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Only successful people can afford a CV of failure

Sonia Sodha in The Guardian

A Princeton professor’s frankness hides the grim reality about work for many young people


 
Students at Princeton University. Photograph: Mel Evans/AP



‘One of the most strangely inspirational things I’ve ever read.” “This is a beautiful thing.” These aren’t plaudits about the latest Booker shortlist, but some of the praise directed at a “CV of failure” published by Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer. I have to confess that when I heard about the failure CV, I too thought it was a lovely idea. But when I read it, while it’s clearly very well intentioned, it made me feel a little uncomfortable. Professor Haushofer explains at the top of his CV that most of what he tries fails, but people only see the success, which “sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me”. The failures he lists include not getting into postgraduate programmes at Cambridge or Stanford, not getting a Harvard professorship and failing to secure a Fulbright scholarship.

I’m sure this was aimed at a small group of his students, to demonstrate that even successful professors get papers rejected by academic journals, but I suspect that the overwhelmingly positive reaction the CV has received in academic circles and on social media tells us more about our idealised view of success than the reality.

Those who are most successful have an understandable interest in emphasising that they got there through old-fashioned grit, persevering in the face of failure, never letting setbacks beat them down. Quite frankly, it’s a far more attractive way to package success than sharing a story of how it just happened to fall in your lap or how your innate abilities are so brilliant that they effortlessly propelled you to the top. Our favourite success story goes: sure, I may have some natural advantages, but I’m essentially like you, I just worked really hard to get where I am.

This also has the advantage of fitting the narrative that we want young people to buy. Work hard, keep plugging away and success will be round the corner. If you don’t put the effort in you won’t get there. It’s supported by the theory of success documented by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: people with exceptional expertise have invariably invested at least 10,000 hours of practice.

Of course, this is an important life lesson. We don’t want young people thinking that success is a matter of luck, otherwise they might feel like packing up and going home rather than slogging their guts out at school. There’s no question that effort is often correlated with success. but there there’s a serious danger that in patting ourselves on the back in sharing lessons about failure, we miss out some hard truths about the world. It’s much easier to talk about failure from the vantage of success. Oh yes, I know I get to write columns for a newspaper, but did I tell you about failing my driving test three times?

Sure, that’s a little flippant but there are lots of times when failure doesn’t end in success, and those stories contain as many important truths about how the world works. Those stories are much harder to share: like most people, I’d find it much more painful and difficult to be open about failures in those areas of my life that I don’t consider a triumph than those that I do.

Taken to the extreme, the risk is that telling ourselves these nice stories of success in terms of trying, failing, learning and trying again makes us too complacent that that’s the way the world really works. Sometimes, it does. But not always. Recent research has discredited Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, suggesting that practice accounts for just 12% of skill mastery and success. Buying too much into this myth in the face of the evidence undermines our understanding of a depressing and universal truth: the world is stacked against some young people before they’re even born.


 
Professor Johannes Haushofer said he had been judged by his successes. Photograph: Princeton University

I think it would be more useful for successful people to write a “CV of good fortune” than a “CV of failure”. A sort of: I’ve had much luck in my life: being born into a middle-class family and having any natural ability nurtured by my parents and then by the education system. It’s not to say that I can’t take any credit for any successes I might have had, but I think my own good fortune CV would contain more hard truths about how the world works than my failure CV.

Of course, good fortune CVs would send the wrong message to young people, who we want to be brimming with determination and resilience even when the world is stacked against them. We’ll never be able to eliminate the role that good fortune plays, but the flipside of encouraging young people to try, fail and try again is that we need to do much more to lessen its influence and to increase the relationship between effort and success.

Today’s labour market is tough enough for young people. Recession has hit their pay packets the hardest and it is not uncommon to find graduates working in a bar on a zero hours contract. Even while businesses complain about young people lacking employability skills, there is evidence that they are underinvesting in young people’s skills. On-the-job training has fallen in recent years and too many businesses have diverted government training subsidies for apprenticeships towards training that they would have been delivering anyway.
It’s only going to get tougher for some groups of young people. Yes, there will be new and exciting jobs in highly skilled careers we haven’t even dreamed of. But some growth sectors will be of a distinctly less glamorous sort, such as caring for our growing older population. These are currently low-skill, low-paid jobs, done mostly by women, held in low esteem. Yet there is a dearth of thinking about how we can make these jobs more fulfilling, better paid and more respected. It’s almost as if we’re hoping that the jobs at new frontiers of artificial intelligence will create enough trickle-down excitement to soften the blow for the young people who won’t get to do them.

Learning from failure is important but so is being able to get a job in which you’re invested in, supported to learn from your failures, and encouraged to progress. Yet we are reluctant to talk about the fact that, for too many young people, those jobs simply don’t yet exist when they reach the end of their education. It’s hard to see what good a failure CV will do them.

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