The impossible alumni magazine story—should you run it?

As a culture, we hate failure.

We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We search for the window that opens when a door closes. Recently, I even heard someone describe “fail” as an acronym: First Attempt In Learning.

And in a lot of ways, it’s great! Who wants to wake up every morning believing that setbacks from yesterday will influence them today?

But I wonder if alumni magazines have taken that impulse—to focus on success to the exclusion of failure—too far.

A couple years ago, for example, I came across an essay in which the author described the deflating moment that happened every few months when she received her alumni magazine and realized her life might never merit a profile—let alone a more modest class note. Alumni magazine syndrome, she called it.

This year, a different writer posted another brutal takedown of alumni magazines and their focus on super-successful grads. The author reserved a special level loathing for writers like me who wrote for her school’s publications without actually attending the institution. (I was kind of excited to be noticed, TBH, but that’s for another day.)

Anyway, I digress.

It’s no secret that few alumni magazines want to talk about failure. Dale Keiger acknowledged as much in his recent UMagazineology post that highlights HBS Alumni Bulletin’s cleverly named story about failure, ‘The F Word.’ (“Not your usual umag fare,” he notes.)

But should we be talking more about failure? Columbia College recently tackled the issue—sort of—in a brilliant, funny essay.

Recently, I talked with Julia Hanna, a senior content producer at Harvard and editor of the previously mentioned story on failure in the HBS Alumni Bulletin. She shared what fueled the story, how they did it, and how people have responded.

How did you come up with the failure idea? Did you get any pushback from anyone on this idea, or did you have to persuade anyone that it was important to cover?

To be honest, I don’t remember when the idea first came up…it’s a story that I’ve been interested in doing for a long time (years!).

I remember bringing a cover story from Wellesley (“When Life Doesn’t Measure Up,” Winter 2011) to an editorial meeting as an example of how failure had been treated in an alumnae magazine. [Erin’s note: it’s an amazing cover story. Take the time to read it.] I don’t remember getting direct pushback on the idea, but somehow the stars didn’t align for the feature until this year. It could be that the growing climate of acceptance around failure, particularly in the area of entrepreneurship, made it a more natural sell.

When we talked about doing the feature, we already knew about get-togethers like FailCon, where founders of startups gather to learn from one another’s mistakes. You know it’s okay to talk about failure when there are entire conferences devoted to the topic! There were also a couple of professors who were teaching cases that focus on failure, which also gave it an academic seal of approval.

How did you decide on the format you did (people telling stories in their own voices and drawing their own lessons)? Did you consider something else before you settled on that?

I don’t remember considering another format, although I knew that I would write an introduction to the article that referenced the faculty-written cases. The fact that one of the case protagonists (an alumna) would be visiting campus when the case was taught also provided another way into the article, particularly because she had always been the prototypical HBS alum in everything she did—super smart, driven, accomplished, and successful. She was personal and candid with her interview responses, which gave me some great quotes.

How did you get people to participate? If there was something that didn’t make the final story, what was it about the story that didn’t quite work?

We put out a call through our formidable army of class notes secretaries. At HBS, every class is divided into 10 or so sections of about 90 people each. It’s not unusual to have a class notes secretary for every section, with separate class notes for each. We didn’t send the call out to all alumni, just graduates of our Executive Education and MBA degree holders in a certain timespan.

Twenty-five or 30 responses came in—12 made it into the magazine, and 7 more were included in the online magazine, with three additional stories included as short audio files. I did go back to a handful of people via email to get them to fill in some details or provide a stronger sense of what it was they learned from the experience. And of course there was a fair amount of editing of too-long or repetitive submissions. The two or three that we passed on were off-kilter responses that didn’t really address the question we posed: What mistakes have shaped your career? How have your failures led to your success—professional, personal, or otherwise?

Did the story turn out as you hoped? Is there anything, in retrospect, that you wish you would have done differently?

Yes, it did—I was happy with the variety of responses. Some of the contributors are well-known (like Alan Horn, chairman of Disney) but the majority are not. There are plenty of nitty-gritty business failures, of course, but also personal failures, regrets over a road not taken, academic failure, and youthful errors of judgment. In that sense, I think the piece offers something for everyone. And a few of the stories are really funny—we have some good storytellers out there!

Failure is a tough topic to cover in an alumni magazine. So why do it? What was the thing that made you realize this was as important as any other topic you might cover in an issue?

I think many of us read as a way to figure out life. When someone else opens a small window into a time when things didn’t go well, we don’t feel so alone for having been there ourselves. We want to know what did they do wrong, what do I recognize in their experience that relates to my life, and how can I learn from what they went through?

It seems like an important topic to cover for those reasons, but particularly in an alumni magazine where our default mode is often to celebrate an individual at the height of his/her professional achievement. Not everyone can be a smashing success. And often failure is more interesting.