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Harold Henderson, CG, “Anatomy of a Failure: What I Learned from My First Portfolio,” OnBoard 21 (May 2015): 13.

Hobbyists can ignore failure, either by renaming it or by moving on to an easier project or an easier hobby. Professionals don’t enjoy this luxury, although we might try. I certainly wanted to ignore the whole situation on that June day in 2010 when, halfway back from the mailbox, it dawned on me that, if my portfolio had passed, I wouldn’t be hearing about it for the first time by snail mail.

Heroes, heroines, successes, and good examples all have an important place in our education. But some things can only be learned from bad examples. When all the parts are working well together, success seems as natural as breathing. A malfunctioning machine, body, or portfolio can highlight how and why a good one works.

Unlike some whose portfolios don’t pass, I have no problems with the BCG system. Performance-based testing makes sense to me in a way that academic knowledge-based requirements do not (even though few of us can perform well without tak­ing some classes). And the oft-repeated phrase proved true for me: I learned plenty from researching and writing that portfolio before it was ever judged.

How did I manage not to learn enough to meet standards? My failure mode may be atypical, but I can offer a few suggestions after the fact and after my second (suc­cessful) submission. We can:

(1) Retrain our dispositions. It’s one thing to give the right answer in a pleasant classroom in Birmingham or Salt Lake City or Pittsburgh with congenial friends at hand. It’s quite another to do the right thing semi-automatically when we’re tired, cold, hungry, distracted, discouraged, far from home, or under the scrutiny of an impatient clerk. In my opinion, BCG seeks not so much to stuff new knowledge into applicants’ heads (although that’s a good idea too!), but to change our mindsets.1 Most simply: when we come across a new fact, we should reflexively ask—not “Is it true?”—but “How do you know?”

A GPS-tested conclusion is not “proved” with the certainty or finality that word may convey to some. We can avoid any misunderstanding if we present such conclusions with the caution that no genealogical conclusion can be considered final—an outside chance exists that newly found evidence could require a reassessment of the entire evidence collection, and on rare occasions, might result in a revised conclusion.

(2) Cultivate a cold eye. The ability to judge our own work—to measure each portfolio item against the rubrics and the standards behind them—does not come easily. (At the end, I could hardly bear to look at that first portfolio. That was not a good sign.) And it is hard to evaluate ourselves against the rubrics if we don’t know in our bones what they mean—which brings me to the next point.

(3) Refrain from submitting our first try at anything! Nobody expects to run a four-minute mile the first time out. A portfolio will have a better chance of meeting standards if it is not a herculean first-time stretch for the applicant. A portfolio should not be composed of things we’ve never done before; it should be a sampling from several similar things that we’ve been doing all along. (I received this advice but did not take it seriously enough.)

(4) Know what’s different. One fact I completely missed—and it’s not easy to explain to those who haven’t done both—is how different it is to work on someone else’s family. Work for others (whether for hire, pro bono, or as a librarian/archivist) forces us to size up a novel situation, come up with a plan, follow it through, modify it on the fly, and rationalize the results—often while meeting a deadline.

(5) Beware assumptions! Somewhere, somehow, it became lodged in my mind that the kinship-determination project (KDP) was the most important part of the portfolio. This unexamined supposition had no basis that I recall, except that the KDP appeared to be the longest requirement and it was similar to things I had written (or started) on my own family. As a result, I probably spent as much time on it as on the rest of the portfolio put together. Of course, the fact is that all pieces of the portfolio matter; they showcase different aspects of our work.

(6) Don’t sweat the petty things. While we’re working and preparing, we should focus on the main issues and the important dispositions, not on the tiny technical details that so often preoccupy us. The rubrics describe the main issues. Read the rubrics, all the rubrics, and nothing but the rubrics.2

(7) Don’t spend months going above and beyond. None of the above implies that we should wait forever, or polish incessantly. Certification does not re­quire overachievement. That Jacobus-Award-winning3 magnum opus on the family can wait.

  1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), Chapter 1, “Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis.”
  2. “Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification,” revised 1 January 2015, Board for Certification of Genealogists ( http:http://vps34439.inmotionhosting.com/~bcgcer5//brochures/BCGNewAppRubrics2015.pdf : viewed 21 March 2015).
  3. “Awards > The Donald Lines Jacobus Award,” American Society of Genealogists (http://fasg.org/ awards/jacobus-award : viewed 21 March 2015).


Harold Henderson, CG

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.