Looking Past Failure

“You know what? If an applicant has a strong enough application, then one blotch shouldn’t automatically eliminate him or her from consideration. There might well have been extenuating circumstances … and, in any case, it gives you something to talk about in the interview to find out how the candidate responds to a tough line of questioning.”

It can be hard to look past failure, either as the one who has failed or as an outsider looking at the one who has failed, especially as a high-performer.

High-performers have notoriously high (some would say unreasonably high) expectations of themselves, and of others. But reality doesn’t agree with that outlook, and will find ways to cross our paths with failure. At the time, failure can seem like the end, but it doesn’t have to be.

Last week I had lunch with a dear friend, and he relayed a quick story.

He runs the engineering department at a small tech company, and he and a colleague were reviewing applications from prospective co-op students. They came across a student who had a decent enough résumé, but who had an academic stain: he’d done very poorly in a calculus course.

Perhaps a word of explanation is in order: it is not uncommon for early year co-op students to be required to include their academic transcripts as part of their job applications.

OK, back to the story…

My friend and his colleague were about to dismiss this student from consideration (hey, as an employer you might easily get dozens of applications, so anything meaningful that can help shorten the list is useful) … but then my friend remembered something.

Years ago, my friend had a friend (try to stay with me on this) who did poorly academically in his first few years at university. This friend did alright in his first term, but then failed his second term. However, he always performed exceptionally well in his co-op positions; furthermore, he repeated his second term and easily passed, and went on to find his feet academically, and – while not quite excelling – actually did pretty damn well.

Getting back to the present… This memory flashed through my friend’s mind just as the student’s co-op application was about to be passed over, and caused my friend – who is not known to be a particularly warm and fuzzy sort – to pause, and to say, “You know what? I have a friend who failed a course in his first year, and he’s one of the most successful people I know. Let’s give this kid a shot.”

You know what? If an applicant has a strong enough application, then one blotch shouldn’t automatically eliminate him or her from consideration. There might well have been extenuating circumstances … and, in any case, it gives you something to talk about in the interview to find out how the candidate responds to a tough line of questioning.

Plus, any aspiring leaders out there will need to learn to accept that failure is an occasional consequence of activity, so you’ll need to get familiar (although never comfortable) with it popping up every now and again.

And, let’s say you’re reading this from the position of someone who has that blotch on your application. To you, I say: don’t give up. Sure, lots of folks will hold it against you, perhaps to the point of not even giving you a chance – that’s reality – but there are also some reasonable people out there, and you’d probably rather work for them anyhow.

My advice is for you to write a good cover letter and address the issue straight-up. And this advice applies well beyond a failed course: use the cover letter to explain why someone should consider you despite whatever blotch is on there (e.g., relatively limited experience, coming from a different domain, a long absence from the workforce, etc.). Doing so will let you control the narrative, rather than opening things up to speculation.

Why am I so sure of this advice? Because, dear reader, I was that student who failed his second term! Yes, it was me all along! WHAT A TWIST!

But seriously…yeah, I did. And then for a couple of years afterward I had to apply to jobs with my super-crappy academic transcript, and explain why someone should interview me despite the 43 or 38 or whatever the hell I got in the most important foundation course of my program.

I found some really great employers over the years, and I rewarded the faith they had in me every single time.

Now, I don’t know if the student who applied to my friend’s company will get the job, but at least he gets a shot.

 

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Posted in Careers, Leadership

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