My Resume of Failure

I present to you my anti-resume, a list not of career successes but of failure.

Tory Belleci face-plants in Mythbusters

Regular resumes are half-stories about heroes without their corresponding villains. They present our good side, a career snapshot that’s all about accomplishment. But for most of us (me anyway) foundering and fiasco -- sometimes of the monumental variety -- are interwoven with the wins. And a career without at least one layoff, lost sale, imploding project, or rejection isn’t one that took risk or reached for something better. Or grew.

My Resume of Failure was inspired by Princeton colleague Johannes Haushofer, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, who writes on his “CV of Failure:”

Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves.

Our failures, Johannes’s writes, happen when “referees have bad days.” I’ll add that failure also comes when we fumble on the one yard line. (Credit note: Johannes took inspiration from Melanie Stefan’s article in Nature called “A CV of Failures,” which is also worth a read.)

In any event, the “F” word is more than personal, it’s a topic in my house. My teenage kids are looking with laser-like gaze on college. They tell me there’s no room for failure if they want to get into the college of their choice.

Unfortunately, no room for failure has consequences. Take a 2015 report on nearby West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District from New York Times reporter Kyle Spencer, who wrote:

In the previous school year, 120 middle and high school students were recommended for mental health assessments; 40 were hospitalized. And on a survey administered by the district, students wrote things like, “I hate going to school,” and “Coming out of 12 years in this district, I have learned one thing: that a grade, a percentage or even a point is to be valued over anything else.”

This focus on perfection doesn’t end with high school graduation, and the demands of college can make even little setbacks look like disaster. Consider U. of Penn which recently saw six suicides over 13 months. Self harm is the end of a path that passes first through anxiety and depression.

For my kids and many of their friends, life reflects massive effort with an unhealthy reaction to even the slightest deviation from perfect. The story they’re not getting from parents and teachers (including me on occasion) is that like on Mythbusters, “failure is always an option” in life. You’re going to crash and burn at least some of the time, and like a phoenix, you get the chance to rise from the ashes.

And so, in the spirit of parenting by showing and not telling, I present to my kids (and anyone who is mildly interested) a career that took wrong turns to get on the right path, as St. Augustine might have said. Somehow I’ve had success in spite of failure and even because of it. And no doubt one day I will dance with Yin and Yang again (but pleeeeeze, let’s hold off on the Yin dance for a while).

Christian Knoebel’s Resume of Failure


“Don’t throw away your engineering books just yet.”
-- English professor at Penn State when reviewing a paper I wrote about Ernest Hemingway.

“Are you still here?”
-- Colleague at The New York Times when she saw me in the cafeteria three days before I was laid off. (She knew something I didn’t.)

“You have no idea how the Web works. I can't wait until you lose your job.”
-- Potential vendor when I rejected his online product for a partnership. (I was laid off a few months later. Ouch.)

“Stop calling me. I am not going to hire you.”
-- The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page’s associate editor when I applied for a full-time editorial writer job after writing for the Edit Page for two years.

“I would read your book, but I don’t have Amazon.”
-- Family member responding to my offer to pay him the $0.99 cents it cost to download my short story on

“A book about a unicorn? Great. Hey, the guy who sits next to me at work is making a ton of money writing e-books about gay porn.”
-- Also a family member responding to my offer to pay him the $0.99 cents it cost to download my short story on (So far the money from sales of my story is counted in ounces, not tons.)

Products I Created and Brought to Market but Couldn’t Get to the Big Time

New Jersey Environment, a monthly newsletter I published explaining changes to state and federal environmental regulations

Bid Crossing, a publishing app I built for searching and finding public RFPs

Writing and Publication Rejection

A paper for a scientific journal based on my master’s thesis (the peer review critique was so thick I opened it once and never looked at it again)

“Don’t Say These Words in the 21st Century,” a humor polemic rejected by the country’s finest magazines. (Bonus: one of the rejections came with a smiley face written by the slush-pile editor)

A book proposal on preventing giardia, which is a nasty drinking water pathogen you can catch in the outdoors (pitched to a publisher that put out a book on protecting yourself from ticks in the outdoors)

Consulting Work I Didn’t Get

Proposal failure rate: 38%

Number of clients I did work for that did not pay: 1

Jobs I Had and Lost, Was in the Running for or Pitched but Didn’t Get

Editorial page writer at The Wall Street Journal

Laid off from The New York Times

Position at the Times R&D department to develop partnerships with outside academic researchers to help us solve thorny digital publishing problems (in an odd twist: I’m doing some of that now within a research university)

Was escorted from a client’s office by police after my boss was caught stealing confidential documents from the client. Not all was lost: The client liked me and later offered me a job. But then all was lost: The offer was withdrawn one hour before I resigned because someone within the client’s office objected.

Education Rejection

Rutgers University, my alma mater, rejected me for graduate school