CVs of failure

Came across this a month or so back, and was quite taken with the idea: a CV of failures. A number of scientists have picked up on the idea of compiling a CV of career failures to highlight for others just how much rejection seems to come bundled up with a career as a scientist.

Princeton’s Johannes Haushofer caught some media attention with their CV of failures (a PDF link, I’m afraid), which includes unsuccessful applications for degree programs, fellowships and funding. There’s also a section on rejections for paper submissions to academic journals.

But Haushofer credits Melanie I. Stefan for the original idea, published in Nature. Here’s an extract:

For every hour I’ve spent working on a successful proposal, I’ve spent six hours working on ones that will be rejected. I don’t mind the extra work — after all, if I abhorred tedious tasks with low chances of success, I would not be in research.

Even so, this means that for every endorsement, there are about six challenges to my ability, my determination and my vision. I find this harder to swallow. Perhaps this is because I have generally succeeded so far. I did well at school and later at university, earned the PhD position of my dreams, and have published several papers. This is the story that my CV reveals.

But that is exactly the problem. My CV does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts — it does not mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed.

Excellent stuff. And here’s Stefan’s actual CV of failures (again, a PDF).

And now I’m furious with myself for not bookmarking the excellent example I first came across on the very frank and funny website of a scientist that deserves repeat visits. I’ll rack my brains and come back with a link if I can.

Anyway: it occurs to me the nearest equivalent for a freelance writer would be failed pitches. I suppose it carries the risk that someone better at pitching will pinch your ideas so maybe I won’t actually do it, but I can see value: my failed pitches outweigh my successful ones by an order of magnitude, I imagine. I’m sure some writers find more success, but maybe it would be reassuring to others, and particularly brand new freelancers, to air that in public. And it would certainly be useful to me to keep a record: I’m sure your professional professionals do that sort of thing, if privately.

Otherwise I think my litany of professional failings would be unwise to share. The examples scientists pick out are from systems which have failure built in, perhaps to the point that it isn’t even failure – not really. Runners up don’t win, but we don’t call them failures after all. But I suspect the professional failings of most of the rest of us are murkier, interpersonal messes that are best simply moved on from.

But I love the idea, and applaud the people have taken the time to put a CV of failures together. You can find more examples with a search engine, I’m sure.


Author: James

Founded upon the observation of trifles