Experiment 2: Failure Resume

My team at Inventium recently completed a strengths finder assessment. I expected my report to tell me that my top strength was something like “time optimisation” (as a similar test had revealed many years ago) or “creativity” - or some other skill that I practice and utilise every day. So I was quite surprised that my test revealed my number one strength was “competitiveness” (although this would come as no surprise to anyone who has played board games or table tennis against me).

My first memories of being competitive are from primary school. But in addition to being competitive, I was also a perfectionist.

If my assignment came back with an A, I would feel disappointed that the “plus“ was missing. If I wasn’t the first to finish a maths quiz, I would question my numerical ability. If I didn’t top the class in all academic assignments, I would feel like a failure. 

In primary school, a girl called Bonnie Smart was my arch-nemesis. She lived up to her name and would frequently get higher marks than me. I felt like we were the only two people who existed in our class, and whenever she would beat me, I would feel devastated.

While the mix of perfectionism and competitiveness can be a winning combination for career progression, it’s not the best for dealing with failure and setbacks.

Growing up, and later, as an adult, I prided myself on winning and being successful. Failure was not part of my self-identity. I was used to anything I put my mind to leading to success. Which of course means that when failure does arrive, it hits you hard. 

My natural inclination was to hide my failures. My failures embarrassed me because I thought they meant I was a lesser person. If other people knew about my failures, surely their positive impressions of me would be destroyed?

In my adult life, there have been moments where I have tried to embrace failure. For example, when I was 22, I decided to try to secure a record deal for an album I had produced. I sent copies of my album off to dozens of managers, publishers and labels. And I said to myself that I would aim to fill my bedroom wall with rejection letters before I would expect an offer of any kind. I only got a quarter of the way through covering the wall before an offer arrived. Which ironically did not help me learn any lessons about failure and setbacks…

Through my work at innovation consultancy Inventium, I see plenty of people struggle with failure - wanting to hide it, punish it, deny it. No good can come of this.

The best way to learn is to fail.

And when we start to talk about our failures openly, rather than repress them, we actually increase our resilience.

Harvard Psychology Professor Daniel Wegner (who sadly passed away in 2013) coined the term Ironic Mental Processes, through a series of experiments. What he found is that when individuals try to suppress certain thoughts and emotions, they resurface more intensely than before. For example, Psychology Professor Jennifer Borton and her colleagues found that when we ignore doubts about ourselves, self-esteem declines and anxiety rises.

Wegner argued that we need to stop suppressing negative thoughts and emotions, and instead, express them. Ironically, doing so should increase resilience and self-belief. Which is exactly what we are going to do this week. In a very public way.

This week, your challenge is to write a Failure Resume and make it public. Here are your instructions:

  1. Complete the pre-experiment questionnaire which should take less than a minute to complete (we are going to see if publicly sharing failures improves resilience).

  2. Reflect on your last ten years (although feel free to go back further) and write down your “greatest hits” list of failures. Try to go for the really big and embarrassing ones. Feel free to just stick to the world of work, or you might want to venture beyond this into your personal life.

  3. Open a fresh note in Evernote (or your note-taking method of choice) and write Failure Resume at the top.

  4. List the year and describe each failure in as much or little detail as you like.

  5. For each failure, describe what you learnt (hopefully something!)

  6. Post it somewhere public (e.g. Linkedin, Twitter, your blog, or even just email it to some friends or coworkers).

  7. Tag it #myyearofbetter #failureresume 

  8. Link to it in the comments section of this post.

Complete the pre-experiment questionnaire here.

Your deadline for completing this experiment is Wednesday, February 26.

Finally - a shout out to Wharton Professor Adam Grant for inspiring this experiment.

Good luck! I can’t wait to read about everyone’s failures.