Leadership Tip: Write a Failure Resume

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” –Thomas A. Edison

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” –Colin Powell

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” –Henry Ford

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” –Winston Churchill

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” –Johnny Cash

For the next few minutes, let’s think about failure. The quotes above from some remarkable leaders (and a fantastic country singer) show that we as leaders and businesspeople should not fear failure. In fact, we should welcome and document it.

“We spend most of our time thinking and dreaming about success—how we define it, what we need to do to achieve it, the best ways to document it,” says Bill Taylor, “Fast Company” magazine cofounder and business author. “So it may sound a little strange to document and share your failures.”

However, writing a failure resume is one of the best ways to prepare yourself to succeed. By revisiting your mistakes, setbacks and miscalculations, you can remember that success is rarely a straight path full of roses and sunshine, Taylor explains.

“A big part of winning over the long-term is how you handle defeat and disappointment in the short-term,” he says. 

By reflecting on all the things that did not go your way, you can remind yourself how well you’ve done anyway. Maybe you tried a new venture that went bust or missed out on a great cash rent arrangement? Isn’t your farm operation still successful—and perhaps—even better off because of that error?

This leadership exercise is especially important for those who lead others. By sharing lessons we’ve learned, you can inspire grit and resolve in your family and team. Plus, you become more human and authentic. 

You want to teach your colleagues about the true measure of success and how to prepare for the setbacks they will inevitably face, Taylor says. 

“How we’re measured as leaders is how much we contribute to the success of those who work for us,” he says.

Taylor offers three suggestions for writing a failure resume.

  1. Don’t chronicle your failures until you document your success.
  2. Be tangible and specific. What did you learn from the setbacks you’ve experienced? 
  3. Keep it entertaining. Most failure resumes are cheerful and upbeat. Remember, this is an exercise to create clarity for yourself about the potholes on the road to success.

“In a world drunk on success, being willing to share your failure resume will help you stand out from the crowd,” Taylor says.

Want to learn more? Read Taylor’s Harvard Business Review essay: Write a Failure Résumé to Learn What Makes You Succeed

I had the pleasure of hearing Taylor speak a few years ago. Here is a brief take on his presentation about how to define your strategic position. He also shares some great insights on Twitter. Follow him at @williamctaylor