How a CV of Failure Can Help Your Career

Zachary Walston

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I am the National Director of Research for one of the largest physical therapy practices in the united states. Here are my accomplishments in a span of four years in the role:

  • Twenty-one rejections as the lead author of a research study
  • Twenty-six conference session rejections
  • Three elections lost (running for chapter delegate)

Before the role, I was rejected from half of the physical therapy schools I applied to and I did not get the only promotion I have formally applied for. My side projects aren’t faring any better. My podcast is stuck on the starting blocks, my email list is shorter than most 5th graders' contact lists, and I am 0 for 21 in getting a literary agent for a book manuscript I wrote last year.

Not what you were expecting? These rejections have been the most valuable learning tools I’ve had in my career.

Failure is a topic often talked about but misunderstood

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” — Marcus Aurelius

Everything is an opportunity to improve. Any barrier, or “failure,” leads to further development. In some cases, “failure” is the only way to learn the correct approach. The moment we start fearing making mistakes with our patients is the moment we stall in our clinical growth.

Nicholas Taleb goes one step further in his book Antifragile. He advocates to “put yourself in situations that love mistakes” as “errors become more beneficial than harmful.”

Mistakes are how we learn, refine, and innovate.

Those article rejections taught me how to write better manuscripts and even design better studies. Despite not having a Ph.D., I now have 11 peer-reviewed publications and 10 ongoing projects.

Following the conference rejections, I reached out to the programming committees asking for feedback. I took the advice — some more valuable and less of a gut punch than others — and have no presented 13 times at multiple national and state conferences.

After losing the elections, I served as an alternate delegate and learned from the team. I joined committees and found mentors in our state chapter and national association. The experience helped me build a network and refine my message. Last week I was elected Treasurer — a board of directors position — for my state chapter.

None of this would have been possible had I not taken my failures and turned them into benefits for my personal growth.

Learn from the past, act for the present, prepare for the future

Ruminating on failures and “what ifs” destroys progress. I am not saying to ignore the past, but a hyper-focus on it is dangerous.

I keep a CV of failure not to play the ‘what if’ game, but rather, to set a marker of past actions. I can use it as a reminder of how far I have come.

I live my life by two overarching principles: silver linings and the overload principle.

I find the positive in every situation, even if the positive is “now I know for certain to never do that again.” We can’t change the past, but we can always learn from it.

The second principle pertains to the present and the future. In fitness, the overload contends we need to push our body to force adaptation. To build muscle or improve endurance, we need to keep pushing our exercises to the edges of our capacity.

The same is true for any endeavor. Writing, public speaking, teaching, medicine, it doesn’t matter the occupation or hobby. To improve we have to continue to push our body and mind to force adaptation.

I took the lessons I learned from the past and applied them to the present. I then identified my gaps and build action plans to improve my future performance. The key is to not fall victim to perfectionism.

The need to be perfect stunts growth as it leads to inaction. Instead of trying to develop the perfect manuscript, I focused on a couple of key takeaways from the feedback reviewer provided me and tried to make improvements. I then studied statistics and read more papers to learn from researchers who publish often.

Be wary of loss aversion

The loss-aversion effect is a powerful force that feeds off of the fear of failure. When directly compared against each other, losses loom larger than gains.

“Loss aversion implies only that choices are strongly biased in favor of the reference situation (generally biased to favor small rather than large changes).”
— Daniel Kahneman

Loss aversion can lead to very reserved expectations as a means of psychological protection.

People expect to have stronger emotional reactions — including regret — to an outcome that is produced by action compared to one produced by inaction.

One method to address loss aversion is broad framing, which is approaching a situation with a “big picture” lens as opposed to looking at each event in isolation.

For example, are you looking only at the success of individual articles you write, or are you looking at trends and improvements in your writing style?

Broad framing highlights all of the progress you make and frames setbacks as opportunities and lessons for future development. Conversely, loss aversion and narrow framing is a lethal combination.

I fell victim to loss-aversion many times, especially throughout the beginning of my career. I feared trying new treatment techniques, reasoning that my chances of losing a patient were greater if I used a style I was not familiar with. This stunted my clinical growth.

Failure fuels opportunity

If you approach failure as an opportunity to improve and are honest with the people the failures affect, you will grow into a much stronger person and help far more people in the long run.

I recall more from patients who failed to improve, papers that were rejected, and crucial conversations that went poorly than any successful experience. The key is to accept the reality and reasons why and work to improve future treatments.

At all times, I have an updated copy of my “CV of Failures” in addition to my traditional CV. It is often a close race as to which is the longer document.

I encourage you to develop a CV of failure, not to feed a pity party, but to launch you towards greater personal and professional growth.

“If you apply yourself to the task before you, follow it with right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything to distract you; expect nothing, fear nothing, be satisfied with your present activities according to your nature, you will be happy; no one is able to prevent this.” — Marcus Aurelius

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I am a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge health misinformation. You will find articles about health, fitness, medical care, psychology, and professional development on my site. As the husband of a real estate agent, you will also find real estate and housing tips.

Atlanta, GA
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