Resumes and Career Paths Are Stories We Tell

by Alex Tunney

The first thing I did after I parted ways with my last job was to schedule an appointment at my alma mater’s career center. I did the usual job hunt rounds — scouring the job boards, informational interviews, networking with people and talking to temp agencies — but my first instinct was to get help in updating my resume. It was not until two months later, when a friend of a friend was going through my resume, that I understood why I did that. During that resume review, it was explained to me that each job should be a story. The reasoning behind my initial impulse now made more sense: I was trying to get my stories straight.

We all tell stories about our jobs and job searches. One part of my last job was writing introductions of new staff; translating the bullet points of job descriptions and resumes into a paragraph or two. Cover letters and resumes are just another way to say what we accomplished. I would be interested in reading a flash fiction piece told in resume format.

I’m very proud about what I accomplished so far, yet it doesn’t always translate well on the page. If you asked me what I’ve been doing and what I want to do with my life and get paid for, I’d answer with: “words.” Succinct, but that’s not really a job description. It’s the result of so-called career of picking up skills along the way and an interest in literature. If you pushed me for a better, longer description, I’d say that I’m interested in “communications,” or “editorial work.” That’s still a bit nebulous, partially because I’ve dabbled a little in social media, public relations, marketing, editing and administrative support. I’ve done a little of each but I occasionally tell myself that it’s not enough.

Part of me wants to answer with “storytelling.” It seems a bit corporate-speak in this context, but it’s true. I like taking apart stories to see how they work, which is why I write book reviews. I also like telling my own stories and helping other people tell theirs even if it’s just coming up with a title. All of the above is a bit messy and part of my problem. It often feels like that HR folks don’t usually hire a “jack-of-all-trades.”

During my visits to the career center, I’ve had great chats with one of the career counselors. While helping me out with this most recent job hunt, she asked me what I really wanted to do; what I wanted to focus on. I said publishing, because it’s where my interests and skills intersect and I have a number of friends and acquaintances in the industry.

There was voice pushing back against this in my head. I occasionally feel like having a career path is for richer people with more choices, and some people just work. Growing up in a family with parents and grandparents who value the Protestant work ethic, I was put in a mindset that it’s not really about the work you do but that you’re working at all. My parents worked in order to provide. So, I often feel the pressure to take any job I can to support myself. Besides, I tell myself, writers have always had day jobs.

However, I understand that she was arguing for a long-term view. There’d be less of chance of feeling stuck. Having a place to grow and develop is just as important as finding work to support myself.

For better or worse, the idea of a career path is another story told to make sense of hiring decisions and choices made to move up or move on. With our jobs very often referred to who we “are” or what we want to “be,” it’s easy for the job search to feel existential at times, and for us to take rejection personally. We shrink down years of our lives to fit two to three pages: a resume and cover letter.

When I worked at this career center during grad school, I had another counselor help me out a lot and because of this I consider her my mentor. She noticed that I would regularly try to find ways to update my resume, as if there was some hidden way to get HR departments to fall in love with it and gave me (something close to) this advice: “It’s easy to think that you are the reason that employers are not getting back to you. It gives you an illusion of control over the situation or it makes you feel that all you have to do is change something on your resume or cover letter to get the right response. However, like in dating, sometimes it’s not you, it’s them.”

I understand the seduction of a narrative; the idea that certain actions lead to a specific result and certain goals. Narratives are easy to comprehend, especially if you are busy reading through cover letters and resumes. But narratives do not tell the entire story because it is impossible to — there are always externalities that do not get mentioned.

Thinking on this, I realize that part of my problem is something that happens a lot in my own writing. In an attempt to present the whole picture, I introduce as much information — all those externalities — as I can in the first draft. Not everything needs to be included, but I fear being stuck or being solely defined by whatever my next job is. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously said, and I see truth in that. But I should also take some advice from Walt Whitman and let myself contain multitudes.

Alex J. Tunney lives in New York. His writing has been published in Lambda Literary, The Inquisitive Eater and The Ink and Code. He tweets @alexjtunney.

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