Using Failure as Fuel: The Anti-Bio

iStock_000016909333XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

The failed start-up. The lost job. The botched client pitch. The college rejection letter. Most missteps along our career path make us cringe and want to put the experience out of sight and out of mind as quickly as possible. In our efforts to move on and put our best foot forward, we may omit setbacks from our professional stories that we tell others, and even from what we tell ourselves.

Yet there may be more value in owning our failures than running from them. “Failure is an inescapable part of life as an executive,” says corporate psychologist Patricia Thompson, PhD. “While some people are more likely to make errors of commission, in which they jump in and make a mistake, others may be more likely to make errors of omission, in which they are not aggressive enough and miss out on opportunities.”

Thompson suggests that the best leaders are those who are able to maintain perspective: when you recognize that making mistakes is inevitable, you can use them as growth opportunities rather than trying to pretend that the mistake never happened.

This sounds good, but how can you really flip failures into your favor? One way is to consider constructing an “anti-bio.”

Tool for Transformation

Many traditional strategies for dealing with failure involve moving onward and upward, away from incidents that have caused us to stumble. An alternate idea is to incorporate failure into our perception and experience of our total career path. To this end, finding ways to identify and include “negative” experiences in our mental (and in some cases, our actual) CVs can be both therapeutic and productive. Enter the anti-bio.

Sarita Adve, professor of computer science at University of Illinois, describes an anti-bio as a compilation of “the things that nobody wants to talk about in their bio.” Adve shared her own anti-bio in front of more than 800 attendees at the Anita Borg Institute’s (ABI) Women of Vision Awards earlier this year, pointing out that to be successful, one must first learn to risk and deal with failure. Adve prefaced her acceptance speech as the 2012 winner of ABI’s Award for Innovation by saying, “To share my thoughts on success, I must first share with you my failures.”

There are many ways to consider compiling and using an anti-bio. Here are a few of them.

Share and share alike. One effective anti-bio technique is to follow Adve’s lead. Be open about sharing your failures with others in your industry when given opportunities to communicate about your career trajectory, such as during speaking engagements or in mentoring situations. “When successful women share information about their career ups and downs with lower-level women, they acknowledge that failures are an inevitable part of our career paths rather than a source of embarrassment,” says Laura Graves, associate professor of management at Clark University’s Graduate School of Management. “This makes it easier for lower-level women to acknowledge their own failures and learn from them.”

Jennifer Chayes, distinguished scientist and managing director at Microsoft Research New England and winner of ABI’s Award for Leadership, admitted that she felt overwhelmed when she first heard the bios of previous award winners: “As I listened both to the bios and the acceptance speeches of the other women who’ve won these awards, I’ve felt completely inadequate to stand here and share my experience,” said Chayes. “I couldn’t compete with either their struggles or their achievements. As I heard the stories of these other women, I did what I always do at first—I wished that I had their qualities rather than my own.”

Because of this, Chayes wanted to be sure that those in the audience were aware of her own anti-bio’s role in her current success, rather than focusing only on the positive parts of her progression. “At least for me, leadership was a journey of recognizing, embracing, and leveraging my own unique gifts, and then helping others to recognize, embrace, and leverage theirs,” said Chayes.

Include a failed venture on your resume. Though it may sound risky, another anti-bio technique is to consider full disclosure on your resume about a particular failure. When handled appropriately and presented in the context of a larger path to success, such honesty can open doors by presenting you as a resourceful problem-solver.

Kelsey Meyer, senior vice president of Digital Talent Agents, used this technique prior to launching her present company. “I currently help run a startup, but prior to this I started my own company,” explains Meyer. “The company failed quickly, and I was very open about speaking on this topic during interviews. I spoke about what we did wrong, what I learned from it, and how failing fast is an important skill to develop when working in the startup world.”

Now when Meyer interviews potential employees for her current company, she makes sure to ask them about their failures and what they’ve learned from them. “This question can tell you a lot about a person’s ability to cope and keep a positive attitude,” says Meyer.

Identify and reflect. Graves believes that compiling an anti-bio can be particularly helpful if the incidents that make up your bio help you to determine how you might manage situations more effectively in the future, or identify weaknesses that you can address through development.

“Executive women might identify and reflect on episodes where they believe they were ineffective at work,” says Graves. “For each episode, consider issues such as:  What happened? How did your actions contribute to the problem? What other factors contributed to the problem (e.g., other people, lack of resources, organizational systems)? What could you have done differently to create a more positive outcome? What did you learn from the experience?” Graves adds that it can be helpful to get others’ perspectives on your perceived “failures,” as you may be reviewing yourself too harshly.

Remember your successes. While your anti-bio is important, it’s important not to take it too far. If you find yourself more focused on your failures than your successes, or feel a drop in confidence from an overemphasis on what’s gone wrong, it may be time to file away your anti-bio for a while and remind yourself of your career highlights.

“Understanding past failures and learning from them is valuable for all executives,” says Graves. “But it is also critical for professional and executive women to understand their successes and learn from them. Focusing on failures and ignoring successes is likely to lead to burnout and compromise mental health.”