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.