I was recently asked by a friend from college for a copy of my résumé so that he could get some inspiration before updating his own. I paused for a moment, choosing my words carefully, before politely informing him that if he’s going after a job that requires a résumé, he’s likely going to be unhappy with that job.
Here’s why: résumés represent an age where standardization at all levels of corporation is key. Everyone uses the same color Post-It notes, the same brand of paper and adheres to the same dress code. Ideas and motivation stagnate in such environments, and in most cases the really groundbreaking ideas come from outside help; consultants brought in to spice things up. I can pretty much guarantee that the consultant that was brought in at 5 times your hourly rate didn’t have to show a résumé to get the gig.
When you are asked to show a résumé, you are really being asked to show how well you play within the rules. Did you put your purpose statement at the top? Did you use solid numbers instead of ranges? Did you account for any time between legitimate, salaried positions? I certainly hope you wrote down an impressive list of hobbies, because it would be a shame not to show some of your personality in a document that exists only to cookie-cut your professional life into a neater, more stackable shape.
It’s not fair, perhaps, that I’m attacking the vaunted résumé in this way. Historically, it has actually been quite good to me, helping me get all but one of the jobs I’ve ever applied for, which allowed me to pick up new skills, experience and paychecks with great ease throughout my college career. My professional life actually looks very good on paper, and I would likely not have too much trouble returning to the fold and reinserting myself into the ‘legitimate professional world,’ working for paychecks, being paid to be somewhere at a certain time, and generally having a much easier time describing what I do for a living to people.
That being said, I’m incredibly happy to stay far removed from that lifestyle; the one that is documented in minute detail by the résumé. I now engage in a professional life that would be much more difficult to format on a single sheet of paper, one that is composed of projects and investments rather than jobs and meager savings. My time is my own: sometimes I’ll work 80 hour weeks, and sometimes I’ll take a month off from paying work, instead focusing on my own projects and whims. Despite my over-abundance of good, paying work, I’m about to leave the country because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do: that is something that would be very difficult to explain on a résumé.
‘So,’ you may be asking me, ‘if I have to burn my résumé, how will I get work? How will people know what I’m all about?’
The answer is networking and doing good work. Tell people about yourself, your skills and your experience. Talk up what you’re doing now and what you want to do. If you are a plumber, make sure that when anyone you know thinks ‘That pipe needs fixing! Who am I gonna’ call?” they call you. Soon, their friends will do the same. And then their friends.
A connection from a friend of a friend is a lot more personal than an interview with a résumé as the centerpiece. In fact, I would hazard to say that you are already in a bad spot if you find yourself involved in such an interview, because it means you weren’t able to make a connection with the person on the other end of the table through someone you and they know, so you are engaged in the equivalent of a cold call. They hold all the cards and you hold…what? A list of things you’ve done in the past. Yay?
I was caught off guard when my friend asked me for my résumé partially because it’s been so long since I’ve even heard of someone using one. I’ve built my company on word-of-mouth recommendations, my portfolio and networking, and most of the people I meet with regularly do the same. While it was once practical to frame your work experience in the résumé format, the project-oriented lifestyle that I and most entrepreneurs and young professionals now live does not fit within those parameters. How would I explain in a résumé that I took a certain small project that was below my usual price range and not something I would probably put in my portfolio because it allowed me to practice building websites with Joomla? I couldn’t. But I can tell you about it, and you can tell someone else.
Doing good work will also take you far, reducing the need to keep a detailed list of your exploits. Any really good company will judge an employee or contractor by the results of their work, not by the number of years they worked at their past job or what their last salary was. When I first started my company, I did a lot of ‘advertising’ on social networks and was careful to keep my online portfolio up to date. Now, a year later, I seldom even have to point people to my online portfolio, as most of my clients come to me because of a recommendation from a past or current (and very happy) client.
The Other Argument
While writing this article, my girlfriend and I got into a fairly heated debate, with her playing devil’s advocate in favor of résumés while I argued against them. She made a very valid point that for many people, résumés are still the best way to communicate your skill set and professional experience, especially when you are not a big networker, are trying to finagle your way into a new field in which you have no contacts, or are simply looking for a job in an area that IS résumé-driven. She brought up acting (a field that she has a lot of experience in) as an example of a profession that runs on old wheels. If you try to change the way it operates, you are ignored completely (actors must submit their headshots and résumés in a very particular format, size and quality to even be considered for a role; those who innovate are shaved from the pile without consideration).
I would argue that, yes, some professions do still rely on antique methods to operate more than others (just look at the DMV! Somebody buy those people a computer built in the last decade!), but even those fields would greatly benefit from an upgrade, and being pulled, kicking and screaming, might be the only way to finally make that change. If enough talented actors started printing their headshots on 4″x4″ paper instead of 8″x10″, or even doing away with printed headshots completely and instead delivering their photos completely online (which is already being done by a large number of actors, but it could become more of a standard than it is), the industry would be forced to change within a few years (or face extinction due to their cold-shouldering of the best among them).
So even though résumés may be practical for some, the real path to getting work (or creating work) that you really enjoy and are rewarded fairly for is to ditch the résumé, make connections, talk up your work and make use of projects that can slingshot you toward more opportunities.
Update: April 23, 2016
Looking back at this post, I still largely agree that, in an ideal world, and in most industries, we have better ways to show who we are, what we stand for, and what kind of work we can do than a traditionally structured résumé.
That said, reading it today, I agree more with my ex who argued that there are many industries that require something more formal, something that is more quickly perusable and filterable. This concept still galls, because a lot of what the people on the other end are checking for are irrelevant pieces of trivia. University degrees, for instance, are typically not as valuable as real-world work experience for many industries, but they’re used as a filtering mechanism because otherwise the person doing the interviews would be inundated with candidates they don’t have a good way to judge on paper.
So it was an imperfect system and still is, but I can understand it, particularly for fields that are more easily quantified in that format. I would still argue, however, that it’s almost always better to get a job (or a client) through alternative means, because then it’s more likely you’re being chosen as an individual, rather than one name in a pile of names.