Burn Your Résumé

The Setup

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.

The Argument

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).

The Conclusion

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.

30 comments

  1. I definitely agree that connections are the way to go! It’s so much more important to go about it that way…however, a resume is a requirement in a lot of situations so I won’t go burning mine quite yet! :)

  2. I definitely agree that connections are the way to go! It’s so much more important to go about it that way…however, a resume is a requirement in a lot of situations so I won’t go burning mine quite yet! :)

  3. I agree with the girlfriend. Networking and building a company where you do ‘jobs’ on an individual bases (plumber, graphic artist) may not require a resume, or even a portfolio in your case. But what about those jobs (the majority) set in a corporate environment? Where you are salaried by a company to increase revenue or value? What about a guy who wants to be a accountant or a marketing executive for a sports team? Should he not submit a resume for the job? How is the head of Marketing and Branding at the LA Lakers going to know if someone can help their club? If he isn’t on Twitter, then he probably doesn’t know this poor sap even exists!
    More to discuss, on both side, on the upcoming Exile Lifestyle Podcast :)

  4. I agree with the girlfriend. Networking and building a company where you do ‘jobs’ on an individual bases (plumber, graphic artist) may not require a resume, or even a portfolio in your case. But what about those jobs (the majority) set in a corporate environment? Where you are salaried by a company to increase revenue or value? What about a guy who wants to be a accountant or a marketing executive for a sports team? Should he not submit a resume for the job? How is the head of Marketing and Branding at the LA Lakers going to know if someone can help their club? If he isn’t on Twitter, then he probably doesn’t know this poor sap even exists!
    More to discuss, on both side, on the upcoming Exile Lifestyle Podcast :)

  5. Thanks for the comments!

    @Positively Present: I’ve found that making long-lasting connections makes you much more future-proof professionally, regardless of the industry you’re in. I can definitely understand you wanting to keep your résumé unburnt at this point, though. Hopefully you’ll be in a situation at some point which will allow you to take that plunge (provided that’s the direction you want to go, that is)!

    @Brian Moseley: That’s actually part of my point. Being a capitalist myself, I think I can safely say this without coming across as a bleeding-heart communist: corporatism is broken. There, I said it. I think that the way the corporate landscape is set up is antique, built to fail and is itself a manifestation of that famous (though unattributable) quote “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” That being said, I think that building up one’s personal accomplishments is very important. Vital, in fact. But striving to achieve things that look good on a résumé and striving to achieve things that will actually get you somewhere in the world (and out from under someone else’s thumb) are two completely different things. I think that one would be much better off building up a list of accomplishments and then being judged by those accomplishments in the real world, not how they look when reduced down to a résumé’s cookie-cutter format.

  6. Thanks for the comments!

    @Positively Present: I’ve found that making long-lasting connections makes you much more future-proof professionally, regardless of the industry you’re in. I can definitely understand you wanting to keep your résumé unburnt at this point, though. Hopefully you’ll be in a situation at some point which will allow you to take that plunge (provided that’s the direction you want to go, that is)!

    @Brian Moseley: That’s actually part of my point. Being a capitalist myself, I think I can safely say this without coming across as a bleeding-heart communist: corporatism is broken. There, I said it. I think that the way the corporate landscape is set up is antique, built to fail and is itself a manifestation of that famous (though unattributable) quote “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” That being said, I think that building up one’s personal accomplishments is very important. Vital, in fact. But striving to achieve things that look good on a résumé and striving to achieve things that will actually get you somewhere in the world (and out from under someone else’s thumb) are two completely different things. I think that one would be much better off building up a list of accomplishments and then being judged by those accomplishments in the real world, not how they look when reduced down to a résumé’s cookie-cutter format.

  7. I’m a consultant, and my clients are corporations. I agree (and many of my clients agree) that the corporate machine is broken and that résumés are often overrated. Prospects learn about me through word of mouth, my blog, and my talks at conferences, not because I sent them a résumé.

    However, in the long selling cycle that happens with big clients, someone less enlightened will often “need” a résumé, at which point if I want the gig, I deliver.

    Your first contact with a big company is probably someone who can’t make the hiring decision, whether they want to hire you for a two-week project or a full-fledged job. They have to get someone higher than them to approve their idea of hiring you. Sometimes, someone somewhere in that chain of approval who knows nothing about you will require a résumé.

    Since your job during this phase is to make your internal advocate look good, you need to provide not just a résumé, but an impressive one.

    I’ve been self-employed for 15 years. I have an extensive web site with a client list, biography, testimonials, and many samples of my work. Yet I’m still asked by about a third of my prospects for a résumé so they can get higher-ups to approve the decision to hire me.

    My suggestion would be to keep a résumé on life support in a dark corner of your hard drive, because at some point someone will “need” it. It doesn’t have to be a conventional résumé listing jobs. Mine lists “selected clients and projects” and briefly describes the cooler projects I’ve worked on. It also repeatedly and blatantly includes live links to the relevant portions of my web site.

  8. I’m a consultant, and my clients are corporations. I agree (and many of my clients agree) that the corporate machine is broken and that résumés are often overrated. Prospects learn about me through word of mouth, my blog, and my talks at conferences, not because I sent them a résumé.

    However, in the long selling cycle that happens with big clients, someone less enlightened will often “need” a résumé, at which point if I want the gig, I deliver.

    Your first contact with a big company is probably someone who can’t make the hiring decision, whether they want to hire you for a two-week project or a full-fledged job. They have to get someone higher than them to approve their idea of hiring you. Sometimes, someone somewhere in that chain of approval who knows nothing about you will require a résumé.

    Since your job during this phase is to make your internal advocate look good, you need to provide not just a résumé, but an impressive one.

