My UnResume: 16+ Failures by the Numbers

For those of you who frequent my blog, you’ve learned a bit about me. If you browse the web, you will likely find many biographies about me from speaking engagements, my full CV, as well as quite a bit of professional information on sites like LinkedIn. Now I want to share what you don’t see on those sites…what someone once called (I think I first heard it from John Maxwell) an unresume. I did this in 2015 as well. I found it rather helpful, so I thought I would make it a tradition, hopefully offering some important lessons for the readers as well.

While I’m sure that there is danger in dwelling on our failures and disappointments too much, they are just too valuable to waste. Each failure, missed opportunity, and unaccomplished goal has the potential to be a teacher. I am a firm believer that failure is a powerful teacher. I also appreciate when people are vulnerable enough to share some of the less than flattering parts of their life, work and learning journey because it helps me to see that this is a natural and often important part of how we grow. Pathways to success are quite often not without mistakes or even failures. As such, here is my second unresume. This time, I’ve decided to include it through 16+ failures represented in a quantifiable format even though some of the numbers are guesses or estimates.

173  – The number of incomplete blog post drafts.

Yes, I’ve written close to a thousand articles on this blog over the years. What you might not know is that I have close to 75 that are partly written and unpublished. Many of them will probably never be published for one reason or another. Beyond that, I’ve started and deleted several hundred other articles that just didn’t make the cut. From one perspective, they were failed essays. From another perspective, they each helped me think through something or to at least reflect on what I do and don’t want to say.

5000+ – The number of typos in the articles that I’ve written on this blog (including those in this article).

I put the disclaimer about typos on my “about” page. What you get on my blog is often emerging and rough draft thinking. Quite often I’m giving you a glimpse into my mind as I work through some new or existing strand of thought. I’ve received a few critiques about that over the years. Is it really respectable for an academic, even a University administrator, to write with such candor and limited attention to grammar and syntax? I’m okay with it, but I know that isn’t the only opinion on the matter.

32 – The number of unwritten books.

I’m delighted that, at the time of writing this post/article, I have two published book (one a single author book and the other an edited work), and a third book coming out in the upcoming months. I also have two other books that I hope to publish by the end of 2016. Yet, what you might not know is that I have a long list of unwritten books from the last two decades. I just didn’t take the time or garner the courage to see them through…at least not yet.

8 – The number of incomplete degrees.

This includes three MBA programs, a MFA, a PhD in Leadership, a MA in world history, a Master of Divinity, and a Master of Arts in Philosophy. All but one of these are admittedly started without a strong commitment to finish. I just wanted to take some classes and have great discussions around important concepts and ideas. Yes, I have four degrees but I failed to complete more than I finished.

$0 – The amount of money earned from 1994 to 2000 in my first consulting business (called Servant Innovations).

I started my first business less than two years after graduating college while I was teaching full-time at a middle and high school. Within a week, I had three clients…all non-profits. My “company” focused upon helping these organizations establish a digital presence and devise a strategy to leverage that presence to achieve their organizational goals. I believed in their causes so much that I did the work for free. Then came the next client…and the next. Before I knew it, I had a “business” for six years that served many organizations and never made a single dollar…at least not directly. It did, however, set the stage for later work and consisted of incredible lessons about organizational culture, strategy, and much more.

0$  – The budget that I proposed for my first effort in the 1990s to launch an online high school.

I started exploring the possibility of online learning in secondary education back in the 1990s, interviewing some of the early school leaders at places like CyberSchool and The Babbage School. Then I came up with a program proposal and plan to launch my own. I pitched it to the school board and, when they asked how much it would cost, I said 0$. That is right. I pitched an entire online school effort and suggested that I could do it for no money. I leveraged innovative teachers who volunteered their time and we built a model about which I am still proud today. I would proudly put those courses up to almost any that you see today. In fact, some of the features were well ahead of their time. Yet, the effort failed because you can’t run such a program without a budget or a viable financial model. Somehow that didn’t occur to me at the time. Over the next decade, I used this lesson to build a better understanding of financial planning. As some of my colleagues like to say, it is hard to have a viable mission without a margin.

0 – The number of languages in which I am fluent (other than English).

I studied German, Greek and Hebrew in high school and college. I dabbled in Spanish and French over the years. Yet, to this day I never put in the time and persistent effort to become fluent with any of these.

0 / 7 – The number of times that I qualified for the Boston Marathon compared to the number of marathons completed.

I started running when I was a candidate for an FBI position years ago and needed to get back in shape for the fitness portion of the associated testing. When that position was off the table, I just kept running. After a few months, I decided to set a few goals like completing a 5K, then 10k, then half marathon, and a year later, the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon. I went on to run that a couple more years, adding to it marathons in Chicago and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Then I decided to set the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, but I finished my last marathon about nine years ago, missing the qualifying time by seven minutes. From there I ran into a few temporary health issues and backed off on the marathon running altogether. As such, I never achieved that goal.

4 – The number of incredible opportunities that I missed out on because of indecision.

