Some people say that experience is the best teacher. So why not look to our own to guide us? 

There are two ways of looking at experience. One is that “tough love” kind of situation — the things that didn’t go our way. The other is to see our successes and pat ourselves on the back for a job (or jobs) well done.

I don’t think that just one approach is sufficient. We need both to balance things out. The aim is to avoid becoming egotistical and to not be too hard on ourselves either.

Chances are you already know how to write a résumé or curriculum vitae (CV). The two activities below center on learning from our failures and successes alike. Grab a notebook and a pen for this one!

Your Failure Résumé

a.k.a. the stuff that makes you feel kinda like this

The first exercise is to write a failure résumé. Not everything is sunshine and rainbows. But this “résumé” will help you learn how to thrive from those moments.

I read about this concept in the book Creative Confidence by David and Tom Kelley. (I mentioned it last week when talking about childhood creativity.) The idea comes from author Tina Seelig, who challenges her students at Stanford to write a failure résumé. She defines this as a list of your “biggest screw-ups — personal, professional, and academic.” Her students then have to explain what they learned from each of these experiences.

Seelig says it can be difficult for people who are used to showcasing their successes to turn their attention to failures. But this can be a valuable lesson that can teach us about what works for us — and what doesn’t. Seelig writes:

“On the most basic level, all learning comes from failure. Think of a baby learning to walk. He or she starts out crawling and falling before finally mastering the skill that as an adult we take for granted. As a child gets older, each new feat, from catching a baseball to doing algebra, is learned the same way, by experimenting until you are finally successful. We don’t expect a child to do everything perfectly the first time, nor should we expect adults who take on complex tasks to get it all right the first time.”

Tina Seelig

She also points to those who spend time on creative endeavors, who know firsthand that “failure is a natural part of the creative process and are ready when it happens.” If you’re a creator of any kind, you can probably recall with ease the plans that changed over time, the work that received a heavy dose of criticism, and the projects that ultimately fell apart. It’s nothing to feel ashamed of; everyone we admire has faced rejection at some point.

Coming across this concept, I thought of a few items I could list on my failure résumé.

As a writer, for instance, I’ve started and failed to finish my share of novels, short stories, and even screenplays at one point or another. I could have looked at these experiences as proof that I can’t finish what I start. But I know that I’ve finished writing several short stories and a novel draft, with another in the works. If anything, the stories I didn’t finish taught me that I need to plot out what I’m writing rather than make it up as I go along. And all of them are ideas I can visit at a later time when I’m ready.

I’ve had business endeavors where I didn’t make a lot of money, careers and jobs that took a bad turn, and plans for the future that were simply not destined to be. All of these taught me that it’s okay if my plans change, it’s more than acceptable to walk away from a bad situation, and no matter what happens, I can always try again.

So try making a failure résumé. Mine through the stuff that really sucked at the time. Then ask yourself what the experience taught you. You never know what lessons you might dig up. Keep them handy to refer to on a tough day to remind yourself that you’ve probably been through worse.

Your CV of Success

a.k.a. the stuff that makes you feel like you can conquer the world

The second of these is what I like to call the Curriculum Vitae (or CV) of Success (something I developed last year). This is more than what goes on your résumé or what you talk about in a job interview. Contrasted with the failure résumé, this CV is about highlighting your accomplishments and telling your life’s story.

The CV of Success contains eight thought-provoking questions designed to help you think back over your years (or decades) of experiences as a creator. Get nostalgic with this one. Go through old social media posts, dig through old notebooks, and review photos from years ago. The goal here is to excavate your past to remember all the things you’ve accomplished.

If it doesn’t feel like it was “big” enough, remember that this is your life. It doesn’t need to look like someone else’s. No two people will have the same résumé or CV, and your answers on this “CV of success” don’t need to look like anyone else’s either.

And if this exercise feels like bragging: GOOD! So often, we water down our achievements around others because we’re afraid of appearing “too much” or “too full of ourselves.” But playing small only makes us feel guilty when we know our lives can be so much bigger and bolder. So go wild! You deserve to honor yourself for all that you’ve been through and all the potential you still have.

On your CV of Success, complete these 8 statements:

1. My accomplishments that I am most proud of include…

Remember, this isn’t your real CV. Think outside of formal accomplishments like schooling or jobs you’ve held. What’s something that you wouldn’t necessarily talk up in a job interview but wish you could? If you were being interviewed by the press, what would you want someone to ask you about? Name it here!

2. I amazed myself when I created…

This could be literal in that it’s something tangible you created (a work of art, a short story collection, a podcast, a performance routine, etc.). But it might be something intangible like an opportunity, a vision for yourself, confidence, a fresh start after a difficult time, or anything else that comes to mind.

3. I am most proud when I receive compliments like…

Think back to a time when you received praise for your work, a project you completed, or something else that you are proud of. Are there any links between these comments? If you can’t think of something positive that others have said, think instead of what you would like to be known for in terms of your creativity.

4. I have overcome obstacles that include…

Where have you persevered? What did you wonder if you’d ever get through (that you did)? These could be external circumstances (e.g., the actions of another person) or they could reflect an internal struggle (e.g., overcoming self-doubt).

5. Three vital things I’ve learned about myself over the years are…

Those of us on a quest for knowledge are always asking “What is something new I can learn right now?” We are always learning from our experience. What has yours taught you?

6. I am ready to let go of…

What do you no longer want to hang onto? This can be old criticism, self-doubt, or any of the lasting effects of past difficulties. What are you saying “no” to going forward?

7. I am ready to welcome into my life…

On the other side of letting go, we want to allow something better. What will you say “yes” to from now on?

8. I am confident that, in the future, I can…

Here is a good place to pause and review your answers thus far. Knowing what you do about your perseverance, your follow-through, and your ambitions, where do you see yourself going in the future?

When you’re done, type up your answers and print this out, or write this information down on a piece of paper. Then take the page and hang it somewhere you will see it every day.

What’s on your “résumés”?

If these exercises have anything to offer, it’s that yes, failure is always an option — and one you can learn from. Your success, on the other hand, is more likely than you might think!

Need more ways to reflect? Check out The Muse Manifesto, my digital magazine for anyone daring to live a creative life. Learn more and get the issue for free here.