get the job, but then I was not successful. I had the worst interview of my life, and I came across defensive and totally hashed it up. It was a difficult blow but what did I learn? We cannot put ourselves into situations if we are not in a happy mental state in the first place. We might for whatever reason take a defensive stance in an interview, and unfortunately this is never good. We also actually might be mistreated in an interview, and there is nothing much we can do about that. I’m not sure what the solution is there, but I was left feeling glad that I didn’t end up working with people on the panel at this time. Sometimes I think fate intervenes!

I’ve had other notable failures, one for a job heading up a research centre, and another senior role. However, when I’d got to both of these interviews, I was up against Professors in Education and Pro-Vice Chancellors of universities. In terms of my job position I was batting way out of my wicket, and being selected to compete with far more senior individuals. I suppose I should view this as positive – being selected over 30 or 40 individuals, but I’m not quite getting there.

In these examples, it isn’t just a case of taking the feedback and learning from it, but now I am really thinking about the skills I need to gain for the next step up. I’m even thinking of going part time in my role to gain this through other work, just so I can get into the position I need.

Other routes to success?

We talk far too much about career planning and strategies for success these days that we lose sight of luck, chance and serendipity. Sometimes taking the unusual path and grabbing the challenges that come our way can lead to success. At one university, I had a chance meeting of someone in a pub that was writing a grant application and looking for a researcher, and that led to two glorious years in my next job. Upon joining one university, the job application deadline had passed and I picked up the telephone to express my interest, and they invited me to send my application in late. Within three weeks I started a new job role. In a recent application in 2015 I was rejected from a post and I emailed to question if that was right whether they had received my full application. They asked me to resubmit and I got an interview. I don’t know the outcome yet, but it pays to challenge the process.

So, how to be a successful failure?

  • Give yourself time to get over it. Be nice to yourself.
  • Have a good think why you didn’t succeed at some or get an opportunity – get feedback, think about your performance and your skills gaps, and be honest with yourself.
  • Learn and grow! You will take the biggest steps forward next time.
  • Grab those mad chances and meet people, even if you think it isn’t what you want to do.
  • Trust your gut instincts. Always. Your gut has as many neurones and neurotransmitters as your brain after all.
  • Keep learning to be a successful failure.

Dr Viv Rolfe is an Open Educator and runs a number of science websites including her own blog ( Her research focuses on the social and ethical impact of open learning. During the day she is an Associate Head of Department at the University of the West of England.

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