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Managing Your “Failure to Thrive” Resume

Steps To Take Now.

A Trinity of Woes haunts job candidates: (1) Too Old (2) Poor Health and (3) “Failure to Thrive.” For young job candidates, these Woes are distinct. Over time, they converge. The result is an unhappy early retirement dominated by concerns about outliving assets.

Today we will focus on "Failure to Thrive.”

How to Recognize a “Failure to Thrive” Resume:

Most resumes are in reverse chronology, with the most recent job appearing first. But read a resume in chronological order. The “Failure to Thrive” resume begins with graduation from a respectable school. A career is launched with a respectable company. And then something happens. The rest of the resume is a series of one or two or three year stints with different employers.

This is the classic “Failure to Thrive” Resume.

You may be a fine human being, a loving parent, and a very smart person. This is not a diagnosis about your personality or ethics. Your resume sends a "Failure to Thrive" signal. And you cannot do a job search without a resume.

“I Can Explain It All”

Our candidates say, “I can explain it all if only a recruiter would speak with. But recruiters never respond."

Look at the situation from the recruiter’s perspective. Your explanation for your Failure to Thrive may be appropriate. It is also irrelevant. It is the recruiter’s job to present a slate of 3-4 solid job candidates to decision makers. Adding a “Failure to Thrive” resume to the list guarantees recruiters will get tough, negative questions from their clients. Why would a recruiter risk being put in an uncomfortable situation with his/her client when there is an abundance of resumes to select that do not have “Failure to Thrive” messages.

In other words, do not expect much help from recruiters. That is not the same as saying “Avoid responding to ads.” You should look at these opportunities as low probability events. And stop getting angry at recruiters or yourself if you do not get responses.

Spend your job search time on other distribution routes for your resume.

Distribution Routes for “Failure to Thrive” Resumes:

In another PSYCHOLOGY TODAY MAGAZINE piece we spoke about the five distribution routes for a resume to get from your printer into the hands of someone with authority to hire you. These distribution routes include responding to ads, networking, direct mail, showing up, and telemarketing. Please refer to this piece for the other four distribution routes and consider launching a diversified job campaign:


The concept of a five channel distribution campaign is easy to describe. But it is hard to execute. If your company has provided you with outplacement services, insist on working with a consultant you trust who will hold you accountable and follow up weekly with you. If you are without outplacement support, try to find someone at a networking support group who might serve as an accountability partner. And you could be the person’s accountability partner.

Job search is a skill like tennis or golf. The only way you get better at doing a job search is by doing it and having regular meetings with someone who helps you to unlearn all your past job search success. Unlearning success is tough to do and it does require 1:1 help. Remember, many of the successful things that you have learned worked because you were younger and did not have a Failure to Thrive resume.

Tips to Avoid When Trying to Explain Your “Failure to Thrive” Resumes:

Before discussing what we recommend you should do, let’s go over some typical mistakes job candidates make. The biggest mistake is to assume “Silence is Golden.” This is a proverb from ancient Egypt that compares beautiful speech to silver but silence to gold. This proverb continues to hold much wisdom. When applied to job candidates with “Failure to Thrive” resumes, it is tragic. Readers can’t help but notice that there is something wrong. Failure to ask questions is merely a sign of politeness. They have already ruled you out as a candidate.

It is your responsibility to draw attention to the “Failure to Thrive” theme, own it, and control it.

If saying nothing is a mistake, talking about every job you have had is also a mistake. Yes there were situational factors in every job you have ever had. The deeper you get into each situation, the more boring you become. People are not as interested in you as you might think! And the more time you spend reviewing your work history, the less time you have to spend focusing on how you could help the company with its future.

Assume for a moment you could convince a stranger that you have been an innocent victim in every job you have ever had. What good have you done? You have now drawn a broad story arc that says, “Wherever I go, bad things happen to me. Please hire me!”

How to Explain Away “Failure to Thrive” Resumes.

We recommend you initiate the discussion in a way similar to this statement:

“I’m sure you will notice that ever since I left ABC Company my career has been a series of interim assignments and short term jobs. If I was sitting where you are sitting, I’d wonder, ‘What’s going on?’”

This allows the topic to be discussed. And you were the one who brought it up in a non defensive way.

We recommend to our job candidates that they point a finger of blame to explain the “Failure to Thrive” resume. That finger can only point in one direction: the job candidate.

Try to summarize the totality of “Failure to Thrive” in a clear story arc and avoid talking about specific jobs. Focus on what you are doing to change the failure trajectory. For example:

“There is a part of me that has always been a strong, linear thinker. That ability got me through a great school and many of the jobs I have had capitalized on that linear thinking. I love the precision of numbers.

“But there is another part of me that is artistic. As the demands of work and family increased, I did not allow the artistic side of me to express itself. That was my error. And the resume you have is the result of that error.

“Technically I have always done a good job and references will be happy to confirm that. You’ll never have a problem with my technical performance on the job.

“More recently, I have taken active control over the artistic side of my life. I used to play guitar and sing in high school. I’m now jamming with a garage rock band consisting of middle age guys like me. One weekend a month we have a gig at a local bar. My son wants to play guitar and I am teaching him.

“I’m again feeding the artist in me that I have been starving.

“My verdict is shame on me for not having figured this out years ago.”

Create Your Own Story Arc:

Of course the explanation is not 100% satisfactory. But it does put the “Failure to Thrive” resume in an overall context that many decision makers can relate to. It clearly states that the speaker has gained the insights to figure out how he has created his failure. It clearly states that the speaker is on the road to higher level functioning.

You may feel that you are one of life’s innocent victims and no finger of blame should go in your direction. My own experience is that if you truly believe this, you should get a dispassionate second opinion that disconfirms your assessment. Disconfirmation would be good news. Who wants to hire victims unless they are doing it for reasons of charity? On the other hand, if you are the cause of your own problems, then there is hope. You can unlearn. You can learn.

A dispassionate second opinion might come from a friend that you trust who knows you. Another source would be a competent psychotherapist. For example consult your local state psychological association. Another source would be certified career management consultants. A global database can be found at This is the Institute for Career Certification International, the global nonprofit that certifies excellence in the field. A third option would be to visit the Career Center at the Institution of Higher Education where you graduated.


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