3 Highlights from my Un-resume and What I Learned from Them

Maxwell Failure QuoteI don’t remember where I was reading it, but in some creativity or leadership book that I read over the last year, the author suggested the benefits of taking the time to write an un-resume, a resume that, instead of selling yourself, highlights your failures. This isn’t just about beating ourselves up for opportunities missed, failed attempts, and disappointments. It is about recognizing how we have grown, and how much we can learn from our failures and the pursuit of something seemingly unreasonable aspirations. I decided to take up the challenge and finished it with some rich self-reflections. Here are the highlights, 5 less than flattering moments that I’ve gleaned for lessons, insights and opportunities.

1. Failed to apply to my top 5 colleges.

It isn’t that I was not accepted. I didn’t even have the courage to apply. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had not read an entire book from front to back (unless we are counting Dr. Seuss). I loved learning, had an insatiable curiosity, and craved new experiences and novel ideas. I started high school with no study habits and finished with a few, enough to turn a lower GPA my first couple of years into something presentable. I loved the big ideas and deep questions, but sometimes lacked the discipline and understanding to build a foundation in an area that allowed me to thrive and dig such ideas and questions. I was still recovering from the loss of my father five years earlier. I was convinced that words like “majorly” were indeed words, which set me up for a less than exemplary college application essay. I didn’t read or write very much. I didn’t know how to use a library card catalog (You might need to look this one up if you are under 30). When I was a Freshman in high school, I still had to use a mental pneumonic to remember right from left, and I confused seven or eight items in my multiplication and division tables…but I still loved math. I had no understanding of academic culture and the associated vocabulary. I’d moved among 12 states, which sometimes left me with major gaps in my formative education. I’d move from one school that was behind to another that was moving through the curriculum at a more rapid pace. I knew how to ask provocative, substantive and compelling questions, but I didn’t know how to seek and find answers to them.

Yet, at the end of high school, I was on the verge of becoming addicting to books, reading one a day for almost an entire summer after my first year in college. I read widely, from philosophy to Russian novels, self-help to economics, history to theology, psychology to social criticism…and I loved the history of ideas. In other words, I read much more non-fiction out of school than I did in school. When I thought of the ideal college experience, I wanted to be at Harvard or MIT because I craved a community that had a love for ideas and doing something amazing with those ideas. I wanted to be at a place where I could participate in a rich conversation about the most pressing issues in the world, the greatest opportunities in science, and I wanted to do it with the world leaders in those areas.

I didn’t apply to Harvard, MIT, or another “dream” school. I was afraid. Given my GPA and less then exemplary first ACT score, I thought it best to be realistic. There is a very good chance that I would not have been accepted, and I ended up having a positive experience at a regional liberal arts college. My embarrassment is that I didn’t apply. At the time, I didn’t even know that colleges like Reed existed. I’d never heard of Carleton, Haverford, Swarthmore, or Wesleyan. I had little to no sense of the possibilities. In fact, when Washington University (in St. Louis) expressed interest in me for basketball, I was largely uninterested because I thought it odd to have a school named “Washington” University in Missouri. I did not even know enough to be flattered by the interest.

This was a hard habit to break, avoiding the pursuit of a grand goal because I didn’t want to experience disappointment, but I let fear hold me back far too much. I think about this quote from Steve Jobs, now even more powerful after his passing.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. – 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

I bowed out or never stepped into several exciting opportunities in my formative years (even while I participated in many others). It wasn’t until my early 20s that I discovered the joy of aiming and striving for things, even if I initially thought they were far beyond my reach. That change made all the difference. I learned to (albeit not always or perfectly) learn from failures, and I discovered that it isn’t about succeeding the first time,  but more about persisting and/or trying different paths to the same goals.

2. Earned a 14 on the reading section of the ACT in high school.

I already mentioned that I didn’t read in high school, so when I sat down to take a multiple hour test like the ACT, I didn’t even have the discipline or attention span to read an entire essay. I learned that this doesn’t work well for one’s score. Fortunately, I had a 30+ on at least one other sections, resulting in a cumulative ACT that left me eligible for all the Universities to which I ended up applying. It is funny that a less-than-one-page essay was too long for me at that point in my life. Looking back at that, I’m reminded that the ACT is not an accurate measure of aptitude for everyone. Without test-taking skills, a healthy attention span and similar traits, you can’t demonstrate your aptitude through such an assessment. Fortunately, these are things than can be learned over time. I am proof of that. I went from not being able to make it through an essay to reading Augustine’s Confessionals and Pascal’s Pensees in less than two years. This is why I rejoice in the growing attention to the importance of attributes like grit and focus, and an understanding that these can be learned. Over the years, I’ve learned through personal experience and observation that you can’t be too careful when using labels like smart, gifted or talented as if they are simple genetic traits. Nurture needs more credit. Think of those destructive claims of early researchers that certain races are superior to others, as if life experience were not a factor. It is. Most of us know that now, although not all our educational policies, practices and models have been fully reconsidered in this light.

3. Never started a research paper more than a few days in advance of the due date throughout high school and the first two years of undergraduate school.

Some teachers required me to put together some notecards and an outline, and that forced me to do something in advance, but in high school I did not know what that had to do with writing the paper. It was a disconnect. I was clueless about using a personal planner or any form of personal project management that would help me figure out how to work on a task that took weeks or months. When I discovered the “magic” of strategic planning, goal setting, and planning in general; it was like I’d been shown a new and unchartered world. Goals were like some irresistible dessert once I learned what they were and what goal setting could do. Then, when I got my first laptop with Outlook calendar, I was delighted with how I could now think about my life and goals over months, years, even longer. This is not to suggest that I no longer procrastinate on anything. I do, but it is now the norm for me to conduct research or find success with projects that takes weeks, months or years of study before even producing any form of written work or formal presentation. Sprints are helpful, but it takes a different mindset and skill set to succeed in a marathon.

I suppose some can read these and conclude that I was a late bloomer. I don’t look at it that way. My life’s path would likely been very different if I had some of the skills listed above earlier in my life. It may also be that I would have never learned some of the lessons from these life experiences. This is not an exercise in excusing our mistakes or avoiding the truth. It is, however, about recognizing that every life experience is an opportunity to learn, and failures are too painful to be wasted. Why not use them to become sometime more, to do something noble, to learn? That is what I value about this exercise in writing an un-resume. It gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves, to be patient with those who are still developing in some of these areas, to not be too quick to label people’s abilities in absolute terms, to reflect on lessons learned, and to mine them for as many insights and opportunities as we can find. As Goethe wrote, “By seeking and blundering we learn.”