Certificates of Failure


Walk into any doctor’s or college professor’s office, and you’re likely to see a wall lined with framed certificates of that person’s academic accomplishments.

I admit that I look at these certificates, and often use them as a way of quickly judging the competence of the individual whose name appears on the certificates.

However, as the quote from Frederick Douglass above suggests, perhaps what we should be looking at are not a person’s successes, but the failures.

Seth Godin has written about the importance of failure many times, and in this post describes some of the failures he has had over the years.

JK Rowling, in her commencement speech at Harvard, talks about the benefits of failure.

Richard Branson notes that many entrepreneurs usually fail several times before succeeding.

So if failure is so important to success, then I think it needs to be recognized. Rather than just seeing a wall filled with signs of accomplishment, why not include signs of failure?

Imagine visiting someone at their home or office, and seeing multiple certificates of failure adorning their walls. What sort of impression would that make?

To me, such certificates would paint a picture of a person filled with ideas, willing to take some risks with those ideas, has persistence, and has taken charge of his or her life.

So while academic diplomas may be an appropriate way to judge the competence of a doctor or professor, perhaps the best way to evaluate an entrepreneur may be a collection of certificates of failure.


I’m sensing a business opportunity for these certificates, but if it fails, at least I’ll have something to show for it.

P.S. Here’s a sampling from my list of failures…

  • Independent distributor for software CDs in the early days of such technology. Result – throwing out about 500 CDs and writing off a $10,000 loss
  • Independent book rep for Dorling-Kindersley. Never gave it a legitimate shot; fortunately did not require a significant investment
  • Opened a personal training studio. This venture lasted about three and a half years, but it never achieved the financial results I had hoped for.)


5 thoughts on “Certificates of Failure

  1. Great points–when I used to recruit system administrators I always asked them what their biggest mistake was. If they couldn’t give me an answer they were either a) not completely honest, or b) didn’t have much real experience, because the only way to avoid mistakes is never to try.
    Enjoyed it, thanks!


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