I can’t go into detail with these, but suffice it to say that, in retrospect, I messed up. I had four potentially once-in-a-lifetime offers at four different times and I grappled with whether I was ready for them. I didn’t make a decision fast enough and missed the window of opportunity. I admit that I sometimes experience a hint of regret over a couple of them, but I also take pride in the fact that I hesitated because of my core values and convictions. In the end, I learned a lesson about myself. I’m fueled by meaning, mission and core values. If I don’t have clarity about how an opportunity fits with my personal sense of mission and my core values, I struggle and usually pass. Yet, in retrospect, some of those opportunities could actually fit very well with my personal mission and values, but I couldn’t see that at the time.

7 – The number of missed dunk attempts in games during high school and college.

I played basketball in high school and college. I could dunk since eighth grade. I often joked (but I was really serious) that God gave me the ability to jump because he felt sorry for my limited range and lousy shot. Dunking was the only way that I could get the ball through the hoop. Somehow a group of people were fooled enough to make me honorable mention all-state for high school in Illinois and a few colleges offered me a spot on their teams. Yet, apart from a handful of end of game moments, my most vivid memories are seven dunks that I missed in games. Some where glorious visions of a ball hitting the back of the rim and flying to the other side of the court. In another, I hit the front of the rim and landed on my back. I divide these fails into two categories: hubris and not committing. With some there was no need at all for me to attempt that particular type of dunk. I was show-boating and learned my lesson the hard way. Others, I believe, came about because I did not commit. I got hesitant or held something back. Both offer me important life lessons.

6 – The number of terrible workplace decisions that still embarrass and humble me when I remember them from the last 20+ years.

I’m sure that I made many more bad decisions over the years, but as I prepared to write this, six are especially vivid. They all have this in common. I failed a person in a way that conflicted with a personal core value. Each of these have become formative lessons and cautionary tales in my leadership.

1000+ – The number of books that I started but did not finish.

Many know that I read about a book a week…although I’ve slowed a bit in the last few months. That sounds like quite a bit of reading to many people. Let me give you the other side. I also have a ton of books that I started but never finished. Sometimes I was not ready for the book. It was too advance for me at the time. Sometimes I just lost interest. Other times I just got distracted by a better book and never got back to it. I have one book that I’ve checked out of the library close to ten times and still haven’t finished it. In some ways, I don’t feel too badly about this. Not finishing a book that is not useful or for which I’m not ready is sometimes the right decision.

6 – The number of book queries rejected by publishers.

I’m sure that this number will continue to grow, but since I only started submitting queries in the last year, this number is pretty small. Those rejection letters are wonderfully humbling, but I’ve learned something from every one.

300+ – The number of unfinished ideas and projects over the past twenty years.

I have lots of ideas. I sometimes take on more than I can finish. I’ve learned the power of prioritizing and focusing on a few items, but even with that, I have a massive list of unfinished projects over the last 20+ years. I’m grateful for the many projects that I’ve completed, but there are countless other projects that never got off the ground. Part of me is okay with this. Many of those unfinished projected were infused in other efforts or helped inspire projects that did get off the ground.

12 – The number of domains purchased but unused.

Each domain represents one or more of the project that I listed on the last one. They just sit there waiting to see if I might resurrect one of them at the right now. I just can’t seem to let the registration expire just in case…

25ish / 70+ – The number of jobs for which I got rejected compared to the number for which I applied from 1994 to 2005

I think that I’ve written about this before, but early out of college, I used to love applying for jobs. I loved the application and interview process, and it was an incredible opportunity to learn about different organizations. I didn’t want to waste people’s time so I was candid about how I was not sure that I wanted to leave my current job. Yet, I just kept applying. In one year I went through almost thirty interviews for incredibly diverse jobs and organizations. Over time I get pretty good at writing cover letters and crafting resumes that matched the job. I went into interviews (especially those in board rooms with 4 or more people) with excitement more than nervousness. I got quite a few job offers out of this, almost none of which I accepted. Yet, the other important part is that I was not chosen almost as much as I was chosen. Sometimes the reason was quite obvious because I was not remotely qualified at the time, but there is something humbling and centering about being told that you don’t cut it or that they found a better fit. These were formative experiences in my ideas around mission-minded innovation and what I write about calling. The experiences affirmed for me that we each have unique life journeys and callings.

28 – The number of typos that I found in my doctoral dissertation after it was accepted, I graduated, and it was published.

That is right. I even hired an editor to help me fix typos beforehand. The most embarrassing part for me is that my first typo is before the page numbers even begin, on the dedication page. I have an embarrassing double negative right there on the dedication page for all to read, and by all I mean the handful of people who might find my dissertation at the Northern Illinois University Library. That brings me to the next one.

100+ The number of times that I’ve dreamed of or imagined sneaking into the Northern Illinois University library and stealing the existing copies of my doctoral dissertation.

