crumpled paper

The failures resume: It’s not as awful as it sounds

Yeah, you read that right: the failures resume. Not a document that you’d want to submit as part of a job application.

But developing a list of professional “failures” – programs that didn’t accept you, awards you didn’t win, funding you didn’t receive – can be a helpful exercise, even if not shared publicly. (Inspired by an effort by Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer, detailed here in a Washington Post article.)

A resume is not very different from a social media profile. Different audience aside, these spaces enable us to curate a portrait of our lives. While some may be prone to overshare tidbits that may not be seen as terribly positive in the context of our social profiles, the decisions we make for both our social and professional profiles are deliberate. We filter out the unseemly details: just as the Instagram post of shot you captured from a seaside cliff doesn’t let on about the argument you had with your partner on the drive to said cliff, the resume you post on LinkedIn or send to a hiring manager doesn’t describe the late nights spent on a project scrapped by an executive.

While not a misrepresentation, the person portrayed in our social and professional profiles, through resumes and CVs for the latter, has encountered tremendous experiences that have afforded plenty of lessons. Listing those “failures” can remind you that those moments provided lessons learned, helping you get to where you are today and wherever you’ll be tomorrow.

So what’s on my own failure CV? Some patterns, specifically re: the University of Oregon, some flakiness, and a lot of rejection.

Listing failures also diminishes the power of these failures. In line with my argument in a previous post about the silver linings in the jobs you didn’t get, these missed opportunities may actually be bullets dodged. When I think about the cost of living in Seattle on a graduate student stipend, boy am I glad I was rejected from the University of Washington’s program and instead pursued my master’s degree in a tiny, relatively affordable town in western Oregon.

Some of those failures may not seem like a big deal with some perspective. All of my essays submitted for contests/publication when I was 22 didn’t do so well. Because no writer has ever been rejected before me. I also remembered that I never won any awards as a journalist, but even if I had, I still wouldn’t be pursuing that line of work.

Of course there are things I still need to routinely practice: proofreading, preparing for presentations and meetings, fostering professional connections. Reviewing those items is a reminder that I don’t have to continue making those types of mistakes that I generally have quite a bit of control over.

Let me be clear: I’m not an Ivy League academic. I’m not a published author, other than what I’ve published as a journalist and freelance writer. I’m not an executive of a company. I’m not the founder of a startup or blog rolling in the cash. My failures don’t compare to those of someone seemingly more successful than me; my highs and lows may not seem as spectacular as those of others. However, I feel comfortable where I am professionally at the moment, and the missteps I’ve made and failures I’ve endured were painful to experience at the time.

Overall, my failures resume is a reminder that my professional life is a journey – and that while one chooses to show only what’s positive to others in the form of a resume, one can also choose how to look upon success, mistakes, missed opportunities, and what can be learned from all.

Gail M. Cole

Academic programs that did not accept me:
  • Clark Honors Program (undergraduate) at University of Oregon (technically, I was waitlisted)
  • Master of Arts in English programs:
  • University of Washington
  • University of Oregon
Score on GRE, for which I barely studied:

Not good.

Publications that did not accept my creative work:
  • Oregon Quarterly (was told I was in second place, but it turns out there was an error and I was only to be honorably mentioned. That one stung more than it needed to. Foiled again by University of Oregon!)
  • Oregon State University Provost’s Undergraduate Essay Contest
  • All submissions to OSU’s literary and arts quarterly magazine (I was even friendly with the editor, dang it!)
Zero Awards for:
  • Any news reporting
  • Any academic term papers
  • Either undergraduate/master’s thesis
General dishonors:
  • Misspelled the word “education” in the subject line of an e-newsletter
  • Reports I painstakingly compiled thoroughly ignored by self-serving higher-ups
  • Awkward, stilted master’s thesis defense for which I didn’t prepare enough
  • Way too many misspellings and other errors to count while as a reporter
  • Too many classes skipped as an undergraduate
  • Many professional connections not maintained

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