Can a Failure Resume Help You Succeed?

A “failure resume’’ is an exercise that is intended to help you learn from your past mistakes.
A “failure resume’’ is an exercise that is intended to help you learn from your past mistakes. –iStock

Your resume is a document intended to highlight your successes and accomplishments. It’s your chance to stand out from the crowd of applicants and convince a prospective employer how you can build on their successes.

But are you prepared to talk about your failures? Probably not, if you’re like most people. After all, these are instances where you fell short, made a mistake, didn’t try hard enough, or possibly worse.

So how can you prepare to address your failures? Maybe it’s time to write a “failure resume.’’

A “failure resume’’ is not a document of personal missteps that you send to potential employers or post on your LinkedIn profile. Instead, it’s a private exercise is meant to make students, job-seekers, employees, and others confront, acknowledge, and learn from their mistakes in order be wiser the when the next challenge arises.

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After learning that local educator Caroline Erisman, head of school at Wellesley’s Dana Hall School, sometimes asks her students to write a failure resume in order to learn from their mistakes, Boston.com decided to see how the concept works in the professional world.

Tina Seelig, professor of the practice in Stanford University’s department of management science and engineering, requires her students to write a failure resume so they become comfortable with the idea of failure and more importantly, look for opportunities to learn.

“It’s important for us to look at failure as part of the learning process,’’ Seelig told Boston.com during a phone interview. “For example, no one walks, talks, or rides a bike right the first time.’’

Seelig says learning from failure is key for anyone considering a career in Silicon Valley. The failure resume is intended to challenge young scientists and engineers to look for the opportunities for improvement in their own missteps.

“My students have to look at their mistakes from different angles, and to prepare for next time they face a similar challenge,’’ said Seelig. “It’s important to mine your failure in order to learn.’’

In her blog “CreativityRulz,’’ Seelig explains that items listed on a failure resume can include professional, personal, or even social blunders. Students are supposed to outline what they learned from the experience in order “to extract important lessons from them.’’ Seelig told Boston.com the failure resume is a helpful way to get students out of their comfort zones.

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“Students are used to looking at their lives through the lens of success,’’ said Seelig. “But if you’re only looking at your success, then you’re missing an opportunity to learn from your failures. You’re also being disingenuous, since the road to success is riddled with failure.’’

Seelig is also upfront about her own failures from early in her own professional career which she outlines in her book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20
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“In one of my first jobs I didn’t pay attention to the culture of organization and behaved as though I knew how the company worked. As a result, I didn’t fit in,’’ she told Boston.com.

“It was detrimental, but I learned from that error and made sure to spend an appropriate amount of time observing in each new job,’’ said Seelig. “Now I can say, ‘Here is my failure and here is what I learned from it.’’’

Mark Efinger is president and founder of Interview Skill Coaching Academy in Great Barrington, where he prepares candidates for the job interview experience. While Efinger has not personally used the failure resume exercise, he agrees it’s important for applicants to prepare to address the issue during a job interview.

“During an interview, the interviewee usually presents a rosy picture of themselves,’’ Efinger said in a phone interview. “Asking ‘what is your biggest failure?’ is an opportunity [for an interviewer] to get a reality check and to put a little pressure on this person.’’

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But Efinger says the good news is if a job applicant is asked about their failures, it’s a sign that the recruiter may be interested in moving the candidate to the next round. That said, it should not be seen as an opportunity to embellish.

“This is not where you tell an interviewer ‘I’m an incredible leader, that just comes naturally to me,’’’ said Efinger. “If your strength is taken to an extreme, it becomes a weakness.’’

Efinger pointed to the example of Thomas Edison’s attempts to invent the light bulb as an example of learning from failure.

“When Edison was asked ‘How does it feel to fail 10,000 times?’ he responded, ‘I didn’t fail, I eliminated 10,000 alternatives,’’’ said Efinger. “It’s only a failure if we give up.’’

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