The Bottom is Lined with a Mirror

"It's not the note you play that's the wrong note -- it's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong."

-- Miles Davis

Today, I made a new resume -- but not the kind you think.

This morning, I created my Failure Resume. A one-stop shopping experience for all my biggest screw ups, mistakes, rejections, losses, and embarrassing moments -- and the key lessons I learned from each experience. The failures could be professional, social, emotional, financial, ethical, physical, or something else entirely.

I didn't have enough room on the sheet of paper to make an exhaustive list -- and 20 minutes wasn't enough time to cover everything. There is a lot of failure on my resume -- some that I'm incredibly grateful for (losing an election) and some that still hurt (a relationship that went wrong). Some I've already written about, others I'm trying to build up the courage to be more open about.

Risk and Failure White Board.JPG

Tina Seelig, the professor of my Creativity and Innovation class, introduced the challenge. She wrote about it in her book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, and it's been written about by a few outlets, including Fast Company. It's brilliant and I think everyone should do it. 

The failure resume exercise was good for me. Here's what I learned: first, I have messed up a lot, and and actually sitting down with the intention of cataloguing all of my mistakes was initially hard. I noticed internal resistance. But it was also really useful to recognize that each failure was accompanied by a valuable lesson, and in some cases those lessons fundamentally re-shaped the way I live my life, or the decisions that I've made. In those cases, I'm lucky to have failed.

I already knew this, but crafting a failure resume highlighted the fact that I'm naturally self-critical. I'm hard on myself.

Professor Seelig posed a fascinating question to the class today: "When you fail, what is the bottom lined with?"

Some people said a trampoline, because they always bounce back up. Others said a ball pit, like at McDonald's, because it takes them awhile to get back up, but when they do they realize they're fine. One person said maple syrup, because while it's messy and uncomfortable, they always look back and realize the sweetness of learning from mistakes. 

For me, the bottom is lined with a mirror. After I make a mistake, I will replay it in my mind 1000 times -- sometimes to figure out how and why it happened, other times less constructively. Each time, it's painful. It's not a healthy habit -- but I think a failure resume is. The point of the failure resume, as Professor Seelig explained, is to "mine your errors for insights." When you screw up, make a note, write it down, figure out what can be learned from it, then file it away and move on. That's the plan moving forward. 

One thing that has been stuck in my brain since Professor Rich Cox shared it with the class this morning is the quote at the top by Miles Davis. That's a new frame for me -- the failure is never the initial mistake, the failure is what follows. It's what you do immediately after you mess up. Do you double down and keep digging? Do you just stop and give up? Or do you adapt and move forward? That's a helpful and healthy way to think about mistakes.

There was a second new frame for viewing failures that we talked about today. The failure isn't necessarily the mistake itself, whatever personal characteristic caused it or allowed it to happen. The failure is the root cause, not the consequence. That's also a more productive way to think about failure -- and it allows you to "fix" or address your failures, instead of being stuck with them.

I can't write about failure without including a quote from President Bill Clinton that I find powerful: 

"I learned: that no one is perfect but most people are good; that people can’t be judged by their worst or weakest moments; that harsh judgments can make hypocrites of us all; that a lot of life is just showing up and hanging on; that laughter is often the best, and sometimes the only, response to pain."

-- William Jefferson Clinton