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The CV of Failures – Parashat HaAzinu


Last Yom Kippur, as some of you may remember, I spoke about a resume that almost broke the internet – one put together by Nina Mufleh, a job seeker at Airbnb. And this morning, with thanks to my good friend Rabbi Josh Rabin, from whom parts of this sermon are taken, I’d like to speak about another CV – this one posted online by Princeton University psychology professor Johannes Haushofer (Ha-Sofer). Like Mufleh’s resume, Professor Haushofer’s went viral making the psychologist a short-lived internet sensation and giving him fifteen minutes of social media fame. Why all the attention? It turns out that Professor Haushofer’s resume was actually far from a conventional CV. Rather, it was a long list of failures – of the many times he had fallen short in his much admired and celebrated career.

Upon reading his CV, we learn that Professor Haushofer was rejected from the London School of Economics for college and from Stanford University for a PhD; he was not hired as a professor at Berkeley, MIT, or Harvard. He lists every grant, fellowship, and academic prize for which he devoted significant time and energy only to be rejected and acknowledges that even these are just the failures in which he came close to succeeding, not including the numerous times when he could not even get a foot in the door. Professor Haushofer writes that he was inspired to post this resume after a scientist named Melanie Stefan wrote an article in the journal Nature entitled A CV of Failuresin which she points out that for every hour she devotes to a successful project, she probably spends six hours working on ventures that ultimately fall flat. While all this extra effort does not necessarily bother her, per se, she argues that by only posting successes on her resume, she is actually hiding the majority of her work. In her own words:

“As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that scientists hardly hold the monopoly on this kind of pressure to achieve.

In the spirit of full disclosure this morning, I am honored to tell you that I’ve put together quite an impressive resume of failures myself. In high school, I didn’t make the tennis team, lost the election for USY chapter President, and was rejected from my two top college choices, Brown and Princeton (along with a handful of others). After graduation, I was not selected to be a Dorot Fellow or to staff USY on Wheels. During my first job search, which ultimately brought me to New Jersey, I was not invited out to interview with a congregation in Southern California and was initially on the B list for a position in Pittsburgh.

I will also admit that I’m as bad as anyone else when it comes to curating a particular image of career success, not only on my resume but also on Facebook and at conferences and even when speaking with colleagues. While there are certainly close friends and mentors with whom I will admit my shortcomings and insecurities, the things we’ve tried here at BHCBE but haven’t yet accomplished, there is enormous pressure to be seen as “perfect” both personally and professionally – to share only one’s strengths and rarely one’s vulnerabilities. Haushofer was able to create a cultural moment by having the courage not only to talk the talk but also to walk the walk when it came to revealing his places of disappointment and fragility. In sharing his personal CV of failures, he made our own seem not quite so bad.

This Sunday evening we begin the festival of Sukkot also known as z’man simchateynu – the time of our great joy, a paradoxical name for a holiday which is largely about embracing precariousness and frailty. For eight days we expose ourselves to the elements, dwelling in temporary shelters which remind us of the impermanence of human existence. For eight days we leave what is comfortable and familiar to open ourselves up to the vagaries of nature.

There are many different explanations for Sukkot’s transitory booths – they are seen as a reminder of the huts in which the Israelites dwelt during harvest time in the fields, the shelters that our ancestors built while wandering in the desert after escaping from Pharaoh in Egypt, the anenei kavod or clouds of glory that God sent to protect our people at various points throughout Jewish history. No matter the symbolism, however, these sukkot have us leave the warm, safe luxury of our homes to make ourselves open to the presence of God. They remind us that life is fragile and human beings most vulnerable.

Generally, we do not associate liability and weakness with joy – usually, in fact, it is just the opposite! And so it is curious that Sukkot is known for being a time of great levity, not only in terms of the festival’s name just described but also through the verses in Deuteronomy that we read on the final day of the holiday where we’re told “V’samachta b’chagecha…v’hayita ach sameach – You shall rejoice on your Festival…and have nothing but joy” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). While a specific commandment to be happy accompanies the holiday of Shavuoth but once and the holiday of Passover not at all, it is on Sukkot alone that this instruction for gladness is given on two separate occasions. There is just something jubilant about this holiday!

The great rabbi Moses Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, offers one possible explanation for the joy of Sukkot when he connects this holiday with Passover – explaining that both festivals commemorate dark times in the history of our people. Pesach, of course, recalls our slavery in Egypt while Sukkot reminds us of the difficult period of our desert wandering – each is thus celebrated with certain rituals that recall hardship, whether it is eating bitter herbs and dipping into salt-water tears on Passover or exposing ourselves to nature on Sukkot. Maimonides writes, “The moral lessons derived from these feasts is this: man ought to remember his evil days in his time of prosperity. He will thereby be induced to thank God repeatedly, to lead a modest and humble life” (Guide to the Perplexed 3:43). For Maimonides, the joy of Sukkot comes in seeing how very far we’ve come since our precarious beginnings; as we sit in luxurious homes full of food and every possible comfort it is hard to feel connected to the deprivations we once experienced. We thus leave this security for a few days in order to better appreciate it once we return and in order to remain grateful to God who made such bounty possible, lest we instead think it came solely from the work of our own hands. Joy lies in seeing our current prosperity, even as we remember the times when this was far from so.

While this is a lovely understanding of the holiday, I believe that a different answer as to Sukkot’s great joy comes, perhaps, from the lesson of Haushofer (Ha-Sofer) and Stefan and the magnificent CV of failures. There can, indeed, be something raw and unsettling about embracing vulnerability, but there can also be something healing and connective and welcome about it too if we can just force ourselves to give it a try. Opening up about the truth of our reality rather than working hard to conceal it can be freeing, as can paring down our material possessions and stepping into the simple elegance of a sukkah. Being honest with another can build intimacy and connection as we trust them to be gentle with our secrets, and letting down our guard before God can bring a similar sense of closeness and faith. Finally, experiencing setbacks and failure make our successes, once achieved, feel even more gratifying and significant as entering our flimsy sukkot make us ever more grateful for the solid warmth of our homes and the comfort of our lives. Sukkot’s joy lies in the blessings of nature, God’s presence, and our community around us – all things that we experience more intensely once we expose ourselves both internally and externally. Our openness makes us receptive not only to hurt and harm but also to relationship and abundance!

As we prepare to enter our sukkot this weekend, I hope that we might think about the energy we invest in constantly cataloguing our lists of successes and working so hard to conceal our places of failure. As Stefan reminds us, setbacks can be well disappointing enough without being made to feel that we’re the only ones struggling with such bumps in the road; the more that we could all venture to be honest about the fullness of our lives and careers – with all their warts and blessings – the less pressure any one of us might feel in the face of letdown or rejection. Walls and roofs and solid structures can serve to protect those of us on the inside but they can also weigh us down with the heft of their expectations. Sometimes it’s nice to peel back the cover and opt for the honest simplicity of an exposed backyard booth instead.

V’samachta b’chagecha – May the upcoming festival of Sukkot indeed be a joyful one as we embrace our personal CVs of failure and, perhaps, embrace the presence of God too. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Date Posted Title Author
Oct 26, 2016 The CV of Failures – Parashat HaAzinu Rabbi Annie Tucker