Use an Alternative CV of Failures to Become More Resilient in Your Job Search
I am a career coach and professional skills trainer with an academic background, and using my biography highlights I was recently introduced as a podcast guest. The first thing I said was, “Even I think I sound great on paper, but the reality was very different.” That’s when I realised, if we are not open about our failures, people assume that everything we do is successful and that is simply not the case.
The CV of Failures
Your curriculum vitae (CV) is like a showreel of carefully selected best bits and wherever possible we minimise those parts that may be perceived negatively.
My CV does not reflect the vast majority of my efforts. It does not mention missing out on medical school by one grade, the PhD experiment that was transferred to a bomb safe room requiring video monitoring for 48 hours or the worst and most shameful of all; after securing an amazing new contract allowing a customer to kiss me because I didn’t know how to say no without it having a negative impact on the deal. I know exactly how I would handle that same scenario now! These challenges, rejections, and unsuccessful attempts can be distilled into an alternative CV of failures.
The concept behind the CV of failures was originally published in Nature by Melanie Stefan as a way to break down the shame surrounding failure and encouraging us to share openly to inspire others to become more resilient. Professor of psychology and public affairs Johannes Haushofer made his CV of failures public in 2016 and the resume went viral. Even citing that “this darn CV of failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.” In preparation for a new workshop, I wrote my own version in 2021 and posted it on LinkedIn and so far it has attracted over 482,000 views and more than 500 comments.
I was surprised by how many other people seized the moment to share openly about their career failures.
- A Professor of Chemical Engineering admits to “being unemployed for two years straight after my PhD, from which it took a long time to recover.”
- “Completing my PhD without publications,” says an R&D scientist.
- A company CEO shares the vivid image of having a “45-minute argument with a client and ending up crying in the corner of a glass fronted room, hiding behind the flipchart.”
- My all-time favourite, “when I was a buyer for a retailer, I once put a South Park advent calendar into all stores. I didn’t check the messages behind the doors properly and managed to offend absolutely everyone. I only found out when it was featured on Watchdog.”
The etymology of the word success comes from the mid-16th century: from Latin successus, from the verb succedere ‘come close after’, ‘an advance’, ‘follow after’, ‘go near to’. We believe success is to achieve the desired outcome but can we infer from the words origins that success is simply, to try?
In 2016, a study by researchers at Colombia University took 400 students and placed them in three groups. The first group were given an 800-word description of the greatest accomplishments of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Michael Faraday. The second were told about the scientist’s personal struggles such as Curie, having always held first rank in her class was refused access to the University of Warsaw and had to study in the secret “Flying University” which offered an education in ever-changing locations throughout the city because women were discouraged from academic pursuits at that time. The third were told about their many intellectual and experimental failures. After six weeks, students in the second and third groups who learnt about the failures, felt connected to the struggle stories and outperformed those who only heard about their successes. They believed the scientists were innately gifted – unlike themselves.
Most Universities, companies and organisations articulate their values on websites and promotional materials but they often turn out to be empty words and rarely match the way people behave in reality, every employee is told to think of successes and failures through an entrepreneurial mindset, like chips in a gambling game. Some chips will win, some will fail but you don’t lose your job at Netflix because a bet didn’t work out. Instead, you lose your job for not using the chips to make big things happen or for showing consistently poor judgment over time.
The book, ‘No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention’, was published in 2020. Erin Myer at INSTEAD Business School noticed a successful innovation strategy. Employees at Netflix are encouraged to make good bets by farming for dissent (asking people to rate the idea on a scale of +10 to -10), socialising the idea through candid feedback or for big bets, testing it out at pilot scale. When a bet fails, employees are encouraged to ‘sunshine’ it. Sunshining is the act of talking openly and owning what happened rather than sweeping it under the carpet, being defensive, or blaming others. It takes immense courage to step into this level of leadership and help others to learn from your mistakes but you can’t have a culture of innovation without it.
Separate Success and Failure from Self-Worth
I’m not suggesting that you replace your carefully crafted CV with a CV of failures when you next apply for a job or promotion. However, taking the time to create one and reflecting on it is a hugely affirming experience: helping you own those mistakes, learn from them, and in turn, become more resilient and successful. Next level growth is to openly share it with others; a liberating experience which in turn will inspire others to process their failures positively. Whether the final outcome is success or failure, neither determine your self-worth.
- Stefan, M. (2010). A CV of failures. Nature 468 467. https://www.nature.com/articles/nj7322-467a
- Lin-Siegler, X., Ahn, J. N., Chen, J., Fang, F.-F. A., & Luna-Lucero, M. (2016). Even Einstein struggled: Effects of learning about great scientists’ struggles on high school students’ motivation to learn science. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 314–328. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000092