Experiment 2: My Failure Resume

A close friend came over for dinner last night and I told him about the Failure Resume experiment. He asked what failures I included in mine and I suggested he read it. I took out my laptop, brought up my Failure Resume, and waited with bated breath for his response. 

I was expecting glowing feedback. I felt proud of my work. I had written about some big failures in my life in a way that I thought was engaging and insightful.

My friend finished reading. He didn’t look impressed.

“I don’t think this is going to land. Your failures are completely unrelate-able and sound like humblebrags. To other people, some of your failures actually sound like successes”.

I tried to listen and take it in but was feeling shattered on the inside. I care deeply about this person’s opinion of me and felt exposed that he has seen work I had produced that he didn’t like. 

I had failed at creating a failure resume. 

My friend continued to critique the piece and gave me some hard to hear but incredibly valuable feedback. The perfectionist in me knew I couldn’t publish what I thought was my final draft.

So I carved out time today that I didn’t actually have to go deeper. I moved beyond my career failures and thought about my world outside of work. I also did some ruthless editing with the work failures I left in my Failure Resume.

As I prepare to hit “publish” on this post, I am feeling much more nervous than I thought I would be. While some failures listed below are stories that I have shared with quite a few people, there are others than only a handful of people in my world would know.

To up the ante for myself, not only am I punishing my Failure Resume to the 1500+ experimenters, but I’ll also be sharing it via Inventium’s e-newsletter tomorrow (subscribe to that at the bottom of this page), and via Linkedin. In other words, 30,000+ people will know about my biggest failures. Argh…

I do hope that through publishing my greatest failures, it inspires others to do so that were on the fence about sharing theirs’. I think that especially for people in leadership positions, sharing failures not only makes you more human and takes leaders off the unhelpful pedestal that they are often put upon, but it also invites others to be more human towards you - which can only be a good thing. (You might also improve your resilience while you’re at it, as we shall find out at the conclusion of this experiment).

So without further ado, here is my Failure Resume:

Losing two close friendships in one year (2007)

In 2003, I moved up to Sydney for work and stayed for four years. I made plenty of acquaintances and two very close friends.

Friend 1 was someone I had befriended in my Psychology Honours year. When I moved up north, our friendship clicked straight back into gear. We ended up living together in Glebe. But then one day, out of the blue, she announced she had bought an apartment and was moving out in four weeks. I was gobsmacked. I didn’t even know she was looking to buy a place. I felt angry and rejected. Why was she leaving me? And so suddenly? I let my emotions dictate my actions and we barely spoke to each other for those final four weeks. And we completely lost touch when she moved out.

Learning: Don’t let anger rule your decisions. I threw away one of the best friendships of my life due to what, in reality, was a petty issue. I learnt to be far more tolerant of people not living up to my high expectations and at the same time, I learnt to lower my expectations to avoid disappointment. I now also force myself to speak honestly with close friends when they do something that hurts me, rather than let the hurt manifest itself in destructive ways.

I met Friend 2 at the advertising agency I worked at before starting Inventium. I was immediately drawn to her - she was charming, warm, smart, and had the sharpest wit of almost anyone I knew. Over the course of my four years in Sydney, she became my closest friend. We spoke every day, we knew each other’s most personal secrets, and we shared so many belly laughs. Then one day, several months after I left the agency we were at together, she stopped contacting me. I tried calling many times. But she had disappeared. I feel deep rejection and confusion. What had I done? Why was she doing this? I never found out. And still to this day, I wonder what on earth happened.

Learning: I struggled with this rejection for many years and spent far too many hours trying to work out what I had done. Over a decade later, I came to the conclusion that it might not have anything to do with me. Perhaps the friendship no longer served her when I exited the industry we both worked in. Perhaps she wasn’t the person who I thought I knew so well. Maybe she was dealing with her own stuff and I was triggering unhelpful things for her. Anyway, I learnt that when rejection happens, it’s not always solely about me.

Being publicly humiliated at Speaker’s Idol (2011)

In the early years of Inventium and being a keynote speaker, I entered “Speaker’s Idol”, the National Speakers’ Association competition for up and coming speakers. My brief was to give a ten-minute presentation. Naturally, I dressed like me (which is slightly different from how other female speakers dress). I wore sneakers and jeans (although these days, I sometimes upgrade my shoes to Rollies). 