Having recognized these errors, I often had dreams of sneaking into the NIU library and stealing the dissertation from the shelves so nobody would ever read it. I’m partly proud of the dissertation but it was out there and in retrospect, not a wise choice for a first piece of publicly available writing. For all practical purposes, it didn’t even fit the formal definition of research. As such, I have these dreams of stealing the dissertation but realizing that the alarm would go off at the door if I tried to take it out of the library. So, in some dreams I throw it out of a library window and retrieve it. In others, I take it to the bathroom, tear out one page at a time, and dispose of everything but the covers by flushing it down the toilet. I put the rest under a bunch of paper towels in the trash can and make my escape.

7,984 – The number of days in which I’ve questioned my ability or competence to complete a task since graduating from college.

If you do the math, that is one for each day since I graduated from college. I’m proud of some of the work accomplished over the years, some individually and other work as part of a team. I love writing and working to promote positive change in education. I love challenging myself and others to more broadly consider the possibilities in education, analyzing affordances and limitations, etc. Yet, I openly confess to having more than my share of doubts and moments of insecurity along the way. I’m keenly aware that I have much to learn, that I have ample flaws, and that I have a long list of failures in my past. Yet, years ago I decided that I would choose to learn from these and that I would do my best to avoid letting them prevent me from using what I’ve been given to pursue good and important work in the world. A little story called the Parable of the Talents reminds me of the better way.

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.”

10 Ways Schools Can Prepare Students to Fail Well

weebleRemember those little toys shaped like an egg called weebles? “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” This is a pretty good life lesson if you think about it. How do we cultivate such a mindset in the life of our students, helping them learn to persist through the wobbles or failures of life, learning from them, persisting through them, and having a joy and resilience in life? I contend that one thing we can do is revisit how and what we teach about failure. Here are then places to start.

1. Create a culture where failure is a natural part of the learning process. Failing has turned into a bad word, a character flaw, and something about which to be ashamed. Yet, if we go to thriving startup communities, failure is not always seen that way. Risk-taking is respected, and failure is bound to happen at times when we take risks, even calculated ones. If we want to help students develop into adults who have courage and confidence as calculated risk-takers, then why not start it in school?

2. Consider alternatives to letter grades. – For many, it is hard to separate the concept of school from grades, but it is possible. In fact, there are a growing number of schools around the world that are coming up with alternatives to letter grade systems: standards-based report cards, narrative feedback, portfolio assessment and more. My support for alternatives continues to grow, largely because I believe that grades are counter-productive. While they serve as extrinsic motivators, what is the cost? What is lost? They seem to encourage playing it safe, and discourage experimentation and striving for things with potentially uncertain results.

3. Use ungraded and formative feedback. I realize that many will not get rid of letter grades. That is alright. There is still value in minimizing their role. If the goal is to help students get better at something, then give them a chance to practice and get feedback before getting a grade. There is even research to show that students are less inclined to cheat in such an environment. Grading every practice activity is just about rewarding those who don’t need much practice. That makes school about rewarding people who don’t have to work as hard, and leading those who do to feel like they are inadequate.

4. Debrief it. Whether things are a failure, success, or a combination of the two; there is so much opportunity for learning in debriefing the experience. What went well? what didn’t? What other strategies could you have tried? What would you do the same or differently if you could do it again? What knowledge or skill would increase your chance of success next time? How can you gain that knowledge or develop that skill? These are a few of the many helpful questions for debriefing, and they sometimes lead to many valuable learning vistas…those “a ha” moments.

5. Celebrate people who try something new or hard and fail. This will help nurture a culture with grit, persistence, and getting back up and trying again. Removing the social stigma of failure frees students to strive for goals that are out of their reach.

6. Teach about growth and fixed mindsets. For fixed mindset people, failure is a sign that you are a failure. For people with a growth mindset, it tends to be seen as feedback and a challenge to work hard and keep at it until you get the result you want. A growth mindset knows there is progress that comes from trying and trying again.

7. Model failure. Teachers can also be candid about their failures, how they dealt with them, and what they learned from them. This goes a long way in modeling that failure is not something about which to be ashamed, but something from which we can learn and that we can use to improve.

8. Set big goals and incremental ones. Big goals without the incremental ones can be overwhelming and discouraging. By teaching students to set incremental goals, they can learn to monitor their progress. They see that a failure is not an end point, but just a temporary setback in the journey toward a larger goal. When students persist to the larger goals, have them reflect on the steps along the way, the inspiring, challenge, discouraging, and motivating parts throughout the journey.

9. Study the failures of great leaders and inspirational people from the past and present. Make failure a topic of study, learning how people cope with it, use it, and overcome it. Each of these become stories/scripts to guide us as we work through failures along the road to success.

10. Teach that human worth is not rooted in a person’s successes or failures. Human worth is inherent. It is not based upon what a person does or does not accomplish. Life is a gift and each person has been granted value that can’t be taken away, not from the greatest failure. Coming from a Christian background, this is foundational part of my world view. I believe that God gave each of us inherent value. God declared us as precious and important. Such a mindset gives us to freedom to be risk takers, innovators, and people who fail with grace. Yes, failure can be painful, but it doesn’t take away your worth.