Just Thinking: Starting and Failing

It’s hard for me to believe that this time last year I had just completed the on-campus interview for my current job, and then a few days later walked in my masters graduation ceremony. As my first year as a librarian winds down and the adrenaline rush of the academic schedule starts to wane, I find myself feeling… reflective and rather tired. Last week, it was a nice surprise to find several ideas circulating around the web to boost my energy and my spirit to push through the end of the semester and maintain momentum to plan summer projects.

“Start small… but start.”

While attending ACRL 2013, I was blown away by the awesome, inspiring, and interesting work my colleagues across the profession are producing. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a “little fish in the big ocean,” surrounded by those more experienced and more successful than me. Although I enjoyed the opportunity to co-facilitate a roundtable discussion, I couldn’t help but wonder when I’ll move on to bigger opportunities and when my CV will start to look less like a new librarian’s, and more like a tenure-track professional’s.

And then this week two of my favorite library blogs reminded that life sans banana slicer (or other badge of honor) is still pretty darn good, and that striving for success in my daily work is valuable as I continue to take small steps working towards larger goals. I also attended Maryland’s Council of Academic Library Directors meeting, where Debra Gilchrist reminded librarians that it’s better to “start small, but start” than to never start important, potentially daunting, projects at all.

Upon closer examination, I can already look back to see several instances where starting small has begun to pay off. For instance, while I’ve lept at the opportunity to apply my undergraduate degree, previous work experience, and natural interests to my duties as the Psychology department liaison, it’s been more difficult to get “into” the department than I originally imagined.  Last December I was allowed five minutes at the beginning of a Psychology department meeting to introduce myself to the faculty (and then I was promptly asked to leave). Though I was skeptical five minutes would make any sort of a difference, right after the meeting I received two quick email questions from psychology faculty members. And the following semester, two faculty members I had not personally met contacted me to help find and recommend resources to be used in a Psych 101 course redesign. A small, but growing start.

“Failing forward.”

Of course, there are several instances where “starting” something does not lead to completely positive results. I don’t personally care for the word “fail” (for me, it carries a negative connotation of dejection), but failure is a natural part of risk taking. The problem is we like to focus so much on success I think we brush aside that most learning comes from failure. And this year as I’ve happily watched my colleagues present papers, give lectures, win scholarships, lead professional associations, and achieve promotion, it’s been equally helpful to talk with them about what has not gone so well. The classes that fell apart. The requests that were denied. The proposals that were not accepted. Because, quite frankly, working through problems and disappointments with successful people that I admire reminds me that success if often the product of perseverance through, and learning from, failure.

This idea was summed up nicely last week when a tweet appeared in my Twitter stream reminding me to “fail forward.” How can learning from failure propel you forward?

While I was catching up with a graduate school friend at ACRL, I learned that a paper we submitted with fellow graduate school colleagues had been reviewed and rejected for potential publication. Although this was not entirely unexpected, the news still stung. A few days later, my friend sent along the reviewers’ comments and in the 10 or so minutes I spent taking a preliminary pass at the mostly constructive criticism, I learned more about the practicalities of the peer review process than I have in any single sitting since my undergraduate years when I learned about peer review for the first time. And now, as we pick through the comments and strategize options for moving the project forward (or not), I’m learning about picking priorities in my work – which parts of the project are worth further time, and which are simply no longer a priority for me. And while “failure” stings, I now feel more prepared to anticipate some previously overlooked research pitfalls as I turn my attention to new endeavors.

Looking forward to Summer

So, as classes wind down and my summer rapidly fills up with those projects that get neglected or pushed off in the heat of the semester, many of which have no clear starting point or are the result of a previously failed attempt, I am re-energized through recommitting to these two goals – start small, and fail forward.

5 thoughts on “Just Thinking: Starting and Failing”

  1. This is a great post. While I don’t agree that using the word ‘fail’ is a bad thing, I think you have a great point about failing forward and learning from the mistake. I don’t think we talk about the specifics on this enough in libraries. A friend and I have started a blog to talk about these things because we need to do a better job of sharing the other side of developing programs and services in libraries.

  2. Sara – I’d love to see your blog if/when it’s up and running! Sounds like a great idea and nice opportunity for more librarians to share their experiences.
    Edit – ah, I just saw it! Great!

  3. I love the term fail forward — in game-based learning it’s often used to describe the opportunities that games provide to try a task, fail, then use what you’ve learned when you try again until you’re successful. Great post, Kim!

  4. Thanks for this post. I am in a similar position, starting my (first) new library job. I’m just an associate but I work full time and basically man the library myself and I work on a regional campus so I am all alone and my boss is super busy so I am left to my own devices. I have been trying my best to embed myself in the culture and meet faculty and help out wherever possible. But it also doesn’t hurt to lay low a little at first just so you don’t make enemies or annoy people with your boundless librarian energy and passion for the resources you’re trying to market. Luckily too I also had some courses on solo librarianship so I am ok doing a lot of different functions here. But I also feel like I’m treading water in a sea of big fish and getting nowhere sometimes. It’s ridiculous complicated to do something like order a nursing book and my boss still needs to approve everything. Luckily she is a librarian/dean here and very supportive. Thanks again for this blog post, it made me feel a lot better! And I’ve only been here 5 weeks so far so I know it’ll get better and I’ll be able to do a lot this summer.

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