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…”
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.