The CV of failure

When I graduated from university, drawing up an appropriate CV to start my hunt for a job was a tricky affair.

You had to get a balance between touting your accomplishments (which at the time were frankly non-existent) and not exaggerating so much that someone reviewing your CV would find you obnoxious or unbelievable.

But the overall point of the CV was to announce to the world that you were someone worth employing because you had already got some achievements under your belt. Even your hobbies had to make you sound like a person of substance.

Today, we revere successful people (as we did back then of course) and eagerly listen to everything they have to say in whatever format we have access to.

People read biographies about great people to understand what made successful people like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey (to name just two very popular examples) tick and use them as a guide to their own professional and even personal decision making.

Meanwhile on social media, people pass around inspirational quotes from those people that they believe show insights into how to achieve success. The histories of the most successful companies also receive constant examination.

The thinking is usually along the lines of ‘this worked for the person/company so if I see how they did things, it will work for me too’.

However while that approach makes sense on paper, I’ve always found myself a bit skeptical of the ‘Steve Jobs inspired me’ narratives.

For one thing, they almost always simplify the complicated stuff for a more basic tale-the role that others play in his vision and its execution, the role of other institutions in his success and other factors usually don’t fit in well with the simplistic version.

The same is true of companies. It also usually overlooks the role that pure luck plays-the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are some of the greatest artists in history and their talent is not in doubt, but without the influence of powerful families who sponsored and commissioned their work, it seems unlikely that we would know their names. However something like luck is not a factor we can properly assess so it’s something that tends to be ignored or downplayed.

But in addition to that, the focus on successful individuals and companies as a sort of secular gospel for building to success offers only limited lessons to understand the world.

The reason I say that is because I feel failure is something we don’t study enough even though it is equally (if not more) enlightening than success. For every company like Apple or Microsoft that achieved tremendous success and iconic status, there are thousands of stories about companies that had the vision and ambition that crumbled and most of them disappeared from history.

And for every visionary like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckeberg, there are thousands of other visionaries who failed despite not necessarily being less capable than those who succeeded.

Why and how they failed can reveal so much about life and provide so many interesting stories about how the world works. Studying those failures allows us make space for the factors that we can’t easily squeeze into an inspiring slogan and allows us to get more comfortable with the messiness of life.

And this brings me back to my opening paragraph-our CVs also present the best version of ourselves, and it makes sense since a completely honest CV wouldn’t get people jobs (and would have to be about 20 pages long which would test the tolerance of even the most patient person reviewing applications).

However in an ideal world, it would be fascinating to see a ‘failure CV’ where we detailed everything we failed at and what lessons we learned from those failures. After all, not only do our failures help us improve but they also offer a constant reminder about how human we are.

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