The Failure Resumé: What Is It and Should I Write One?

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A new buzzword in the career services industry is failure resumé. This is a document that lists your goofs, stumbles, mistakes, and other humiliating moments in the name of professional growth. But is it worth your time to create one and, more importantly, will it improve your job search success rate? Read on to learn more about the failure resumé and what it can do for your career. 

The Failure Resumé: What Is It and Should I Write One?

We all know that our Facebook feed does not accurately reflect our real life. In much the same way, our resumé does not (strictly speaking) reflect our professional experience. A resumé usually contains little or no reference to any of our failures or rejections, and what about when we disappear from the scene entirely? Our resumé magically smooths over any work-related problems and minimizes gaps in work history. While this is a wonderful way to get a new job, it may do little to help us grow and progress in our careers.

Growing up, your parents and teachers may have told you to learn from your mistakes so you don’t make the same one twice. Today at work, you may learn about business processes that are supposed to identify mistakes and adopt changes to prevent them in the future. However, what is said and what is modeled are often two different things.

As a result, you may have reached this point in your life and career by mostly ignoring your previous mistakes. If so, you probably think the idea of writing a failure resumé sounds like an exercise in masochism designed to send you into a self-esteem crisis. However, it turns out that it’s really good for us to examine our failures. It’s also really good for us to learn about other people’s failures as well. Since you probably have a lot of questions, we have attempted to read your mind and answer them below.

Why Is Failure Important?

Recent research tells us it’s important to face our fears and learn from our mistakes. These are just a few good reasons to delve into all those sensitive spots and drag them out into the light:

  • It’s not so much the failure itself that is important; it’s more about examining our failures to identify what and where things went awry. This examination promotes a realistic understanding of what happened and will promote the discovery of new ways of thinking and reacting to the same situation in the future.
  • The reverse is also true. Ignorance may be bliss today but, in the long run, it will only cause you pain. If you don’t learn new ways of thinking and reacting, your previous tendencies will prevail if the same situation arises down the road, and you may well make the exact same mistake again.
  • Failure promotes resiliency, creativity, and growth. While we are busy thinking about how things went off track, we are innovating and imagining alternative circumstances, approaches, methods, and how these may result in different outcomes. This opens our mind to possibilities that will hopefully overcome any discouragement you may have been feeling when you thought there was only one possibility.

What Is a Failure Resumé?

The idea of a failure resumé can be traced back to Melanie Stefan and an article published in Nature. In the article, she laments the fact that although failure is an inevitable aspect of professional life, all too often it is rendered invisible. She advises her scientific colleagues to make a “CV of Failures” as a way to remind themselves and others to shake off failure and keep going.

Since then, many have commented on the power of creating a dark-side companion to their resumé as a way to overcome adversity and persevere. The failure resumé has also been promoted as a way to create a realistic narrative of what success really is—the end result of a lot of failures—and not something that appears fully formed and all at once.

Why Is a Failure Resumé Useful?

On the surface, writing a failure resumé sounds like a surefire way to cause your self-esteem nosedive; however, you may be surprised to find it working in the opposite way. A failure resumé is a great way to learn how you succeed. There are many good reasons to write a failure resumé, including the following:

  • It’s an opportunity to find and address things that have gone wrong. The most obvious use for a failure resumé is to prevent yourself from repeating mistakes. Doing this will also empower you to try again and avoid thinking that the activity is just something you can’t do.
  • A failure resumé is a great reminder of where you have been and that you are where you should be. It reflects our senses of perseverance and dedication. If you learned from your mistakes, you may notice that most failures are only listed once. If you haven’t grown from those mistakes, you may see the same mistakes listed many times.
  • It demonstrates that the path to success is not a straight one. All careers go through fits and starts. When your job gets you down, review your failure resumé to remind yourself what you did to overcome past problems.

How Do I Create a Failure Resumé?

There is no set formula for writing this document. However, here are a few tips to make your failure resumé as useful and relevant as possible.

  • Mirror the format of your accomplishment-based resumé. For each success you list on your standard resumé, add how many times you failed before you achieved success on the other. This will give you perspective into your successes.
  • Organize your list chronologically and, for each of your failures, try and identify the reasons you did not succeed. Were you unprepared? Were you not provided with enough resources? Did you overestimate your knowledge or skill? Asking these questions will give you insight into your failures.
  • Be realistic and include items that may make you uncomfortable. For example, don’t skate over the fact that you failed because you didn’t have te guts to complete a task or that you were over-confident and ignored important components because you were cocky. Write it all down to help you better understand your motivations.

How Do I Use a Failure Resumé?

You have it all written down: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Now what? How can you use a failure resumé to make a positive difference in your professional life?

1. To more accurately discern real failure from perceived failure.

Many times we think we have failed because we were told that or because we have not taken a good look at what really happened. Maybe we applied for a job but were rejected – however a week later we accepted a better position. Was the rejection really a failure or was it a favorable outcome?

2. To develop strategies to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Examining our failures is the only way to identify and overcome our blind spots. By identifying the hidden patterns in your failures, you can create ways to change future outcomes. For example, maybe you have a tendency to take on too much work leading to missed deadlines and getting fired. By identifying this self-sabotaging tendency you can develop a new strategy to prevent yourself from over-committing.

3. To increase compassion and humility.

It is important to recognize your failures as a way to remember how far you have come. Everyone has professional struggles and acknowledging your own will help you to understand the struggles of others and empathize with them. This is an especially important skill for leaders and managers who need to encourage and motivate their employees.

4. To overcome a fear of failure.

Like we discussed earlier, our parents and teachers taught us to learn from our mistakes. They also often modeled behavior that may have led to a fear of failure by actively working to pave our way to success and avoid failure altogether. By facing mistakes head-on and making changes, we become fearless!

5. To help others.

As mentioned in the introduction, there is research to support that learning about others’ failures, especially those we admire, can help us realize that even the most successful individuals have failed. By sharing our failure resumé with others, we can empower them to continue trying to achieve their goals.

Could a Failure Resumé Help Me Land a Job?

While it is not recommended to submit your failure resumé when applying for positions (accidentally or on purpose), at least one person has with some surprising results. Jeff Scardino, senior creative at Ogilvy & Mather, developed what he called a “relevant resumé” listing his failures and missed opportunities. His thinking was that it would work to get his foot in the door with employers. And, it worked. Out of the 10 positions to which he applied, Scardino received eight responses and five meeting requests.

Other Failure Resumé Examples

Maybe you’re not quite ready to use your failure resumé as a way to get a job, but there are other public examples that you can look to for inspiration.

  • Melanie Stefan published her own CV of Failures several years after her initial article was published.
  • Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, also published his own CV of Failures.

Even companies are getting in on the action:

  • Bessemer Venture Partners is a prestigious venture capital firm that published an “Anti-Portfolio” on their website. This company failure resumé names big accounts they missed and describes, in excruciating detail, the businesses biggest “screw-ups.” The list includes all the times they did not invest in companies that achieved blockbuster success including Airbnb, Apple, eBay, and Google—just to name a few.

Will you create a failure resumé? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to tell us why or why not. We’d love to know what you have to say! 

iStock Photo Credit: 1. Cn0ra


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