Resume of Failures

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This semester, I am asking students in my Arrive and Thrive course to create and submit a Resume of Failures as a way to help them embrace and learn from their failures over the past year and a half: the schools they didn’t get into, the clubs from which they were rejected, the classes they dropped, the unsuccessful auditions. I’ve been asking them to keep a Fall Experience Journal, and if they’ve kept it up and put themselves out there each day to try, meet, and learning something new they should have plenty of material to work with during their short time at Hopkins.

(I first encountered the idea when I was working at Princeton, when Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of Psychology and Public Affairs posted his CV of Failures to his faculty webpage to much acclaim. Haushofer got the idea from a short article in Nature written by Melanie Stefan, a lecturer in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.)

The steps to creating a Resume of Failures are remarkably similar to creating a regular resume (of successes, one assumes):

STEP 1: List all of your recent failures including: the schools you didn’t get into, the exams you failed and courses you’ve dropped, the uncompleted projects, the unsuccessful auditions and job applications, the scholarships you didn’t get, the elections you didn’t win, and any other thing in which you came up short. I asked my students to focus on the past year and a half (since that is generally the time frame of the typical first-year resume), but those further along in their lives and careers can have a longer chronology.

STEP 2: Create a resume template with similar section headings to a regular resume. These can include: Education, Awards, Professional Experience, Volunteer/Extracurricular/Leadership Experience, Research Experience, Skills.

STEP 3: Move the failures that you identified in STEP 1 into the relevant areas of your template, revising and reformatting as needed. Some resume of failures (like this one from Lily Fang) take the additional step of adding bullet points to further contextualize or detail the failure.

STEP 4: For each item on your resume, take a few moments to reflect on and write down what you have learned from that experience. This step is key. Without this reflective piece this risks becoming an exercise in self-pity.

Given how challenging the fall has already been for these students, why spend the time dwelling on failure?

For one, I want to acknowledge that the fall semester of the first-year is an intense period of experimentation and growth, and failure is part and parcel to that process. I hope that by collectively identifying, reflecting upon, and sharing those times we came up short, we can make failure a normal and accepted part of the Hopkins experience. More importantly, I want my students to have the opportunity to learn and grow from their failures and start to develop what psychologist Carol Dweck has termed a growth mindset, or the belief that one’s abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. As they continue to imagine their future selves, I want them to understand that the future successes they are envisioning will require plenty of failures along the way. As Tim Herrera writes, “you learn much more from failure than success, and honestly analyzing one’s failures can lead to the type of introspection that helps us grow — as well as show that the path to success isn’t a straight line.”

Since I am asking my students to publicly share and embrace their failures, it’s only fair that I do the same for mine. Here is my “condensed” CV of Failures, that accounts for all of the degree programs I didn’t get into, the jobs I interviewed for a did not get, the grants I applied to unsuccessfully, the certificates and programs I started but did not complete. This document is far from comprehensive; a complete account of all of the jobs that I applied to but never heard back from, the books I started to read but didn’t finish, the unsuccessful workshops and programs, and the times I fell short as a boss/colleague/friend/father/husband over the past decade would be enough to fill hundreds of pages.

(for some reason I can’t get the above document to format correctly. Failing at failure…)

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