"A Princeton professor has posted his “CV of failures”—a résumé of jobs not won, awards not awarded, papers rejected. As it went viral, he added a “meta-failure”: “This darn CV of Failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.”
Failure is in fashion. “Fail fast” is Silicon Valley’s motto, and failed startup founders readily share their lessons. Famous stars write of their early failures. A whole slew of TED talks celebrate the power of failure to get you to success. CEOs test prospective hires by asking how they failed. We’re told that secretly feeling like a failure, a.k.a. “imposter syndrome,” is a sign of greatness. Masters of the universe are out; vulnerability is in.
But these discussions of failure tend to come with a shallow moral: that after all the disappointment and heartache comes hard-earned success. The implication from CEOs and celebrities who boast of having been knocked down is that they eventually triumphed—and so can you! They use failure to burnish their success, to craft the story, to build the brand, to suggest empathy. Even that Princeton professor’s attempt at humility feels a little hollow when you look at his real résumé, a seven-page litany of publications, positions, and prestige.
We read about the failures that lead to victory. We don’t hear of the ones that end in defeat. They don’t fit our myths, our hero’s journeys. But that is how most of us mere mortals fail; without fanfare and without vindication. We try, fail, try again, fail again, grit our teeth, and move on. True vulnerability is admitting that you’ve failed, you’re still failing, and it hurts like hell. Being honest about this while you’re still in the thick of it is the real triumph."
This little snippet from a magazine called Quartz hits it right on the head.
All the maxims/memes about failure that litter the internet have always made me queasy and uneasy. Embrace failure! There is no failure, failure is just a laboratory for learning, it's the only really-really road to big fat dripping Success! Whoo-ha.
It's a dishonest message, in that they're not talking about real failure, are they? Costly failure. Humiliating failure. The kind you and I experience all the time. The kind you may never, in fact, recover from, because sometimes you just can't.
It's the same with "mistakes": they're great, they're courageous, they're part of the hero's journey! Make as many mistakes as you can, for goodness' sake. It's how you learn, it's how you triumph!
But what about a mistake that's really a mistake?
What if you're caught pilfering supplies at the office? Trifling with the boss's wife? Speeding at night, after a couple of martinis? Mistake, mistake, mistake.
And what might the consequences be? Let's not think about that. These actions certainly will not lead you on to ever-more-glorious success.
You might learn something from them, but possibly from a jail cell.
I'm just sayin'.