image by Nima Badiey (CC by 2.0)

#FML (Fail My Life): A Failure Résumé

Show students how to learn from their mistakes by owning up to yours

I ended up on academic probation after my first semester of college. When I graduated, I had no idea what I was going to do with my degree, much less my whole life. It took me the better part of a year, living and working in Scotland, then coming home broke and moving back in with my parents, before I knew what to do next. I dedicated myself to finishing my Master’s in two years, scored a college teaching job before the ink was even on my diploma (shhh…), and now I am standing in your classroom, in charge of evaluating your learning. I know what it’s like to blow it. I’ve been there. I’ve fallen flat on my face time and again. I’ve not only survived, I’m stronger for it. And you will be, too.

I used to tell my students this story during my “All About Me” speech on the first day of class (with a liberal sprinkling of jokes and goofy facial expressions). I think reminding them that I’m human made me a little less intimidating and, hopefully, they’d know I wasn’t out to punish them for screwing up. In the spirit of putting my failure where my mouth is, I’d like to share with you an innovative exercise first developed by Stanford d.school’s Tina Seelig. From Ms. Seelig’s blog:

“I require my students to write a failure résumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes. However, after they finish their résumé, they realize that viewing their experiences through the lens of failure forced them to come to terms with the mistakes they have made along the way and to extract important lessons from them.” (This exercise was originally published in “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.” Find more books by Tina Seelig here.)

So here is my version of How I Blew It and What I Learned. I have to be honest: this is one of the most difficult pieces I’ve written in a long time. (Cue Yoda: “The Failure is strong with this one.”) We are frienemies, Failure and I. Not surprisingly, I failed to meet my personal publishing deadline for this post. One more for the list.

Professional Failures

Not working harder to learn while on the job

I had many opportunities to learn new technologies that would have advanced my career, like the GIS training provided by a digital mapping company I once worked for (I thought the online courses were boring as hell and I quit part way through), or programs like Blackboard and other new teaching tools my colleagues suggested. I regret that I didn’t work harder to implement more project-based, hands-on learning, offer more off-campus field trips, or explore more radical teaching approaches until I was fully fed up with where I was and what I was doing. I regret all the years of “chalk and talk” teaching that did my students such a disservice.

Now I’m on a mission to change all of that by reading and studying voraciously (Sir Ken Robinson’s new book, “Creative Schools”, anyone?), publishing what I’m learning, soaking up new programs and apps, and looking for the right position that will allow me to put all of my new skills into practice as I continue growing.

Letting the Fear of Success hold me back

It began with one of my first college jobs, working at a Barnes&Noble bookstore. My manager and I were in a small room, counting out the money in the cash registers, when he suggested it might be time to begin training me to move up to a management position. I thought he was joking. I giggled. No, really. I laughed out loud. He never mentioned it again.

I wasn’t just afraid to fail, you see. I was afraid to succeed. I had never believed I’d be competent enough to be in charge of something important. When presented with a chance to move up the ladder, that belief kept me firmly glued to the floor.

My fear held me back countless times: I blew off an offer of cash to write some of the first SLOs (student learning outcomes) to be developed at my college; I froze up when offered great opportunities to write for established outlets (I’m sure I could have made my writing career take off by writing movie reviews for BlogCritics when I attended the Sundance Film Festival); I could have written grants to secure funding for all of the great things I wanted to do with my classes; or written an online version of my textbook to sell independently. It’s all too much trouble, was my excuse at the time. The truth is, I was terrified.

I’ve learned to spot my fear when it rears up and combat it with pushing through my reluctance. Writing this post after the unexpected success of my last one has been like pulling teeth, but here it is. Even if this post fails, even if I trip and fall while jumping, I’m past it and I’ll keep going. I’m determined.

Not maintaining valuable work relationships or building networks

Networking always smacked of ingenuous relationships, built for the sole purpose of personal advancement. I refused to be that “fake.”

Silly, isolated me.

Now I use LinkedIn, degreed.com, Facebook, email, and other points of contact to keep in touch with people with whom I’ve worked, people I care about, and people whose hard work I admire and to whose success I hope to contribute. Connecting with Blake Boles, for example, led me to Michelle Jones of the Wayfinding Academy, which led to meeting further amazing people from whom I can learn and with whom I can do great things.

