Challenging those at top leadership positions to open up about their failures, so as to promote psychologically safe learning and working environments at universities and beyond.
a personal account
I graduated in chemical engineering from the University of Bologna, Italy, and obtained a PhD from the same university in 2020. In 2021 I moved to Athens, Greece, where I am working as an MSCA-IF postdoctoral fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research “Demokritos”, applying machine learning algorithms in molecular simulations of carbon capture materials. When I am not fighting one-sided arguments with my codes, I like to put on my hiking shoes and go exploring the great outdoors.
What is “FAIL! - Inspiring Resilience”
Talking about one’s own failures is hardly an experience anyone would look forward to. And even less appealing would be the prospect of doing so in front of a room full of strangers, with a camera menacingly pointing at you, ready to deliver your speech to the eternal memory of the internet. Yet, this is precisely what happens at “FAIL! – Inspiring Resilience” events.
The word “failure” comes with a great weight attached to it, a sense of shame and finality, and, often, a direct connection to our sense of self-worth. Reframing our personal and collective attitude towards failure, letting go of these connotations, and coming to regard it as a teachable moment instead has the power to greatly increase our resilience towards setbacks and make individuals more daring in their pursuits.
FAIL! is an international community created by students and postdocs who share the desire to counter the prevailing mentality that “failure is not an option” and hopes to provide support and inspiration to others during adverse times. FAIL! organizes events, in-person and online, during which not only renowned academics, but also entrepreneurs, athletes and journalists share stories of challenging times from their personal and professional experiences. These events are recorded and typically feature 4 or 5 speakers, each one presenting their story in 15-20 minutes “reverse TED talks”, followed by a moderated Q/A session, where the audience is invited to participate with their thoughts and questions for the speakers.
The goal is to encourage more open and honest communication across the academic hierarchy and cultivate a community accepting of personal struggles, vulnerabilities, setbacks and their psychological impact. This set-up is designed to help combat imposter syndrome and alleviate the feeling of isolation that can be often experienced during difficult times. At a broader level, FAIL! hopes that the seeds of these values, planted during the university years, will blossom in a variety of professional environments, promoting a culture of experimentation, creativity and growth.
A grassroots beginning
The project started in 2018 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an epitome of a hypercompetitive environment, where a higher-than-average suicide rate was sadly registered for several years in a row1. These tragic events have prompted the birth of several initiatives to raise mental health awareness and combat the stigma attached to it. FAIL! is among those and since then, it has become a stable presence in the MIT events calendar, with a foray into an online format during the pandemic. The effort was spearheaded by members of the then-newly founded Visiting Students Association (VISTA), which was a key element in the evolution of the project. A large number of people initially involved with FAIL! were hosted at MIT for a short period and soon returned to their institutions. Afterwards, while continuing to provide support for further initiatives at MIT, they worked towards the expansion of the project to other venues, recruiting friends and colleagues into the community.
In the 5 years that the project has been running, FAIL! events have been organized at MIT, at Technical Universities in Mexico, India and Portugal. These have also been hosted outside of academia, at a series of entrepreneurial conventions in Italy and at the European Union Blue Book Trainees Commission. This was possible thanks to collaborations with various local organizations invested in mental health awareness. The talks, given in three different continents and in five different languages, are featured in the FAIL! Youtube channel, which has garnered 1200 subscribers and more than 80,000 views to date.
Impact: off-stage, on-stage, and behind the scenes
The presence of high calibre speakers has always attracted good participation, with hundreds of attendees at every event. The atmosphere is engaging, and the discussion is animated by thought-provoking questions. From the audience feedback, it is clear that there is a widespread need to have these conversations, and the attendees believe that taking part in this initiative has had a positive impact on their perspective of failure and success.
Some of the speakers have reported that preparing for their talk and engaging with the community, during and after the events, has heightened their sensitivity towards the mental wellness of their students, both in classrooms and in labs. This is a step towards the cultural change that motivated FAIL! from the beginning.
Last but not the least, FAIL! has undoubtedly and positively impacted its members. Engaging in the conversation about mental health in academia is a chance to continually assess your own beliefs and mentality. Actively trying to contribute to making things better is a fulfilling and rewarding experience. Moreover, the community built around the project has become a safe space where the members have allies in their own struggles with issues like perfectionism, imposter syndrome and insecurities, throughout their graduate and postgraduate years.
Since the project was born at MIT, majority of the participants come from a STEM background. So, what business do a bunch of engineers, physicists and mathematicians have organizing mental health-related actions? To this, we answer that FAIL! was created by students and for students, in an effort to address a situation that we were all experiencing firsthand.
One of the most pragmatic challenges associated with FAIL! has been to find ways to sustain the momentum of an initiative led by PhD students and postdocs, given the fast-paced turnover at a given institution.
Institutional support is a real game changer, and we have experienced both very positive and very cold receptions when pitching the initiative in different contexts. The FAIL! chapter at MIT has received significant financial and infrastructural support through various channels, but mostly through the MindHandHeart initiative. This has allowed the initiative to consolidate and continue to develop. At other institutions, university counselling services expressed scepticism about the existence of distress specific to the PhD students and post-doctoral fellows and so they did not offer support for these kinds of initiatives.
In recent years, the attention given to these topics has increased in general. However, in the US there is a higher baseline of engagement within academia. Possibly as a reflection of this, invitations to speak at FAIL! were always received with great enthusiasm and declined only with schedule conflicts. No speaker ever asked to be compensated for their contribution (participation in the events is always free for the audience).
The push towards change in the academic culture is becoming stronger by the day, and as more members of the academic community actively participate, the closer we get to achieving a positive transformation. The FAIL! project aims in this direction, by engaging the community simultaneously at the top and at the bottom, to promote more awareness and support, create closer relationships, and inspire strength and empathy.
Postdoctoral Fellow, National Centre for Scientific
Research “Demokritos”, Athens, Greece