Working on Your Resume? Start with the Failures

By Kate Rodriguez

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Sometimes it’s easier to discover the positive by looking at the negative. We all know the hardest part of writing or updating a resume is honestly assessing your true strengths and biggest accomplishments. So, why not do the opposite? Taking a good hard look at what you don’t do well or where you haven’t performed your best might lead to some interesting insights on where you shine. Consider this fresh, unconventional approach to come up with the all-important career document.


What’s a Failure Resume?

One of the newest professional development exercises is the failure resume. This method is championed by Stanford University and has become popular in many college career offices. The idea is straightforward: job-seekers write down, in resume format, the things they’ve failed at, professionally, personally and academically. The difference between this and a normal resume is that participants must also write what they learned from each screw-up. Doing this exercise encourages people to examine and accept all of their experiences. And it allows them to see that failure is not always bad – many people turn these sad events into lessons that help them in the future.

The idea of failure as career positive owes its growth in part to Silicon Valley’s startup environment, where failures are a badge of honor among entrepreneurs. It’s generally recognized that those who’ve had one or more failed ventures are better equipped to spot and steer successful ones.   


Negative to Positive

How can a failure resume help you prepare your normal (aka “success”) resume? By seeing your weaknesses written down before you, you can practice the art of finding the strengths on the other side. Let’s say you put a lot of work into giving presentation, and it was a disaster. You forgot what you were going to say and got flustered, and your laptop crashed. Maybe you also realize, though, that the work you did to create the presentation was solid, and you enjoyed doing it. Now you’ve identified a strength (doing research and preparing reports) and an area where you need to improve (public speaking).   


One Man’s Unique Approach

Jeff Scardino made waves online last year for his own special failure resume. A self-titled “Creative Junkie” who works at a top ad agency, he conducted an experiment. Scardino created a “relevant resume” listing only failures, such as bad references, missed honors and non-skills (e.g. “Have difficulty remembering names”). He sent the relevant resume off to 10 companies with openings, and another 10 normal resumes to other companies. He received only one response to his applications using the normal resume, but got an astounding eight interview invites from companies he’d sent the relevant resume to! It clearly made him stand out, and hiring managers were eager to meet the man behind the failures.


Should You Try This?

Funny as it is, sending a failure resume to apply for jobs is probably not a good idea for most applicants unless you’re going for a creative role (like Scardino’s) or a startup team position. One reason is that in firms using applicant tracking software to identify matching criteria, an eccentric resume will surely end up in the rejection pile.  Still, there may be areas on your resume where it’s okay – even recommended – to add a carefully selected failure. Mention, for example, that you completed a project for a competition and although yours was not selected, you mastered a few important skills along the way.

Another crucial reason to study and embrace your failures is that they will come up for discussion in a job interview. The more comfortable you are talking about your own weaknesses -- and what you’ve learned from identifying them -- the easier it will be to be positive about them in front of a hiring manager. Your honesty will help you stand out from the job applicant masses.


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