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I visited a website the other day in which a professor posted his ‘Resume of Failure.’ On it, he listed all of his many rejections over the years—graduate schools and academic jobs he had applied for, journal articles and grant applications he had sent in, and even awards that he lost.

There was something cathartic about reading his ‘Resume of Failure,’ and I started to reflect on my own struggles and failures over the years. For example, when I applied to graduate school, I was rejected from 9 out of 13 schools. The school I eventually attended didn’t accept me at first—they put me on the wait-list. I only got in because enough people declined their own offer of admission.

Applying to academic jobs was even worse. Out of the 25 places I applied, I was rejected by 24 of them. That’s right—after filling out 25 job applications, I received exactly one job offer.

The number of rejections I have received from academic journals, book publishers, and grant funding agencies are too numerous to count. It’s probably in the hundreds. Time and time again, my professional work has been deemed not good enough, and I have had to deal with the sting of a rejection letter.

I think it’s important to be honest and vocal about our failures, because if we hide them, we present a false sense of what the journey toward success actually looks like. When we see someone who is successful, we generally see the outcome (i.e., success) but not the process (i.e., the struggles or failures along the way).

For example, we see Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player who ever lived, not the guy who was cut from his high school varsity team. We see J.K. Rowling as the beloved author of one of the most successful book series of all time, not the fledgling writer whose story about a wizard named Harry Potter was rejected 12 times.

Success rarely happens in a straight line. There are usually a lot of setbacks and failures along the way. This was certainly true in my own experience of research and writing, and my sense is that this is the case for any field you choose to pursue. The key is not letting the inevitable setbacks and failures take you too far off course from what you believe you were put on this planet to do.

Discussion: How do you cope with your setbacks and failures? Do you see a connection between your setbacks, failures, and successes?

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