Almost every working Australian has a résumé tucked away somewhere on their hard drive. Those of us searching for a new job update them routinely, chipping away certain sections and moulding others depending on the job market. For most, however, it’s a document accumulating cyber dust in a distant cloud.
In its traditional structure, your résumé is a synopsis of your accomplishments, achievements, promotions and the job titles, becoming either more impressive, more fulfilling or perhaps even both if you’ve really nailed the brief.
All of which makes the idea of creating a failure résumé somewhat of a contradiction in terms, or even an exercise in masochism, but it’s recently been hailed by experts as a crucial self-help skill.
“As soon as we hear the word ‘failure’ we think: ‘Oh my God, it’s a disaster, it’s shameful, it’s a total upheaval of everything,’ and we get a huge stress response. But it’s a universal experience. Everyone’s going to have it and it can seem so unfair. Where you do have some power is in your response,” she says.
Likening failure and success to “two sides of the same coin”, she says: “I think very often as human beings we tend to want to push the failure behind us. We get past it and then we don’t want to think too much about it, but I think it’s a really important thing to take time for reflection.
“Working with our failures helps us to grow in self-understanding, helps us to develop wisdom, helps us to build self-esteem and to develop personal, emotional freedom.”
McKinnon stresses that while it can be way more pleasant to dwell on the victories, it’s the defeats that bring a sense of true learning — but only if you’re willing to keep going into battle and don’t let the failures define you.
Where to start
Before you begin, remind yourself of all you have attained — be it professionally or personally. Acknowledge that you’ve got to where you have because of your skills, chops and adaptability.
Now for the tough part — list the jobs that went to someone else, the work presentations that didn’t score the deal, the debates where your point of view failed to prevail. You can make the list as extensive as you like, but for the sake of your self-esteem and the purposes of the exercise, try to crack double figures. Recall at least 10 instances where someone or something else got the nod.
That is the ‘what’ part of the failure résumé. Now for the ‘why’. Under each of these instances — and this is the important part — list two or three reasons that may have contributed to this event not panning out as you’d hoped. It’s vital to be specific here. Instead of making bold and negative generalised statements about yourself, the focus is on the specific actions you could and should have done differently.
I’ll give you just one example from my personal cavalcade of flame-outs. Some years back I was invited to pitch some article ideas to the editor of an international magazine who happened to be passing through Australia. Thinking I’d get by on moxy, personality and a cursory glance through the source material, I received a subsequent email that featured the death knell phrase ‘I wish you all the best with your future endeavours’.
I later met the person who got the gig. It turned out that not only had she practised her pitch with more dedication, but also memorised the magazine’s readership figures and analysed the advertiser base.
It was the kick up the pants I needed to start my own failure résumé. As the list grew, certain phrases began repeating. Mainly ‘too little preparation’, ‘lack of rehearsal’, ‘not enough attention to detail’.
For a fairly confident person, these were three particularly bitter pills to swallow. But they echoed through my past like a chorus of disappointment, providing me with an insight into the errors I’m most likely to make in crucial situations. Moreover, it not only provided the opportunity to ask whether I was committing the same mistakes in the here and now, but also gave me an opportunity to remedy them before they had a chance to hinder my future success.
Be brave, share
Some people are even brave enough to post their failure résumés online as a beacon of hope for others. A leader in this movement is Dr Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at The University of Edinburgh’s Medical School. In it, she lists graduate programs she didn’t get into, the degrees she didn’t complete, harsh feedback from an old boss and even the rejections she got after auditioning for several orchestras.
It makes sobering reading, but underscores the irrefutable concept that the pathway to success is rarely travelled in a straight line. It’s full of stumbles, starts, almosts and not-quites.
Another benefit of the failure résumé is that it facilitates the language of disappointment and gives you the ability to express it. This can be a crucial skill as increasing numbers of employers and recruiters move away from asking prospects about the glory days. Instead, the 2019 version focuses on a willingness to acknowledge personal shortcomings and, more importantly, the humility to express what it took to overcome them. Even when it’s along the lines of: “I learnt to better maintain professional boundaries within the management team.” An extreme example, but you get the picture.
Perhaps most valuable is that aside from the insights gained and remedial tips acquired, a failure résumé can also be heartening in a way that your regular CV never will.
“Sometimes I look back on them and see how much I’ve struggled to be where I am. That’s a powerful reminder that I deserve to be here,” says Stefan. “Even people who, on paper, have had extremely successful careers have struggled along the way, and failure is part of a career. Everyone has to go through it if they want to be successful.”
The do’s and don’ts of a failure résumé
- DO: Acknowledge your successes before you start.
- DO: Be honest about what went wrong, but keep it specific.
- DON’T: Focus on the thing that went wrong.
- DO: Focus on why things went wrong.
- DON’T: Make broad negative statements about yourself.
- DO: Check out the failure résumés already online. Just Google the term and you’ll quickly see their uplifting power from those brave enough to publish.