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Posted: January 20, 2009

The accidental resume

Creating a cohesive backstory in a competive job market

Liz Ryan

I don't know about you, but when I was in school, career education and guidance was essentially non-existent. I was drawn to music in high school, so my life plan had what I viewed as a lofty, aspirational target plus a more pragmatic fallback position. "

I'll be an opera star, God willing," I said to myself, "and if that falls through, I'll be a Broadway star." Plenty of my contemporaries have similar stories populated by not-especially-realistic career goals, or no career goals at all.
It's no wonder that millions of us boomers, Gen Xers and leading-edge Gen Y folks have bounced from job to job and career to career without direction. If a job was relatively fun to perform and paid reasonably well, why complain?

We could get along perfectly well this way, for ten years or fifteen or twenty-five. Most of us didn't grow up planning to be audit partners or methodology managers or supply chain planners. We fell into one thing or another and stayed put —  or moved on when a headhunter called with a tempting offer.
You can spot an accidental careerist a mile away — by virtue of his or her accidental resume. These are the resumes that scream "I went here and there, and then something happened, so I moved over here. After that, my sister heard about an opportunity at her company, so that's where I went."

We may be confident that the humans behind these resumes are smart and capable, but we're not sure what they're especially good at or love to do. That's no surprise — the resume's owner probably doesn't know, either.
And therein lies the problem.

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In this competitive job market, hither-and-thither types don't tend to get second interviews or great offers. Employers are more excited about the person who is clear about where she's been, where she's going and why her experience matters for the job she's seeking now.
But what if that isn't you? Can you create a career plan and a cohesive career story in the clinch, during a job search?
You can do it, and you must. The muddled resume and sketchy back-story that mark a directionless job-seeker will slow a job search to a standstill. When employers can choose between candidates who know exactly where they're headed and ones who don't, who can blame them for picking the people whose careers have direction?
Here's the good news: Your career direction relies more on careful thought and the wise perspectives of the people who know you best than on aptitude tests. In fact, I have a low opinion of those things.
A couple of weeks ago, my fifteen-year-old daughter took a career aptitude test in her health class. "Want to guess the results?" she asked me. "Oh please," I said. "I've known you for fifteen years."

I reckoned that the aptitude test pegged her as a performer, a judge, a professor or a journalist. I was close! In fact, the tenth-grade career aptitude test was a bit more vocationally-oriented than Mom's crystal ball.

Instead of the judgeship, she was directed toward security and law enforcement; in place of Broadway stardom, she might work in the entertainment field somehow; in place of academia, my kid was directed toward education and training; and where I saw journalist, the test saw something in the communications field.

My daughter's story illustrates both of the reasons I'm no fan of career-aptitude tests. For one thing, they're geared to the most plentiful career directions, the ones with the lowest barriers to entry. For another thing, anyone who knows a job-seeker reasonably well could direct the job-seeker as well as the test can. We can do it by asking, "What is this person really good at? What does s/he love to do?"
When we have a feel for the activities we love and the ones where we shine, we've got one more step to complete. We need to know which jobs exist, because there's no point in zeroing in on a career direction for which no jobs are available. Let's say that metallurgist job openings are less common than networking engineer jobs (they are). With that knowledge, we can balance our love-it-and-good-at-it picture with an understanding of the talents employers are looking for.
Gaining a job-search direction takes mental work, lots of conversation and a bunch of online research. But you'd hate to launch a job search without it. It would be a waste of time, because your resume would be mushy and your story aimless.

When the answer to the interviewer's question "So, what interests you in this job?" is "Well, you know, I need a job," the interview is effectively over. Spontaneity is great; career planning off the dome isn't so hot. The good news is that your heavy mental lifting will pay off. Once you've settled on a job-search direction, your resume will show your resolve and your confidence. Your cover letters will brim with aplomb.

Isn't that how a job search should go?

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Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR exec and an advisor to organizations and job-seekers. Reach her at or

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