Thursday, 21 April 2011

Writing a Failure Resume

This week I completed Chapter 5 of Tina Seelig’s "What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World”; and was left thinking about a particular topic that I found quite interesting: writing a “Failure Resume”.  Other people have already blogged about this in the past (ETL, Tina's own blog, mistake bank) sharing similar impressions as I. But what I’d like to do here, is present my very own failure resume just as Tina has done in her book, but adding a little more detail: in addition to summarising the failure, I will include the lesson learnt and future objectives for improvements.

I find Tina’s book a fascinating read, it’s as if the book was especially written for me. I can really relate to Tina’s advice, how I wish I could’ve attended a proper institution like Stanford. I try my best to follow Tina’s ETL series (Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders) program, how generous of them to share this valuable information with the world, for free!!  Whenever I read books on entrepreneurs, I get really excited. I have this feeling in my inner core that this is me, this is something I can do, this is someone I definitely want to be - but haven’t yet taken that leap of faith yet, although I can feel it’s just around the corner.  I plan to share my past ideas with you in another post, just in case you think I’m a nutter, a wanna-be, just a dreamer getting high on books ;-)

So back to this “Failure Resume” and what is so interesting about it??  Most of us concentrate on all the successes and overlook the past failures that probably influenced us more than we’d like to admit ourselves, and could possibly have accounted for future success.  It’s good to keep a record of past failures, and in my opinion, could come in handy during interviews when you’re quizzed “What are your weaknesses?”, “Give us an example where things didn’t go the way you wanted”, etc.  Failing that, it is a good tool for reflection and planning your next growth stage, both personally and professionally.  

To excel and succeed, to reach the next stage or challenge, one has to take risks, try something different - and don’t be afraid of failure. One should embrace failure, because with failure, comes wisdom. A mix of successes and failures provides one with a good balance, well rounded experiences that you can use to your advantage.  The great companies, according to Tina, look for people with a diverse background and talent, willingness to learn, experiment and failure, but wise enough not to repeat past failures.  I, myself, am still searching for a company that embraces this culture - well it is the secret sauce of Silicon Valley after all!!

[April 2011]: So version one of my Failure Resume is below (I found this quite a difficult exercise to complete, this is certainly no 10-minute exercise. In my case, I’m not that experienced, I’ve only got 10 years professional experience, and most of the failures can be rationalised and turned up-side-down to be seen as necessary successes because of my over-arching desire of learning as much as possible, from as many different areas as possible - to be a Jack of all trades in Software):


Professional Failures

Jumping ship too early. My desire to broaden my horizons can be seen as a failure of not giving enough time to stay for a long enough period to establish myself in the role. I find myself changing roles once I feel that I’ve learnt enough or seen enough, eager to seek out the next new challenge. I’ve learnt that you really should allow yourself at least 2 years in a job role before moving onwards. After all practise makes perfect. Just because I excelled in one project doesn’t necessarily mean the next project will be any easier. This failure can be seen as getting bored too quickly, impatient.  It’s a tricky one because you can find yourself falling into the trap of becoming too complacent, watching the years go by and then realising you missed your chance to make that exit you so desperately need right now.

Being made redundant. I left my country of birth after one year of working as a graduate engineer, to work in Ireland. I’d not been overseas before, and neither did I have enough workplace experience (my first company mostly employed people from the local university - we were all friends). It took me a while to settle in with the new company culture, moreover, the company was doing poorly in terms of projects, so for the first 6 months I literally had no real work to do. Although I made efforts to take on work and was proactive, I fear I wasn’t loud enough, blending quietly in the background.  When work did pick up and I was assigned to a good project where I thought I’d played an important role, I falsely assumed that my job was secure in the wave of redundancies taking place. Not so - I was made redundant (they train you to say “my job was made redundant”) - I see that as a personal failure on my part, not doing enough, not contributing to core projects as a failure.  Thankfully, the subsequent 8 years that followed, I made it a point to strategically move when my spider-senses detected a scarcity of work on the horizon.

Falsely assuming managers understood my expectations, not selling myself enough & working too hard. I recently came off an intense project where personally I felt I did an excellent job, even in my appraisals had consistently exceeded my managers expectations.  I assumed that I’d naturally move into a more senior position seeing that I’d proven myself on more than one occasion, doing work proactively, working long hours early into the morning, etc.  Oddly enough, I wasn’t given the appreciation I assumed was coming my way.  I did not communicate clearly enough to the main project stakeholder of my expectations, once the project was over, I found myself wandering, in limbo - all that effort, all my hard work wasn’t good enough to be noticed. Seeing that I wasn’t getting what I wanted, I decided to leave the team, leaving a hole behind now filled in by three people. A new project was kicked off, but it was too late for me to board that ship!  I realise now that expectations must be communicated clearly, and also, you should try NOT to do too much (if you’re overloaded, shout about it, don’t take it on), there’s more important things to worry about than work.

