Gave Up

At this time of year, with the Holidays approaching, it is inevitable that thoughts turn to the year slowly tricking the last of its grains through our hands. To weigh up our successes and failures, to see how we scored. Was it a ‘good year’? Or was it one we’d much rather forget. Reviewing our Facebook timeline, do we see happy smiling faces? Summer parties at the beach? Holidays with the kids all smiling (for once)? Do we remember the great, the life-affirming, the life-changing? The conference presentation that hit the spot? Connecting with someone that made all the difference to a problematic project? Remembering all the comfort and solace of hearth and home?

Coming from a minor gothic persuasion, with an inclination for the morose, I find that more often than not, I turn towards and examine closely the failures of the year. The money misspent. The time misspent. The research grant application (rejected twice), the running I started in the summer that strangely didn’t translate into running in the winter. The many times I sat and stared at a blank document on a computer screen thinking ‘right’, but finding words scattered in my head like the slingshot of starlings in the darkening sky.

When faced with failure, what do you do? In my not-so-short-anymore life, I’ve tried to be better at failure. That is, to let it teach me something, anything, even if I know I will fail again. The cycle of failure, the brushing self down, the taking deep breath and the vowing not to fail again is one I think most are familiar with. And despite the best efforts to refocus, renew, re-aim and restart, it can, at times, be a crushingly tiring effort to see things fail and try again.

What gives me hope though is that as a realist I am scientifically interested in failure, of programme theory at least. Let me explain, if there’s one thing I think Ray Pawson has been keen on cultivating with or via the realist movement (is it a movement?) is a deep abiding love of proving the mistakenness, or ‘failures’ of our programme theories – the cultivation of a disputatious community of truth seekers; who through constant judging and pickiness nudge, cajole and beg us to be better scientists – the failure of one programme theory is often because it has failed to take into account some morsel of useful evidence… so undermined, the failed theory becomes the seed-bed of incremental progression… it means that even if we lose, we win. My failure becomes my saving grace.

One of the promises of the scientific realist approach is that it reframes failure as a gate through which we should all be jostling to get through, and then queueing up to jostle through again. If no one disagrees with what I write, or offers an alternative explanation, or picks up a point and runs with it to show its failure, then how will knowledge proceed?

Trent Reznor, lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, a 1990’s industrial goth band that I have a very fond affinity with sang a line about how ‘it took you to make me realize/it took you to make me see the light’. His song was called ‘Give Up’, because that was the consequence of finding out he’d failed. In common with much NIN work, Gave Up gives us Trent at a bitter point at the end of his rope. Seeing the light, seeing he’d got it wrong and that what he thought was really truth was not, was the mechanism that led to him giving up. Unlike Trent, I don’t (always) Give Up when I realise I got it wrong – my failure is (sometimes) transformational, because it leads me on to whatever is next. Which I hope will be better programme theory.

So this year, if my mind turns again to the failures and colossal mistakes I’ve made, I hope I will be able to see how, through these things, I am also given a second chance. And that maybe next year, I’ll get it right.
Happy Holidays.

[Disclaimer: In case my PhD supervisors are reading, I do realise that this won’t wash when it comes to the next meeting if I’ve failed to complete the tasks we discussed yesterday.]