Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fail Faster

"We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection." – BrenĂ© Brown

This is a rare post from me (Jonathan).  As I try to heal from a tough experience as the future of my academic career hangs in the balance, here are my thoughts and feelings.

As you enter the architecture building at Virginia Tech you are greeted by a sign stating “fail faster.”  In the architecture program, faculty realize that great designs come from insights of repeated failures.  So they impart on their students to simply fail faster. 

One of the major milestones in my PhD program is the prelim exam.  A satisfactory performance in the prelims allows the student to enter into candidacy.  These exams consist of two, eight hour days of straight writing with no resources followed up by a two hour panel discussion with the student having to amend, explain, and defend his/her answers.  It is a bit of an antiquated process, but that is another discussion for another day.  In short, it is hell and it is a bit of hazing, but it is a hurdle that must be leaped. 

For me, preparations began in the spring and following Memorial Day it was a daily part of my schedule.  The studying was intense at times, but I was thankful to have my colleague and friend Delight along for the ride.  We were a great resource for each and a great support.  Tears were shed along the way and the little hair that I have became greyer. 

Three weeks ago I had my written exams.  Two days.  Two questions each day.  Eight hours of writing each day.  I was brain dead after that experience.  I kept comforting myself thinking, “thank God I never have to go through that again.”  This Tuesday I had my oral exam.  I went into the exam nervous, but feeling prepared.  After two hours of discussion with my faculty, I was excused from the room so my faculty could talk about my performance.  I paced nervously at the end of the hallway.  It felt like an hour, but probably 15 minutes later I saw the door open and one faculty leave through the door at the other end of the hall.  Then another faculty did the same.  Finally, a third faculty also left.  Finally, the chair of the exam called me back in.  She informed me that I did not pass.  I.  Had.  Failed. 

I fell apart.

I remember parts of the conversation, but my whole academic career was spinning around and I didn’t know which end was up.  When I left the building Lyndsy was there waiting for me and I just lost it.  Tuesday night was tough.  More than tough.  It absolutely sucked.  I don’t want to relive that experience ever again.  Lyndsy and I cried, mourned, and grieved.  Everything I’ve worked for so far in my PhD program doesn’t mean a thing if I don’t pass the prelims.  I kept thinking that we picked up and moved halfway across the country for this and this performance is all I have to show for it.

So I had a couple options:  1) switch from the PhD to an Ed. S. (kind of like another master’s degree) 2) transfer into a different PhD program or 3) take the prelim one more (and final) time. 

Wednesday morning I had breakfast with Frank (the legendary “Make It Happen”).  He listened intently and with sympathy.  He heard my pain from this experience and then asked what I would like from him.  I said I want your honest opinion.  He said, Jonathan, there is really only one option…take the prelim again.  You are here to earn a PhD. 

That is what I needed to hear. 

So here I am two days after the biggest defeat in my academic career.  Guarding the net, I let the winning goal go right by me.   I could hang it up and call it a good career.  But I’m not ready to retire just yet.

I have one option…and I’m all in.

Lyndsy and I have created a new plan.  I’m recruiting members to Team Jonathan (yeah, its cheesy, but just go with it).  I’m surrounding myself with people that not only are supporting me, but taking the time to help discuss a policy issue, examine an organization through a theoretical lens, or discuss the rights of students as afforded by a Constitutional amendment. 

The last thing Frank said to me was to try to find a silver lining.  I have found it.  It is simple and it was obvious.  I am loved!  I am loved by an amazing wife who cried with me and mourned with me.  I am loved by a son who showered me in ‘mooches and hugs’.  I am loved by my parents and in-laws who have supported this journey and prayed for me.  I am supported by great colleagues including two great supervisors in Frances and Martha who changed their plans at the last minute to sit and discuss this experience with me.  And by Frank who I e-mailed at 9:00 on Tuesday night and by 7:15 the next morning we were having breakfast.  I am cared for by my church family who has been praying and cheering for me since we moved here. 

I have failed.  But the failure does not define me.  What has emerged from this experience will define me.  I am grateful for the people in my life.  And in January, I will take the exam again.  But this time I will be ready and the outcome will be different.  I have Team Jonathan on my side!  


  1. I'll sign up to be on Team Jonathan! Let me know what you need - otherwise the Piehls will be supporting you in prayer as the Lord leads! When is the re-take?

  2. I'm afraid I'm no longer a great resource for discussing policy issues, but you can count on my prayers as a member of Team Jonathan! Having just finished supporting a spouse through a rigorous doctoral program, I can well imagine the heartache (understatement!) that you and Lyndsy felt. But, dude...the perspective and determination I read in your words says volumes about your character. You've got this! (And God bless Frank Shushok!)

  3. I am a full-fledged member of Team Jonathan!!!! I don't completely understand things and the whys but this I know "God is for us". It has been an honor to study with you all summer and for you to put up with my crying (I don't recall your tears but I know that there were a many of days where I wouldn't of continued if not for your support!) My life hangs in the unknown category but whatever happens, I am ready to run a policy matrix, discuss a law case, figure out an org theory or work through a research question. I am on Team Jonathan just as you have been on Team Delight!!!

    Thanks for your support through this process, thanks to Lyndsy and Heath for sharing you with me as we both prepare! And thanks to God that in spite of our failings His love towards us is so great and amazing!!