Refusing to play the corporate game.  Perhaps it’s because of my naivety, but for a few years I’d refused to play to corporate game of falsely smiling and being nice to managers, pretending to give a damn when in fact you don’t, just because you want to climb the corporate ladder.  Yes, you need to get on with all your colleagues, but when it comes to work and execution of tasks, one should be judged on only this - the value one adds to the bottom-line.  Maybe I have a cultural or religious bias, ideals that prevent me from mixing and socialising?  I’ve learnt that if you don’t allow yourself a little flexibility without compromising on your core principles, you need to develop some “street savvy, be street-smart” in the workplace, to make the connections and silently manoeuvre to positions advantageous for you.  Don’t expect others to do it for you, you need to consciously make the effort and plan ahead - take time to determine the corporate culture, identify the teams/people you’d rather not get involved with, have a plan of attack targeting the people you’d like to end up with.

Academic Failures

Not doing my best, not 100% focused. I used to be a straight-A/B student, but at university, I dropped the ball in my third & final years (the most important years!). Staying on my own with friends, having unrivalled freedom to experiment, even the distraction of girls, I ended up not attending lectures, avoiding the lecturers, and just sitting for the exams with only a month’s preparation, gaining a 3rd class pass (66% if you average the 4 years), when I could’ve easily got at least 75% had I been focused.  Whilst I did successfully qualify, I regret not using the vast amount of resources that were available to us (e.g. experimenting with business projects, becoming more involved with the university staff, etc).

Poor relationship management. Whilst some of this can be attributed to the unnatural cultural legacy of Apartheid, and that it needed some mental fortitude for students from backgrounds such as myself to break through the invisible barrier between different people (black/indian/coloured/white) - I failed to build any meaningful relationships with the faculty staff at university, so much so, that when I enrolled for a Masters in Ireland, the professor in charge was not entirely positive in his recommendation.  We were not on talking terms socially, I’d only visit him when a report or presentation was due - we did not have a mentor/student relationship.  At university the class would be naturally be separate into racial groups, we didn’t really interact with each other.  Had we learnt how to make these relationships in university, then working in a multicultural company would’ve been a piece of cake.

Personal Failures

Not knowing enough - choosing the wrong career path.  Perhaps I’m being too hash on myself, but one of my failures goes way back to when I finished high school, the period where you decide what to do for the rest of your life.  I feel had I known better, I could’ve made different choices that would’ve set out a path so different to where I am today, although the present one isn’t so bad.  Nevertheless, I failed to do the research, the serious searching that was required at this important juncture of my life.

Not executing my ideas, not taking enough risks.  I have always had ideas that could’ve led to something great, if only I’d acted upon them.  Either I take too long to experiment with the idea, or lack the confidence to push it through, take it to the next level.  I have executed on a couple ideas, but this was within the context of a safe environment of the workplace.  If I failing to execute, I can’t call myself an entrepreneur. I need to stop making excuses (no time, work, family, no money) and take a chance.

Rewarding myself.  I over analyse and keep putting the needs of others ahead of mine.  I am also too hard on myself, and very self-critical. Personal time and space is important, and is a right of an individual. I don’t allow myself enough of this, and also have failed in keeping my interests up-to-date, for example: making sketches, doing some programming (i.e. learning new languages outside of work), or taking time out to be active.

Relationship management. There were times when I found difficult to separate out my work persona from my family persona - and expect my family to be run just as I’m running a project at work, to an extent that I’ve been told I act like a general in the army, too strict with the wife and kids, with too many expectations. Over time, I’ve improved and trying hard to change :-)

[October 2016 Update]: Five years onwards and I've had a relook at my failure resume, read here!


  1. Very interesting....
    Quite an interesting article here...The former American President Abraham Lincoln underwent several trails and tribulations throughout his life. He was a self educated man. He rightly quoted, “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”

    Read more:
    Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

  2. Thank you for have guts!

  3. Thanks for sharing your failure resume. I am at present doing an online course with Tina Seelig and its a very interesting course. This is our final assignment...writing a failure resume. I just thought that if you would like to the next course, its in October. Just google the Stanford online courses. Good luck

  4. This is very interesting. I have went through many of the failures that you have made. Reading this blog made me to realize my mistakes that I have made in the past few years. Thank you for sharing your failures with us.