clouds and black

Most of us have a  résumé  which highlights our successes. It also probably hides our failures.  As a reader of  résumés and CVs ( curriculum vitae, as they are often called outside the U.S. and in some professions, such as academia), when I see a gap of a year or two on one, I wonder and ask about what was happening there.

You often see articles and books like Failing Upwards: Discover the importance of failure on your way to success and The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success by writers reminding us of the importance of being able to fail and learn from the experience. But most of us do not want to advertise those failures. School often teaches us the shame of failing and few job seekers are willing to promote their failures to a potential employer.

The idea for a CV of failures seems to have started with an article published in the journal Nature in 2010 by Melanie Stefan of the University of Edinburgh. She argued making a record failures visible to others is a powerful way to help other people deal with their own shortcomings.

Recently, I saw that one of these CVs of failures was published by Johannes Haushofer, a professor who teaches psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. He put his online. It lists degree programs he didn’t get into, research funding he didn’t receive and rejections from academic journals.

He says that “Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”

He also add there is some irony in that his now often read CV of Failures “has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work” – a kind of meta-failure to add to the list. And also a kind of success.

As an academic, I can identify. As a poet, I can really identify. Anyone who enter any of the arts – writer, actor, fine artist – desires success and expects failure. More poems will be rejected than accepted. Even poems that get published may not be accepted by an audience you read them to on a given day.

A résumé seems a good place for failures to me because so much of our regrets about failing are connected to jobs, careers and the path we followed in life. I wanted to go to film school when I graduated high school, and I was accepted into a good one. But I didn’t have the money to attend and no one was offering me help. I went with choice number two – study literature and maybe be a writer. Of course, I had read enough biographies of authors to know that few writer make a living by just writing. Teaching was my choice as the full-time gig to pay the bills while I wrote.

I’m still teaching 41 years later. I tried publishing short stories and a novel and eventually moved to poetry. There were a few successes for the CV, but a much longer list of rejections. Rejections, or failures? There is a difference. Some of those rejected poems are good. People have told me so – just not the people who publish such things.

I stopped submitting work for eight years when I realized that I was trying to write what publishers wanted rather than what I wanted to write. I suspect there may have been some of that in J.D. Salinger’s exit from publishing. Now, I submit what I like, hope I find a like-minded reader, expect rejection and am delighted with success.

And then there are the failures that probably don’t belong on a résumé but have a much more powerful influence on how we walk through life. The failed relationships, marriages, regrets as a parent don’t belong in your job application package, but they certainly have influenced it.

When I went through my darkest period of depression, failure was a key word in my vocabulary. I saw it all around me. I felt like I was failing every day, all day long. There were things I didn’t seem to be able to succeed at as a husband, parent, educator, son, brother or writer. I was failing in all my roles. I was learning from failure only that I was a failure. Now, at a distance of years, there was much I learned from that period.

We all need a résumé that shows the successes as well as the failures. Writing that résumé can be humbling, but it can also be a reminder of the things we have accomplished. I may work on mine this weekend. It won’t look much like a CV and I won’t publish it online, but I will polish it the best I can and print a copy to read later when things don’t look as good as they look today.

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