Krapp’s Last Failure CV

Krapp’s Last Failure CV

Despite the hubbub surrounding Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer’s CV of Failure, this is not the first example of someone compiling & later publicizing their failures.  Haushofer has been quick to recognize this as his popularity goes viral with international interviews and mammoth press coverage, properly citing where he found the idea

And while Melanie Stefan, at the time a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology and today a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, encouraged postdocs and other job seekers to keep a ‘journal of failure,’ her celebration of failure as published in the journal Nature was also not the genesis of tracking a personal history of fail.

Rather, we can track the recording of one’s life failures back to a pioneer of Silicon Valley mindset and champion of failing better, Samuel Beckett, whose 1957 one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape is a masterclass of a man analyzing the failures he has fastidiously recorded throughout his lifetime.  In the work, the character Krapp listens to a recording he did 30 years prior, and in that recording he addresses a recording from 20 years earlier.  Not all of Krapp’s efforts have worked out as he anticipated, but regardless of life’s outcomes he aggregates the information for longitudinal analysis.

There are some slight differences in the remembered failures addressed by Professor Haushofer

Academic positions and fellowships I did not get

Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professorship
UC Berkeley Agricultural and Resource Economics Assistant Professorship
MIT Brain & Cognitive Sciences Assistant Professorship
This list is restricted to institutions where I had campus visits; the list of places where I had first-round interviews but wasn’t invited for a campus visit, and where I wasn’t invited to interview in the first place, is much longer and I will write it up when I get a chance. The list also shrouds the fact that I didn’t apply to most of the top economics departments (Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Chicago, Berkeley, LSE) because one of my advisors felt they could not write a strong letter for them.

versus those of Krapp (parenthesis denote stage directions)

Recording of 39 year old Krapp, listened to by 69 year old Krapp

Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations! (Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.) And the resolutions! (Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.) To drink less, in particular. (Brief laugh of Krapp alone.) Statistics. Seventeen hundred hours, out of the preceding eight thousand odd, consumed on licensed premises alone. More than 20%, say 40% of his waking life.

But the meta-failures at the end of both works tie the theme together. Haushofer’s newfound popularity is not because of his research record at Oxford, MIT, Harvard, Zurich and Princeton but rather his “darn CV of Failures.”  69 year old Krapp also realizes his life’s work is not necessarily the result he anticipated

69 year old Krapp

Went to sleep and fell off the pew. (Pause.) Sometimes wondered in the night if a last effort mightn’t–(Pause.) Ah finish yout booze now and get to your bed. Go on with this drivel in the morning. Or leave it at that. (Pause.) Leave it at that. (Pause.) Lie propped up in the dark–and wander. Be again in the dingle on a Christmas Eve, gathering holly, the red-berried. (Pause.) Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning, in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells. (Pause.) And so on. (Pause.) Be again, be again. (Pause.) All that old misery. (Pause.) Once wasn’t enough for you. (Pause.) Lie down across her.

Be again, be again.  One can hear in Krapp’s last tape a foreshadowing of future Beckett missives, specifically the famed quotation from Worstward Ho, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” as well as the less famous lines immediately following, “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”

The power of recording failures will become ubiquitous in business and education practices, or at least that is the belief of Bill Taylor, who at the Harvard Business Review encourages everyone to take up the mantle of Haushofer, and before him Stefan and Krapp.  “We may have entered a world in which nothing succeeds like failures,” says Taylor, a co-founder of Fast Company magazine and graduate of both Princeton and MIT.  This is already in practice at Stanford, where students in the Stanford Technologies Ventures Program are expected to craft a failure resume, an assignment which brings “looks of surprise…in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.”  It may seem Stanford students are best-suited to this challenge, but students at institutions such as Chicago State University bring to the University setting large amounts of socioeconomic grit from which to build their CVs, not to mention the added failures coming from Chicago State University.  As we develop more and more curriculum encouraging failure from our students, what will be the expectations on the non-Ivy students in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in order to fail?

Is there an element of vulnerability in these practices?  Sure.  Is there some solidarity in seeing that other people don’t always get what they seek?  Of course.  But vulnerability, solidarity and failure are anything but synonymous concepts. The failure manifesto is not intended to promote shared vulnerability or communal solidarity, but rather a meritocratic ethos that your success is based on your hard work and it will pay off in the end.    One professor did not get a tenure track at Harvard but he did at Princeton.  One postdoc did not receive one fellowship but she did receive several others, including Harvard and the University of Tokyo.  One 69 year old man did not give up drinking or pull himself from the tedium of his work-life existence, but he continued to record yearly tapes of his exploits.

Writing a CV of good fortune rather than a CV of failure, as suggested by Sonia Sodha in The Guardian, obfuscates the intended self exaltation inherent in the failure scheme.  Our successes are greater when we compare them to moments where we were not as relatively successful.  When we compare our successes to our socioeconomic fortune, the postulate fails breaks down.  If personal hard work is not enough, that means there are elements at play beyond our control, meaning we must do harder work beyond our selves and into our communities and environments.  As of this writing, celebrating failure is considered a better use of our successful time.

Here I end this reel. Box–(pause)–three, spool–(pause)–five. (Pause). Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.

Posted on: May 5, 2016admin

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