Failure gets a bad rap. It’s the other “F” word, loaded with bad grade school associations. And in a social media age in which cultivating a network and branding yourself is increasingly part of every career path, we rarely hear of failures. Instead, people trumpet their success far and wide. A cursory look at Facebook or Twitter reveals a world full of “winners,” constantly accomplishing and ticking major achievements off their to-do lists.
I feel this, too. I like a big celebration around my wins as much as the next person. When I published an essay in a high-profile fashion magazine last spring, did I swan around about it on social media? You bet I did. But what wasn’t captured in the various posts, tweets and retweets was the shadow life of those words.
Before the fashion magazine took the piece, another two turned it down, as did a major newspaper and a snooty biweekly publication. Most of my résumé has followed a similar path. In addition to the various successfully placed essays that were first rejected, there are the other creative works that never made it to publication, so flawed were they that I decided to abandon rather than resubmit them. If I’m honest, the shadow list of failures far outnumbers the successes I promote on my website and CV.
Related: 12 Empowering Lessons About Failure
But lately I’ve been seeing the value of these failures, and the value, in particular, of bringing them out of the darkness into the light. Recently, a number of academics and writers have started making their failures public, creating “shadow résumés” that include flops as well as wins. Though, one assumes, they don’t send these résumés out for jobs, they live on personal websites, offering an honest accounting of work that didn’t pay off in a measurable outcome as well as the many aborted attempts through which the author struggled before her work bore fruit.
If you haven’t failed lately, you might ask yourself if it’s time to take on some new challenges.
The shadow résumé can be anything you like—a running handwritten list of things attempted, a separate computer file that uses a different font or color for those things tried but not accomplished. And the document can be public or private. There are benefits to both.
A list you keep to yourself can help you stay honest. Don’t be too quick to admire someone who never fails, yourself included. When we try something new or otherwise challenging, there are going to be a couple ugly moments. Just think about what a child looks like when they’re trying to walk. There are a lot of bad attempts, but the tumbles along the way are just part of the process. If you haven’t failed lately, you might ask yourself if it’s time to take on some new challenges.
Ironically, keeping a private list of failures can also be an ego boost. After a month or year in which you feel like “nothing” has happened, looking back at your failure list can be a nice reminder of all the things you’ve tried, how much you’ve put yourself out there, how brave you’ve been. Many famous authors keep every rejection letter they’ve received, and both the Harry Potter and Twilight series received a dozen or more rejections before going on to become global best-sellers. Actors and actresses audition and do not land roles, toiling in obscurity before they get a break. Star athletes lose games and matches at a rate we’d consider astounding if we applied such statistics to our own lives. But these high performers know that many failures are required to be great. So, why not start tracking your own fabulous failures, too? Or keeping a list of favorite famous “failures” from your career path?
If you’re a little bolder, the value of going public with a shadow résumé is enormous, not because it takes successful people down a peg, but because it indicates to others the importance of trying again and again. Ideally, these documents become a way of reminding ourselves and teaching others about the importance of taking lots of swings. Also, it sheds light on the sometimes hidden work that is valuable experience even if it doesn’t result in a traditional résumé line item. For example, blockbuster film director Steven Spielberg applied to and was rejected by his dream school three times before redirecting his efforts into working directly for a film studio. For the person just starting out, it can be reassuring to know that failure is a normal part of a job’s day-to-day and an expected point in the learning process. And, perhaps more importantly, being open about failure helps new people see that they’re failing in good company.
Whether posted on a website, kept in a drawer or used for training, a shadow résumé can help us all reframe failure as a point of pride and a nice reminder of our growth. May we all fail, well and often.
Related: How to Reframe Your Failures
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.