CV of Failures (and lessons learned)

The following is an example of Marc’s blog series that presents stories and questions for leaders who want to review how they work with the people in their care:

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Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
— Samuel Beckett (Irish Playwright)

A CV is a highlight reel.

For all the successes that decorate a resumé, there are many more failures, near-misses, non-selections, participation medals, and rejection letters. Below is an abbreviated list of my notable career failures along the way to where I am now. The list is ever-growing, and the number of life-lessons therein ever-evolving.

rejections and non-awards

2019 - University lectureship (interviewed but denied post)

2019 - University Lectureship (interviewed but denied post)

2019 - Business Fellowship (not shortlisted)

2019 - Research Fellowship (not shortlisted)

2019 - European infrastructure grant (cut at first round)

2018 - Research Fellowship (not shortlisted)

2017 - Research Fellowship (not shortlisted)

2016 - University lectureship (not shortlisted)

2016 - Junior Research Fellowship (not awarded)

2015 - Junior Research Fellowship (not awarded)

2014 - International PhD competition (not shortlisted)

It cannot be stressed enough:

This list is abbreviated. My full list of failed grant proposals, competitions, and job applications is simply too long to remember. The important thing is that my failures are plenty in number. They vastly outrank the number of successes and highlights. In this I am not alone.

We try again. We fail again. And we try to fail better.

Failing Better

Glasgow’s Royal College of Physicians holds my most surreal experience of déjà vu. There, among the ancient books and the bronze busts, I had the privilege of speaking in front of a cohort of PhD students. The students were part of a select group of Scottish scholars of whom I was an alumnus. Standing on the varnished stage, looking out in silence at the expectant crowd, I was thrust back into their position. My mind dragged my spirit from my body and back in time to when I started my own PhD.

Years before speaking to those PhD students in Glasgow, I was one. I had sat among similarly bright students, thinking about all their wonderful successes and expertise compared to my own. The self-imposed dread and pressure to succeed was deeply intimidating.

Marc presenting his thoughts on Imposter Syndrome to a cohort of PhD students.

Marc presenting his thoughts on Imposter Syndrome to a cohort of PhD students.

When I gave my lecture, it was after my PhD, after my post doc, after I started my own research team, after countless battles with self-doubt. In essence, I stood on that stage in Glasgow to share my realisation that unspoken failures come before visible success. I told students about my CV and my CV of Failures (many in the audience had never heard of the latter). You can read more about the concept here.

Whilst my points of advice were warmly received, there was something I missed. Something I forgot to share. What I hadn’t told the students was something one of the wise charity trustees told me after my talk. They told me that handling failure isn’t solely about about creating a CV of Failures. It’s about the CV of Failures…and what lessons you learned in the process of populating the list. So, here it is, not just my CV of Failures, but what I’ve learned from having suffered more career failures than I can count:

1. Show your work to people you trust.

It’s easy to become blinkered by your ambition. It’s even easier to think that you don’t need help, that shouldn’t ask for help. This has been a mistake of mine in the past and something I’ve worked hard to improve. Being open to critical feedback does not mean being open to intellectual slaughter. It’s being willing to learn from other points-of-view so that your work can become greater than the sum of the trusted reviews you accumulate.

2. Failure is not ‘Game Over’.

The moment the result comes in, the moment you hear that you haven’t made it, that you haven’t been picked this time…that’s when it hurts the most. It could be for the first time or it might be for the one hundredth time, it doesn’t matter. Rejection hurts. Every time. But in those moments of concentrated disappointment and resentment, it’s crucial to remember that you’ll live to fight another day. The possibility to try again is a privilege in its own right.

3. Never ever stop.

Persistence and grit are terms oftentimes thrown around in leadership circles, and it’s because they matter. What would be worse than suffering those horrible rejections that add another line to the CV of Failures? For me, the rejections would pale in comparison to the regret of never having tried at all. What if I had gone for one more grant? What if I went for that job, that course, that fellowship?

If you never try, you never fail, and you never give yourself the chance to fail better. To win.

Infamous basketball player Michael Jordan frankly describes his success:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

So, what about your CV of Failures? How could you fail better? How might you help someone in your care to fail better?

For more writing like this, click on the ‘reid_indeed’ image to visit Marc’s blog: