We have all seen the endless number of quotes on how we should fail more, fail quickly, and fail often but what do we actually do with all of these failures? If we are lucky we might actually take the time to learn from them but usually we quickly take stock in what happened and make a few mental notes to ensure that we don’t do it again. Rarely do we share the details of your our failures even with friends or family and we certainly would never think of revealing our failures with colleagues or perspective employers. Why do we have this inconsistency? We know that failure is a necessary part of learning and growing for both the organization and the individual but we never want to admit to our failures? If our resume is a collection of our successes… where is our failure resume?
As I have been conducting research for a book on failure and the important role role of failure in innovation I came across a great story from Tina Seelig. Seelig was the Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program when she had written a blog post back in 2009 about how she had required students in her class to create a failure resume. This resume wouldn’t highlight their accomplishments or successes but would list their personal, professional, and academic failures. With each failure they would explain what they had learned through the failure. Brilliant!
These students were attending one of the most prestigious universities in the United States and had only been admitted based on their incredible hard work and preparation. That hard work had paid off in academic and personal success not failures. They were used to trumpeting these successes and glossing over any minor setbacks that they had received. Here they were forced to acknowledge their failures and change their perspective to draw out what had they really learned. Seelig noted that beyond her class some students had kept their failure resumes updated even years later. One interesting twist on societal acceptance of failure failure is what country you are from. Based on much of the feedback from Quora responses to the question “Is it okay to mention my failed startup on my resume?” it depends on your culture. America… ok. Parts of Europe and Asia… not so much.
Woody Allen was quoted as saying that “If you are not failing every now and again, it’s a sign that you’re not doing anything very innovative.” So if we are supposed to fail every now and again, why is it that we never want to admit to these failures? Why do we not take pride in our failures as part of the learning process? As a risk taker? As an innovator? Silicon Valley recognizes the role of failure and the reality that failures are significantly more likely than success in the process of innovation. Seelig included in her blog post a video interview with Randy Komisar a former entrepreneur and now partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Komisar starts the interview by recognizing, “What distinguishes Silicon Valley is not it’s successes but the way in which it deals with failure.” He further notes that “Innovation is about taking risks to do things that haven’t been done before” and that “big businesses don’t usually venture into this space because their models don’t tolerate this rate of failure.” His interview is spot on and well worth the 8.5 minutes to watch it!
Food for thought:
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