Three middle-aged, conservative women judged my performance and gave their feedback to me in front of a room full of fellow speakers who filled the conference centre. They told me that I looked completely unprofessional and that I would never work with the ”big corporates” if I dressed like “that”. I was mortified (and also a bit pissed off as I was already working with many “big corporates”).

I went back to my hotel room and balled my eyes out. I questioned whether I should give up speaking. In a bizarre twist of events, I had left my “outfit” on the induction stovetop (it was a small room - what can I say), and at midnight, my husband woke me urgently yelling that the room was on fire. It turns out the stove was on, my clothes caught on fire, and were turned to ashes. 

I woke up the next morning and decided I wouldn’t quit speaking after all - I just wouldn’t be able to wear that same outfit ever again…

Learning: Not everyone is going to like me (and perhaps I am an acquired taste). But I’m okay with that. “You do you” as someone wise once said.

Realising I had a sugar addiction (2014)

I could happily live on just chocolate for the rest of my life. In fact, if the genie from Aladdin came for a visit, one of my three wishes may well be being able to survive solely on chocolate mousse for the rest of my life with no negative health implications.

Three months after my daughter was born, and in a permanently sleep-deprived state, my sugar addiction hit its peak. One night, I was craving a hit, but there was nothing sweet in the house - except for a pack of raw brown sugar. So I opened it up and started eating teaspoons of sugar, straight from the pack. Yes, raw sugar. 

My husband walked in and looked shocked (understandably so). I saw myself through his eyes and realised I had a problem. I went cold turkey and have barely eaten sugar in the last six years.

Learning: My friends frequently comment how disciplined and ridiculously healthy my eating habits are, but something I learnt about me from this experience is that to change my own behaviour, I need to go the extreme. I need black and white rules so I don’t negotiate with myself. “I don’t eat sugar” is my self-talk, which makes it surprisingly easy to not regress back to my sugar-filled life.

Making a big mess of a staff resignation (2016)

In September 2016, I was on my first day of a three-week family holiday that had been in the making for months. On day one of my holiday I received a resignation letter from one of my top Inventiologists. It was completely out of the blue and I was gutted - and angry. How dare he do this over email and right at the start of my holiday, I selfishly thought. 

When I returned to the office, I made a speech in our weekly team meeting about this employee leaving - the only problem was, I made it completely about me. I talked about the terrible timing and how it ruined my holiday (seriously, what was I thinking? Not much, clearly). Immediately after the meeting, I knew that I had behaved incredibly poorly. I blamed stress and shocking jet lag, but ultimately I think there was no excuse for it (I ended up apologising profusely for my behaviour to the employee who had resigned). 

These few minutes in team meeting ultimately lead to several loyal employees turning against me, and ultimately leaving the business.

Learning: A few poorly chosen words can have a huge impact on culture and what people think about you. I now think far more carefully about what I say in team meetings rather than “winging it” because I know first hand how fragile culture and other’s opinions of me can be. Also, when someone resigns, it’s not personal, it’s just business (it actually took several more staff resignations to learn that lesson).

A mortifying keynote where nobody listened (2016)

After the devastating night at Speaker’s Idol several years prior, I have given literally hundreds of keynote speeches all over the world. But this is the one that sticks most clearly in my mind… 

It was the awards night for a big event, with a large room of people seated for a fancy three-course dinner at Dockside Pavilion in Sydney. 

I had been rehearsing a short 20-minute keynote for several weeks in the lead up to the event. And the time had come to deliver it. It was a rowdy crowd, and several drinks had been polished off by many by the time I took the stage. 

As the MC introduced me, he tried to get the room to settle down and listen. This lasted all of 30 seconds into my keynote. From there, the noise of laughter (not at my jokes) and general chatter filled the room. The audience noise was so loud I could barely hear myself through the fold-back speakers on stage. 

I tried every trick I knew to get my audience’s attention back, but nothing worked. It, well I, was a dismal failure. It felt like the longest 20 minutes of my life and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I spent the rest of the night trying to keep to myself. I debriefed with MC during one of the breaks who helped me feel a bit better about the situation and taught me some different strategies for managing rowdy crowds.

