We all remember when we failed our first test, and we know too well that it’s impossible to erase the memory of our first romantic rejection. There’s no denying that failure is hard to forget.
But there’s a light at the end of this painful trip down memory lane. Perhaps Henry Ford put it best when he said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again—this time more intelligently.”
There’s always an intelligent way to handle any failure you come across in life. The most intelligent way I’ve found is to record my failures in what I like to call a “failure resume.”
What’s a failure resume?
The first time I heard this term was back in 2009. Stanford professor Tina Seelig blogged about how she required her students to write a “failure resume.”
These resumes don’t highlight what one would typically expect to find in a resume. Instead of compiling successes, they list personal, professional and academic failures. After each failure, she had her students reflect on what they learned throughout the process. Genius.
When considering what to add to your own failure resume, it’s important to know the distinction between a failure and a mistake. They aren’t one and the same. A failure is a lack of success, whereas a mistake is an incorrect action. Failure doesn’t necessarily have to stem from a mistake.
Why use a failure resume?
Here are the two strongest reasons for using this type of marketing document:
1. It helps you learn from your failures. Too often, we are uncomfortable admitting our work has failed. We’re quick to put our failures behind us. But why not learn from them? Purposefully take the time to understand what you accomplished, determine what you learned throughout the process and decide what you would do differently.
2. You can more easily assess how much risk you’re taking on in your current role. Most people are overly satisfied with their performance in their current roles. They’re accomplishing their goals and moving their careers and organizations forward, but if you were to ask them the last time they failed at work, they’d likely be stumped.
Don’t play it too safe. As Woody Allen once said, “If you are not failing every now and again, it’s a sign that you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
As you create your own resume, you’ll have a chance to reflect on what you’ve done right—and what you haven’t. This, in itself, should be motivation to improve.
How to create a failure resume
One of the tricks used to get to the root cause of a problem is the “five whys” technique. When creating your failure resume, list a failure and then try to answer one simple question: why did this project fail?
From there, take your answer and try to drill down further by continuing to answer “Why?” four more times. Eventually, you’ll reach the root cause of the failure. This is your chance to address that cause.
You can try and ignore it, but odds are, you’ll face the same issue again. Don’t let that happen! Save yourself from the disappointment of having to list the same failure, year after year, by nipping the issue in the bud right now.
Now implement your failure lessons
The majority of organizations nowadays have a review process to evaluate their employees with annual or quarterly check-ins. During the process, each employee takes the time to list all their successes over that time period, eventually consolidating the entire year’s achievements.
But failure is quite possibly the strongest tool organizations have when trying to better themselves. That’s why it deserves a place in the review process.
Organizations would do well to carve out a bit of space on their “personal development plans” to actually capture these failures. Discussing failure would likely prove to be a significantly more meaningful discussion than simply having employees cite all their accomplishments. Unfortunately, until organizations are able to incorporate a “tolerance” for failure into their culture, it’s unlikely that you’ll see much traction in this space.
Grow from your failure
Make yourself a belated New Year’s resolution: use your failures as catalysts for growth.
By utilizing a failure resume, you can prevent yourself from traveling down the path to failure again. The best way for a person and an organization to grow is by admitting their failures and learning from them.
Maybe there’s a reason failure is so hard to forget.
Matt Hunt is a professional speaker, blogger, consultant and founder of Stanford and Griggs, LLC. With over 20 years of business and technology experience, he has a demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation and leadership development with large companies, small companies and non-profit organizations.