    I’ve been self-employed for 15 years. I have an extensive web site with a client list, biography, testimonials, and many samples of my work. Yet I’m still asked by about a third of my prospects for a résumé so they can get higher-ups to approve the decision to hire me.

    My suggestion would be to keep a résumé on life support in a dark corner of your hard drive, because at some point someone will “need” it. It doesn’t have to be a conventional résumé listing jobs. Mine lists “selected clients and projects” and briefly describes the cooler projects I’ve worked on. It also repeatedly and blatantly includes live links to the relevant portions of my web site.

  9. Thanks for the comment, @Cathy Moore!

    You make some very good points, especially about keeping a non-conventional résumé on hand to make your contact with a client look good. A case-study-focused document makes a lot more sense than a traditional résumé to me, as it is you who determines what to include, which parts are the important parts and what they say about you.

    It’s heartening to hear that you and many of your clients agree that something needs to be done about the current corporate structure, too. This tends to be a very emotional topic (for some reason), and I’ve found that bringing it up around other capitalists leads to cries of outrage that the ‘religion of money’ would be questioned, while bringing it up around anti-capitalists of any kind leads to condemnation because I’m not demonizing the dollar completely (so our economy can run on good intentions and hugs, I imagine).

    Do you have a website with your project-oriented résumé available for reference, Cathy?

  10. Thanks for the comment, @Cathy Moore!

    You make some very good points, especially about keeping a non-conventional résumé on hand to make your contact with a client look good. A case-study-focused document makes a lot more sense than a traditional résumé to me, as it is you who determines what to include, which parts are the important parts and what they say about you.

    It’s heartening to hear that you and many of your clients agree that something needs to be done about the current corporate structure, too. This tends to be a very emotional topic (for some reason), and I’ve found that bringing it up around other capitalists leads to cries of outrage that the ‘religion of money’ would be questioned, while bringing it up around anti-capitalists of any kind leads to condemnation because I’m not demonizing the dollar completely (so our economy can run on good intentions and hugs, I imagine).

    Do you have a website with your project-oriented résumé available for reference, Cathy?

  11. The more I work with people in corporations, the more I realize that they’re perfectly nice, human people who are trying to deal with an unwieldy and stubborn system. Of course there are people who benefit from the system and do their best to keep it alive, but many people on the inside are trying to change it. One of the reasons I like my niche is that I feel like I’m helping to change corporate culture, if only a little.

    Yes, this is a very emotional topic for some people. I was recently told that my work is “evil” because I help corporations.

    My site is linked to my name above. Most people get there through my blog at http://blog.cathy-moore.com. I’ll be happy to send you my résumé; it’s not posted online.

  12. The more I work with people in corporations, the more I realize that they’re perfectly nice, human people who are trying to deal with an unwieldy and stubborn system. Of course there are people who benefit from the system and do their best to keep it alive, but many people on the inside are trying to change it. One of the reasons I like my niche is that I feel like I’m helping to change corporate culture, if only a little.

    Yes, this is a very emotional topic for some people. I was recently told that my work is “evil” because I help corporations.

    My site is linked to my name above. Most people get there through my blog at http://blog.cathy-moore.com. I’ll be happy to send you my résumé; it’s not posted online.

  13. Agreed, your resume is completely standardized and it’s darn near impossible to get a job without fitting the exact ABC format they’re looking for. In the past I’ve found that just showing up and talking to the business owner or manager is much better than sending in a resume because you can fully explain who you are and what you’re about.

  14. Agreed, your resume is completely standardized and it’s darn near impossible to get a job without fitting the exact ABC format they’re looking for. In the past I’ve found that just showing up and talking to the business owner or manager is much better than sending in a resume because you can fully explain who you are and what you’re about.

  15. “striving to achieve things that look good on a résumé and striving to achieve things that will actually get you somewhere in the world (and out from under someone else’s thumb) are two completely different things. I think that one would be much better off building up a list of accomplishments and then being judged by those accomplishments in the real world, not how they look when reduced down to a résumé’s cookie-cutter format.”

    Well said and my favorite point made! I absolutely agree.

  16. “striving to achieve things that look good on a résumé and striving to achieve things that will actually get you somewhere in the world (and out from under someone else’s thumb) are two completely different things. I think that one would be much better off building up a list of accomplishments and then being judged by those accomplishments in the real world, not how they look when reduced down to a résumé’s cookie-cutter format.”

    Well said and my favorite point made! I absolutely agree.

  17. I think résumés are a load of crap and I too have hardly ever had to use one for getting jobs. In fact to be honest I can’t even think when I used a resume to score a job. When I hire people I never have asked for a resume, I base it on portfolio, some basic dot points of skills or via face-to-face and a little bit of intuition ;)

  18. Yes, yes & more yes. I recently created a “things to do before I die” list on my blog (http://tumblr.heyamberrae.com/before-i-die). Number 9 on the list, a “to do” that I established after my first job reads “work for companies who don’t look at resumes as they deem it unimportant in relation to your abilities.” Clearly, that baby was crossed off soon after. :)

    ps – go here, scroll down & click “Resume” http://thethirdofthree.com/excessive/

  19. At the moment I find myself in a position where I am using a resume again. And it does not work for me well. I lived a great (work)life in my home country – quite similar to yours – using my network and my reputation. I decided to move to the other side of the world where I only know a handful of people. At the moment I feel crushed between my old ways (which I like) and conforming to the standards of this country. Your post is great food for thought. I have to think this over…

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  24. What is the old adage? It is not what you know, it is who you know. In business, even with a resume, that will get you further than the resume.

    I do like the idea about a soft of “off the wall” resume to stand out from the crowd.

    Great insight Colin, even on posts from over a year ago.

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