Failure Resumes

The Harvard Business Review recently posted a blog about the value of creating a “failure resume,” which appears to be a chronicle of all the times you screwed up or failed to meet your goals. The value of this? To help you and others understand how you have overcome challenges in your career. I suppose it also helps high-achieving professionals get some perspective on their work history. It’s not going to be all triumphs and sunshine.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I quote Ayn Rand on occasion. However, one of several reasons I don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to Rand’s philosophy is that she believes that all things can be learned through straight achievement, neglecting the value of accidents and errors in the learning process. Another thing regular readers here will note is that I’ve learned a lot of important, painful lessons by screwing up.

My worst professional failure happened a couple years ago, when I was a new freelancer. The situation was sufficiently bad that I’ve refrained from writing about it, partly because I will most likely have to work with the company again and partly because it was humiliating: for the first (and so far only) time in my life, I was fired. Looking back on it, I’m still a little vexed about how it happened. I was writing what I thought was decent copy, while the customer kept coming back to me dissatisfied but unable to provide specific feedback that I could use to make it more to their liking. That was one of the very few times in my 20-year writing career where I found myself unable to get along with or satisfy a customer.

It is entirely possible that the customer just didn’t like me and that no amount of diplomacy, hard work, or willingness to please was going to fix the situation. Or I could’ve been utterly clueless about what the customer wanted, but I didn’t get the opportunity to learn the system or meet the needs before I was sent home. Still, if I wanted to look at this failure in a constructive manner, I could say that I pride myself on my ability to work with customers and meet their content and style needs…until it becomes impossible to do so.

In a couple other situations I was caught off-guard by specific employer questions because I hadn’t read enough to know what they were asking me. Or I’d dropped the ball because I hadn’t written down a request. As a result, I’ve made “being prepared” a priority–as well as learning the customer’s business.

And as I’ve noted in another entry, some of the more stressful situations in my career have been self-created because I let my emotions run away from me.

So do I think creating a “failure resume” is a useful exercise? Not necessarily. However, it is still worthwhile to look back on the mistakes you’ve made in the workplace and recognize what you did or did not learn from certain situations. And here’s a hint: if you’ve had the same type of situation happen to you more than once and you haven’t changed the behavior that caused it, you haven’t learned the lesson yet.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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