Not following through

A variation on the fear of success theme: Not writing often enough or completing great writing projects. Not completing my screenplay after a director gave it a read-through and offered $500 worth of feedback for free. Not completing the update of my college textbook (my excuse: the publisher was terrible and I hadn’t seen a dime of royalties).

Writing is hard work. But the only way to get good at it is to write. Constantly. Thanks to The Synapse, I have the opportunity to daily relearn this rewarding lesson. I do still plan to rewrite my textbook; ideally, it will be a team (class?) project that can grow into an interactive, online resource.

Academic Failures

Giving in to the fear of failure

My academic failures began in high school, when I refused to work on projects and papers if I wasn’t sure how to splendidly succeed at them. I had been an advanced student all throughout school and I was so afraid to fail, so afraid someone would think my work didn’t merit being in an AP or Honors class, I chose not to even do the work. I didn’t know how to ask for help, didn’t think my teachers or my parents would know how to light the way through the rough time I was having, and I often gave up. Despite the fact that the valedictorian of my high school class and I were constantly competing for the top spot in the few courses we had together, I graduated with a 2.7 GPA.

I should have gone straight to a community college, gotten my act together, and transferred to a great university. Instead, I aced my SATs and was accepted to a Cal State, where I promptly stopped going to classes because I felt overwhelmed. Smart kids aren’t supposed to ask for help, right?

While I was working on my Masters, I came to realize that advocating for yourself is an important knowledge acquisition skill. In fact, asking for help is what smart kids do. It’s how they get smarter! Once I began teaching, I used my troubled past to help me understand and empathize with the struggles of my students. I worked hard to be, for them, the guide I wish I’d had in my life who could have helped me recognize what was really going on in my head and shown me how to move past it. I know I didn’t help every student who needed it. That’s one more fault I have to live with.

Personal Failures

Trusting the untrustworthy

For some ridiculous reason, I repeatedly re-learned this lesson. It nearly became life-threatening at the age of 18 when I allowed an abusive con man to drag me through hell for two and a half years. The problem persisted because I didn’t know how to say, “No,” and make it stick. I think there are many people who aren’t taught this very valuable skill from an early age. Today, I make sure my young daughters understand “NO” means “NO,” not “Maybe you can convince me otherwise,” or “Maybe later,” or “I really want to say, ‘Yes,’ but I’m too shy or too prude to say it.” When their father complains about how stubborn they are, I smile inside, secretly proud of their ability to maintain conviction.

I also learned (the hard way) exactly how a pyramid scheme works, and that any large organization that is not actually a church but spends a good deal of its time preaching to its employees at national conferences is probably a scam. Especially if they’re forced to publicly admit they’re under investigation.

Not maintaining good relationships

When I was twelve, my family moved from a small, Northern California town, where nearly all of my extended relatives lived nearby, to the north end of Los Angeles County. It was a very difficult time for me, but my sorrow could have been eased a bit by learning to write letters and staying in touch with friends and family. The longer I waited to write, the more embarrassed I grew and the more difficult it became. The advent of email and Facebook largely changed that for me, but I could still maintain closer contact with people I love and appreciate.

Not taking better care of myself

Wearing jeans and t-shirts to teach my geography courses was more comfortable and made me less intimidating to my students. But lacking a professional appearance also took its toll on my career. My children were my excuse for my lack of exercise and poor diet — there just wasn’t enough time or money to cut and style my hair, buy new shoes on a regular basis, or maintain a gym membership. The eventual payback came in the form of gestational diabetes, a condition which threatened not only my health, but my unborn daughter’s. It took so little effort to make positive changes, I later kicked myself with my new sneakers for not doing it sooner.

Be The Lesson, Grasshopper

Teaching isn’t an exact science; dealing with other humans is always a messy, complicated business. Admitting mistakes is healthy, sometimes even absolutely necessary. It’s okay to tell your class about big mistakes you’ve made in the past and how they helped you grow and change, or note the little mistakes you make on a daily basis as you laugh them off and move on. It is not okay to wallow in them and let them eat you alive until you become your failure, or attempt to avoid consequences by hiding.

Pick yourself up, admit the truth, apologize if necessary, and fix anything that needs fixing. Plan to do things differently next time. But here’s the caveat: Don’t just move on; give back.

Go on. Show them how to fail with dignity.

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