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The F-Word: Scholarly Journal

Bouncing back from failure 


Illustrated image of Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

Professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson was a top international relations student at Michigan State University’s prestigious James Madison College. He excelled in his study abroad program in Belgium and even did some work there for NATO.

Jackson, a professor of international relations at the School of International Service since 2000, was a talented scholar. But he aspired to be one with a proper noun attached, and in the early ’90s, the young Spartan found himself at the doorstep of four as a national finalist for the Truman, Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright.

“I had every expectation that I would go into these interviews and come out victorious,” he says. “The interviews went fine,” but other stars shined brighter. Jackson arrived at his Rhodes interview, for example, armed with a recommendation letter from NATO secretary general Manfred Worner. He later learned that another student in his interview cohort had one from Mother Teresa. “Who’s going to win that one? Game over, man.” Four big scholarships, four nos.

Jackson gained some quick reassurance: a generous offer to study for his doctorate in Columbia University’s competitive political science program. Still, “it took a while to be able to back off and say, ‘OK, hang on, this doesn’t actually define you.’”

Time and a successful journey—to a tenured professorship and a research space focusing on culture, agency, and actors and international relations theory—helped Jackson become comfortable twice over: in his own skin and in sharing his experiences, including failures, with others.

The director of the AU Honors program now does so annually, organizing It’s an Honor to Fail, an orientation seminar for students in which failure is not taboo, but rather the point. Through a faculty and staff panel on past shortcomings, small group discussions, and even a tie-dyed shirt exercise on the quad, “we try to normalize that if you take risks, sometimes you fail,” Jackson says. “We want people to take risks.”

They’re the building blocks behind top scholars—those who land proper nouns or, more importantly, proper perspective.