Celebrating failure is the privilege of those who have succeeded. I have tenure at a university I love, and so my failure narratives fall into the "it all worked out" category, but it's vital to realize that academic culture can be highly abusive. We're told to just work hard enough and we'll get a job, publish our way to R1 schools, and climb the prestige ladder. Alas, there are tracks, and if early on you happen to miss key steps (the right grad schools, grants, early publications, etc.), the deck becomes stacked against you. It's good to count blessings, and I know I have many, and of course it's always possible to re-calibrate one's definition of success, but a stable job, financial stability, and safe workplace are pretty basic steps on the hierarchy of needs. I worry that failure narratives push academics to blame themselves for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, to keep themselves in abusive or exploitative positions in the hopes that if they just work harder, success will follow.
All that said, one of my most recent failures radically transformed my career. In the spring of 2014, I had written a few essays for popular media, but also had finished one monograph and was beginning the ground work for a second, while writing articles. I had a sabbatical coming up in 2015, with a semester at full pay or a year at half, and had applied for every grant I could find to fund that full year. But in March, 2014, they call came up empty, from the big national prestige grants to smaller, residential, highly specific grants. That's normal - the people who got those grants were brilliant and often had much shinier CVs than I. At the same time, though, an essay in The Chronicle on "customer service" in academic hiring was widely read. The president of the university called me up and promised to make changes, which he eventually did. I wrote a piece for CNN on rape culture and disability which made its way to people leading the fight against sexual violence, some of whom contacted me to let me know I was making a difference. In that month, I decided to concentrate more and more of my writing time on my writing about disability, discrimination, and abuse. I've published about 120 essays since then, sold a book proposal to Beacon Press, traveled the country to meet activists and policy makers and learn from them, and am trying to do my part to make a more inclusive and just society. I do wonder, sometimes, if I had gotten that NEH grant, if right now I'd be buried in medieval French pilgrim narratives rather than police reports and government statistics. I think I'd be happy either way, but mostly just feel lucky I had a second pathway.