"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Creativity
June 26, 2014

When Decisions Look Like Failures

One of the biggest setbacks in my life no longer feels like a failure. Here’s why quitting isn’t always as bad as it first seems.

Let me tell you a story,

From 1999-2003 I was enrolled in the PhD programme at King’s College London. It was the pinnacle of a journey that started in 1991 when I went back to university, part-time at first and then full-time two years later. I enrolled to study Theology, though my focus was always on Philosophy of Religion. I loved being surrounded by books and ancient wisdom. I rekindled my passion for Latin and picked up some Ancient Greek and a little Hebrew along the way. I found essay writing difficult at first, but soon started to do well and soon opportunities to teach and lecture came my way.

By the time I boarded a plane to London I had given a few conference lectures and been published in some academic journals. My first years in London were some of the most productive and enjoyable seasons of work I have experienced. My research and writing had focus and I felt like a supported and respected part of my academic community.

Then, in 2003 I boarded another flight, to start a new life in Delhi. My wife had been offered what I believed (rightly as it turned out) might be a career-defining opportunity. I felt I could finish what was left of my PhD from a distance, with the odd commute back to London.

I was wrong. Life in Delhi was a lot harder than I expected and being the stay at home parent for my then young daughter was a much bigger responsibility than I had imagined. Pretty soon it became clear that I had to choose the PhD or my family and I chose my family. Much to the surprise of everyone around me I withdrew from the PhD programme.

Pretty soon, my world fell apart. I was convinced I had failed and that I had let down everyone in my life. It was a low time.

How We Tell A Story

This story is the prelude to how I came back to being a full-time musician. It’s the start of the ten year creative journey I’ve been on since 2004. But, so often when I tell this story, I tell it like a story of failure. Which is really, only part of the truth.

Back in the mid 90s I had taken a day job. It felt like the responsible thing to do while I poured all my spare time and emotional energy into volunteering with churches and community groups and playing music, particularly Gospel music.

Before I filled out my application forms to study theology I had filled out another set of forms, for the Jazz programme at the Sydney Conservatory of Music.

But, my upbringing, especially my school experience was one that made a career in the arts seem impossible. Sure some people got “discovered.” But, you couldn’t choose to work in the arts like a you chose to work in a trade or profession.

However, you can’t suppress your passions for long and by the time I was in my PhD programme (ethics and culture) I was looking for anyway possible to focus on the arts, often writing papers on film and music, which were not central to my research. I started a formal film society at King’s and in my spare time started to write songs again and tinker seriously with music technology.

I wasn’t looking to stay in academia once I finished the PhD either; even though opportunities were presenting themselves. I keep dreaming about setting up a think-tank of some kind, maybe supported by something more practical, like a business building guitars and guitar effects.

Even before I left for India I was on my way out of academia. Circumstances didn’t force me to fail, they forced me to make a decision earlier than I had anticipated doing so.

The Value Of Quitting

The truth is I didn’t fail. I quit. In fact, I quit on my own terms, which is quite a long way from failure.

At the time I think I confused the two largely because I was very alone. I made the decision with friends and family thousands of miles away and so much of what I wanted to say didn’t feel like the kind of stuff for phone conversations. In my three years in Delhi I had no friends or family come and visit, which I’m sure played a part in me being unable to put the negative feelings about perhaps having wasted a chuck of my life (and a big chunk of cash) on the PhD.

I have to give thanks to Chase Jarvis for the way he has openly talked about his decision to quit a PhD and how he sees quitting as part of his creative development (he mentions it in his latest interview, with the brilliant Tina Roth Eisenberg and Brené Brown and see this article, Why Quitting Is Sometimes The Best Thing You Can Do).

Framing Our Story

The kind of frame we put around a picture (or the very act of framing it at all) says a lot about the value we place on it. Putting an image in a cheap black plastic frame is not the same as mounting inside a frame made recycled wood harvested from Japanese fishing boats.

The same is true of stories. When we choose to tell a story in a certain way we put a frame around it, we shape it to fit our assumptions. And, if the story is our story, our biography, it becomes our reality.

“We are the stories we tell ourselves…”
Shekhar Kapur

For so long I chose to tell this story, to myself as much as to anyone else, as a story of failure in a relentlessly male, vision-driven, careerist way. It seems odd to me know, because this isn’t the way I see the world. Telling the story as one of love, of understanding the circumstances and knowing oneself seems to make a lot more sense.

Kevin Mathews 10 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Theology eh? Wow

Paul Fox (Foxlore) 10 years ago

Fernando, I can relate to this post on several levels. I myself quit the ED.D program I was studying a few years back. I had only invested about a year of time (and money), but had to choose between family and potential career advancement as my wife had become pregnant. I was working FT teaching and doing the study part time. Another factor in the choice was that, deep down, I was not happy with the program itself. I like learning and love being in an academic environment, but the program’s focus was more on administrative elements (organisation management, etc.) and not really on teaching, development or research.

Still, quitting was not an easy decision. And I do reflect on it at times as my own personal failing for not being able to work my way through it. It would have benefited my current job in the long run. I long to return to study in an area that is more suited to my media arts/Asian studies background, but the problem at the PHD level is that it is a game for the young or the independently wealthy. Few research programs (outside of business and education degrees) offer part time modes that would cater to a person with a FT job. This is due in part because of the systematic way in which universities tap PHD students for cheap labor.

With tetriary education in a state of flux, I do hope that the PHD level starts to become more flexible (as has already happened to numerous master’s degree programs), but part of me wonders about the actual means to the end. Would time be better spent simply doing research or focusing on a craft outside of he Uni system? Edifying oneself through emerging systems such as MOOCs or commercial enterprises like Lynda.com (both of which can be far more efficient and cost effective)? I’ve also encountered numerous articles on the glut of PHD dissertations and papers that are now out there with shoddy research because of the ways in which these old systems function (publish or perish).

Fernando Gros 10 years ago

Paul – thanks for sharing your experience. I cherish, in many ways my years in academia, especially in London and I respect my friends who went on to build careers there. But, I do think education as an industry is in a much needed state of flux. Even back when I was teaching, I felt the programmes my students were enrolled in (degree and masters) represented poor value for money and did not make use of the technology available. I’m glad that programmes ranging from Berklee’s online certificates (which I have a few of) and degrees have emerged, along with the excellent courses from CreativeLive, Lynda and MacProVideo which have helped me refine my skills.

Universities and programmes like PhDs are not about the disappear in a generation. But, we are in an age where doing the work and sharing it matters far, far more than having qualifications to wave around. I certainly don’t believe that if one wanted to write a definitive, serious tome on Chinese Cinema, for example, having an office in a university would be the most obvious, or even the best location to work from.

Fernando Gros 10 years ago

Kevin – thanks. I certainly don’t read as much as I once did.

Dion 10 years ago

Thank you. I feel this shared life story came to me just as I needed it. Believe it or not I only yesterday struggled along looking at the prospectus of my local college.
After 4 years trying to earn an income online, being poor to the point of worrying how my husband will get to work if our car breaks again and living with half of my cooker broken whilst raising 4 children, I feel like a failure. I still couldn’t find anything that would lift me out of the minimum wage trap that our family is in. I felt disheartened but I am thinking that if I think I had time for a college course, I have time to self learn from all the free material online and become better at working online. So as you say, I will see in the future whether “failing” in the past was indeed a failure or a blessing.

fernando 10 years ago

Dion – I hope this works out. It can be so hard sometimes.

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