success failure


Recently, Johannes Haushofer, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University published his CV.   It was not the one that says he has multiple Ph.D.’s from prestigious institutions like the University of Zurich and Harvard, however. It was not the one that listed his nine academic awards, thirty-three published works and pages of teaching experiences and conferences.  This new CV listed his failures.  “Here are the degree programs which rejected me,” he wrote.  “Here are the fellowships and jobs I wanted but did not get, and the awards I had hoped for but did not receive.”  He was inspired to publish this new CV by an article by Melanie Stefan in the journal Nature (Vol. 468, Nov. 17, 2010 at p. 467) in which she acknowledged the pressure in both academia and the sciences for people to craft a “narrative of success” for themselves.  When everyone else is defined by documents listing seven pages of triumphs, she admitted, it becomes very difficult to deal with your own failures.  Setbacks, challenges, and outright rejections can make a person feel alone, deficient and dejected. But of course, it is impossible to get through life without any setbacks, challenges or rejections. Recognizing this, Stefan encouraged her colleagues to publish their list of failures in order to encourage others to continue to pursue their dreams without feeling like there is something wrong with them if they fail at something. The thought was that students as well as colleagues could benefit from a more realistic picture of what it takes to “succeed” in this world.

I think publishing our “failures” is not only a wonderful idea, but also a critically needed idea, not just in academic and scientific circles but in all circles. The pressure to be perfect being put on people in our nation is higher than ever and completely unhealthy.  It has led helicopter parents to try to bubble wrap their children to shield them from every bruise and failure rather than let them learn from them.  It has led school systems to treat wiggly children as bad or neurologically damaged simply because they cannot sit still and silent for 6-hours straight. It has led teenagers to choose increasingly abusive and rejection  self-destructive behaviors because they are haunted by the unrealistic expectations of parents, magazines or movies. Our fear of failure and obsession with perfection is also leading many adults, both men and women, to pickle themselves with the stress hormone cortisol trying to do and have it all, so that they can have the look and trappings of success. Culturally, we are a mess- tormented, angry, and exhausted—all because we have bought the lie that to make a mistake, be skipped over during an award ceremony, or to fail is to have a tragic and unacceptable flaw. We have equated personal value with success, and success with perfection.

Whoever came up with this definition, it wasn’t God.  If you look at the CV’s of the “heroes” of the faith in the Bible, there are plenty of setbacks and failures to note.  Abraham “gave away his wife” to be part of harem to protect himself.  Moses was a murderer.  David was an adulterer.  Hannah, Elizabeth and so many others failed to conceive as women in their day were expected to do if they were good women. Peter bungled his way through discipleship like a bull in a china shop. Paul was rejected or jailed or shipwrecked as much or more than he succeeded. Yet God did astonishing things with and through all these heroes.  Yes Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” in his “Sermon on the Mount.” (Matt. 5:48). But “perfect” in the context of that sermon meant “whole or complete in God’s grace,” not blemish or failure-free.  In any case, Jesus’ own crucifixion was seen as the greatest failure of all by many, long before it was seen as the greatest success. It is still seen as a failure, as proof that he was not the Messiah, by millions.

We can keep on tormenting ourselves, tearing down our leaders, mocking the appearance of celebrities, whispering about each other behind our backs at the playground or the water cooler to make ourselves feel better. We can keep on teaching our children that failure must be avoided at all costs, while feeling ashamed and anxious about our own mistakes and shortcomings, or we can acknowledge that the current narrative of success which saturates our culture is toxic for everyone.  How can we learn if we aren’t allowed to make mistakes or change our minds? How can we make the most of our collective strengths if we reject any who have visible weaknesses? It’s time for us to adopt a new narrative both personally and culturally which affirms that life is about learning and growth, discovery and diversity, not avoiding failure or being perfect according to some human standard.

People of faith can and should lead the charge because we have learned through Christ just how much God loves humanity, warts and neuroses and all.  In Christ we have been set free to love ourselves and others.  If we believe this, then we, like Haushofer and Stefan, could do a world of good simply by acknowledging that moving forward in faith inevitably means experiencing failures as well as successes. I know my CV of failures would be lengthy.  It would include not getting accepted into Williams College even though I was accepted at Princeton. It would include having to change my major from molecular biology to English because calculus defeated me. It would include the job I applied for whose rejection letter read “We hope you find something more suitable to your skills.” Ouch! It would include so many other painful moments and messes. But those experiences got me where I am today, for which I am hugely grateful.

What’s in your CV of failure? CVNot making the dream team? Not getting the job you wanted or being let go from the one you had? The mistake you made at work that set everyone back? Maybe it would include something more personal: the fact that you have lost your hair, have dirty dishes in your sink, bounced a check or couldn’t make a marriage work? Trust and believe the good news of the Gospel that you are loved as you are, and embrace your “failures” without shame.  Your admitting them might be just the very thing someone facing his or her own failures needs to hear in order to feel whole.