If I knew I could not fail

“What is it that I really want out of life?  What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?”

This is on the first page of my therapy “homework” for the week.  The rest of the pages go on to describe ways of overcoming the fear of failure and changing the beliefs that are holding you back.  But I’m stuck on the first page.  What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?

I don’t know.

My teenage ambition was to become an astronaut.  Leaving aside the practical obstacles to that career, would I still want to do that now?  Space no longer captures my imagination the way it once did, as the joy of discovery has been beaten out of me by years of graduate studies.  That makes me a little sad.  I hope I’ll recover some that joy someday.

Would I write a book?  You could never finish a book; you are not good at character development; you couldn’t make a living doing that anyway.  I’m supposed to ignore those negative thoughts for the purpose of this exercise, darn it!  So maybe.  It doesn’t have to be fiction: there are lots of captivating non-fiction books about odd little topics.

Would I make things?  I like to knit and sew, and though I have not done it since high school shop class, there is an appeal to building wooden things as well.  You are not very good at these things.  I’d get better if I did them more often, and anyway, the question is still about whether I’d want to try.

Would I be an accountant?  Or maybe an actuary?  I enjoy managing our household budget (yeah, I’m weird – the weekly budgeting process actually calms me down).  I once took a free Introduction to Accounting course online and found it very logical and interesting; just the kind of thing I might be good at.  But you would have to go back to school and get another degree for that, and you don’t have the money for that, and do you really want to still be in college when you’re 30?  Fair points, brain, but ignore the difficulties right now.

Would I teach high school?  I am in fact reasonably qualified for this, although it would take a few years before I was any good at it.  I don’t know if that’s what I really want, though.  Being in front of students all day would exhaust me, and spending hours of my own time grading and prepping might be too much like the all-consuming nature of academia.

Would I be a stay-at-home mother?  Not full-time; even as super-introverted as I am, I learned during maternity leave that I need regular adult conversation.  Part-time might be nice, because I do believe that something I want out of life is the ability to watch my child grow up.

You might have noticed that none of the options I’ve considered thus far include the obvious one for someone who’s put this many years into graduate school: Would I be a professor in my field of study?  Years ago, I thought the answer was yes.  Now my first reaction to the question is a desire to curl up in a ball and hide.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

5 thoughts on “If I knew I could not fail

  1. A person with a conglomeration of all the interests you’ve listed would make for an ideal professor — adventurous, creative, organized, and fairly sociable. I know I’d want you leading one of my courses! As for me, I want to curl up in a ball and hide at the prospect of attending my next graduate student seminar — I’m not riddled with anxiety over what I’m aiming to become, but rather by what I’m doing now. Maybe this homework task would be easier for you to accomplish if you rephrased it a bit — something like, “What would I do tomorrow if I knew I could not fail?” Or this afternoon, this summer, etc.

    Sometimes, I’m so afraid that the only ones who are going to succeed are the ones who have never questioned, could never question themselves, for that would mean anyone who hesitates has already lost. But this isn’t a game, and doubt need not portend failure.


    • First of all, thanks for leaving my first comment! And for being so positive and encouraging. In real life I wouldn’t consider myself sociable at all, but sometimes I can fake it pretty well.

      What you say about “anyone who hesitates has already lost” is really profound to me – I really do feel like the vibe in my department is that you have to be 150% committed (and work 200% of a normal work week), so that to admit any doubt about a professorial career would be the same as abandoning it forever. Some of this feeling is in my head, but much of it has been explicitly stated to me.

      Taking it one day at a time has helped me get through many things; sometimes I have to break it down even further into one hour at a time, or one minute at a time. Would that help you with attending seminars, do you think? Or would that make the time seem longer and worse?


      • I didn’t even notice it was your first comment! I didn’t peruse your blog diligently enough to realize you weren’t a well-seasone blogger — must’ve been your effective writing voice that gave me that impression!

        The fact that this wretched idea about 150% energy commitment, 200% time commitment has been stated to you makes me cringe. There must be some means of re-interpreting this formula such that it doesn’t conjure visions of a missing ring of Dante’s Inferno. Maybe: you need to have 150% more faith in yourself and your ideas than the average salary-person, and you’ll sometimes find that you’re so possessed (in a good way) by your research that — if you include all the time you spend lounging on the sofa, staring out the window at the garden while contemplating your work — you’ll often ‘work’ 80 hours a week without realizing it. That must be what was actually intended by that statement!

        My seminar attendance is an altogether different issue, but my academic esteem in general is suffering right now as a consequence of some very bad writer’s block. Simply reading the blogs of other PhD students is already helping with this, a bit. In the real world, my peers all seem to be fairly perfect. Very disheartening.


      • It’s actually become a bit of a joke among the grad students in my department: if we think about research at, say, happy hour, then it counts as work!

        I sympathize with the feeling that everyone else seems to be doing great. The other grad students in my year all seem to be further along than me, with none of the mental anguish. But some of them made comments when I returned from maternity leave about how well I was balancing work and baby, when in fact I was NOT coping well at all. We all put on our best face for others, I guess.

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