Learning: Don’t agree to give keynotes to drunk people. And it’s not me, it’s them. Also: delivering what I promised matters to me. I could have curtailed the keynote, but chose to follow through - and I’m glad I did.

Being too black and white in my view of people (2016 - and yes, this year was pretty much one massive failure for me)

A couple of my many flaws as a leader are that I don’t suffer fools and that I have a tendency to see people as amazingly awesome or pretty crap.  I received this feedback, and other pieces of very hard-to-hear insights, from two generous and brave team mates (one of whom is now the CEO of Inventium). They said that members of my team were scared of stuffing up because it would destroy my view of them. Talk about not walking the talk of creating a safe to fail environment… 

I was shattered but heard the message loud and clear.

Learning: I did a lot of work on myself with my psychologist to see people in shades of grey. I try to role model failure. And we now have a very active culture of experimentation at Inventium where lots of failures happen and we talk openly about it.

200+ hours sunk into a project that went nowhere (2018/2019)

In 2018, I spent six months (and at least 200 hours) creating, drafting and redrafting a book proposal - a massive 60-page document. My aim was to break into the US market and get a book deal with a major American publisher. I was successful (and incredibly lucky) in securing a highly respected and utterly brilliant US literary agent. However, we had no luck selling the book into any of the major publishers in the US. The proposal was rejected by every single publisher we approached. While I could have then shopped the proposal around to Australian publishers, I lost enthusiasm for the idea and threw away the months of work that went into this project. The Type A, time-optimising side of me felt sick about the amount of “wasted hours” that went into a project that I essentially ended up throwing into the trash can.

Learning: Not every hour can be spent producing something that will see the light of day. And: output isn’t everything. The gruelling process of learning how to write a book proposal and then learning how the US publishing industry works are learnings that can never be taken away and will serve me well for the next book idea, which I am just starting to work on.

Putting unrealistic expectations on myself in my role as a mum (2014-present)

In February 2014, my daughter Frankie came into the world. My life and priorities shifted enormously, as most of my energy pre-Frankie had been poured into my work.

A couple of years into this new role, I became more aware of the expectations I placed on myself as a mother. Because I was a working mum, I felt I needed to overcompensate whenever I was with Frankie. 

The unwritten rule I had was that I had to be 100% present and interacting with her 100% of the time. 

It was exhausting. And I was constantly falling short of this expectation and beating myself up about it. If I took my daughter to a cafe for breakfast and I spent a couple of minutes having a quick read of the weekend newspaper, I would immediately tell myself off and redirect my full attention back to Frankie. I identified with being an overachiever in my working life, and naturally, this expectation transferred itself to motherhood.

I always felt like I could be doing a better job, paying more attention, coming up with more stimulating activities, and baking better cakes (just kidding on that last one - I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be winning Masterchef anytime soon). And when I did direct my attention somewhere other than Frankie such as into reading the weekend paper, I would feel guilty for the pleasure this gave me. Because surely the most pleasurable activity, when you are a parent, is spending quality time with your children All The Time?

It took me another few years, in a conversation with my therapist, to realise that this behaviour was not normal. In schema therapy, I score high on the “unrelenting standards” schema. This is defined as ”the underlying belief that one must strive to meet very high internalised standards of behaviour and performance, usually to avoid criticism.” Easy to diagnose, harder to change.

Learning: I know I can have ridiculously high standards for my work, but I was completely unaware that these standards were also imposing themselves on my role as a mum. Over the years, and at least on some days, I have slowly started to relax the expectations I have of myself as a mother. I now sometimes allow myself to “do my own thing” while Frankie does hers.

As I write this, though, I worry that this may make me sound like a bad mother. I worry that I will be judged by other mothers who are 100% present for their children 100% of the time (I’m sure they exist, don’t they?). And I find it really hard to balance my overwhelming need to be the Best Mum in the World with also being kind to myself (which doesn’t come naturally).

It’s a constant battle, but one in which I think I’m making progress. Slowly.

And in spite of all of this, surprise, surprise, Frankie is still thriving.

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