(By Lara Galinsky)
“What if you let the critical first influences weave through your professional experiences? What if, instead of casting aside early pivotal experiences, you used them as the foundation of your narrative, to illustrate what really drives you? What if, in addition to continually adding new roles to your resume, you surfaced stories hidden in family albums that help explain why you do what you do?“
I start job interviews with the same question every time: “Tell me about your path leading up to today. Why is this role the right fit for you now?”
What happens next is predictable:
“My first job out of college was at an international aid organization…”
“I worked for a number of years in publishing before I…”
“I started out in finance but then…”
I typically wait for a pause and ask candidates to start earlier. I tell them that I want to hear the details from their story that illustrate what drives them — their purpose. They often raise eyebrows, giggle nervously, or cross their arms.
“How far back do you want me go?”
“As far as you can,” I invite them.
Few candidates have rehearsed a response.
This is because we typically tell our professional stories beginning with our first job. After all, that’s what’s on our resumes and so it’s the narrative we tell ourselves and others about our work life. But that’s not when our stories begin.
In fact, your early years are critical to shaping your core values and authentic, untarnished self. Your natural interests, how you spent unstructured time, and the activities and ideas you were drawn to provide clues to your purpose. Your story didn’t start with your first paycheck. New York Times columnist David Brooks reflected on Sting’s talk at the 2014 TED conference, in which he revisited his childhood as a middle-aged man, seeking inspiration from some of his earliest experiences. His talk highlights that even those of us living a clear path need to look backward for inspiration and guidance to move our work forward.
As the senior vice president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit responsible for seeding over 500 innovative social change organizations, I’ve reviewed thousands of resumes. Between evaluating over a decade’s worth of Echoing Green Fellowship applications and interviewing hundreds of candidates for roles within my fast-growing organization, I’ve read my share of career objectives, acronyms summing up years of intensive studies (from MBAs to MDs to MSWs), and quirky identifiers (haiku master, flash mob frequenter, tropical fish expert).
When I pick up a resume, I scan to the earliest years. I’ve found that the older a candidate is, the more likely she is to gloss over those experiences. We become expert at explaining job transitions, major career pivots, and even our school-to-career path. But most people fail to include their full story — the one that started much earlier in life.
So, what if you backdated your resume?
What if you let the critical first influences weave through your professional experiences? What if, instead of casting aside early pivotal experiences, you used them as the foundation of your narrative, to illustrate what really drives you? What if, in addition to continually adding new roles to your resume, you surfaced stories hidden in family albums that help explain why you do what you do?
Through Echoing Green’s Work on Purpose program, I lead a workshop dedicated to this very concept. Participants receive a handout with three headings: Education, Work & Volunteer Experience, and Skills & Abilities. The twist is that I ask them to populate these categories based on their experiences from birth to age 10, and then ages 11-17. I ask them to reflect back on a time when work and play were not always distinguishable. What clubs were they a part of? How did they spend their time before they were inundated with work emails and responsible for bill-paying? What were they drawn toward before they, their family or teachers started put boxes around their identity?
Looking that far back isn’t easy. It helps to interview a parent, a teacher, or an early mentor to draw out the interests and skills from your earliest years. You might hear a story that surprises you or helps to explain an element of your personality. Often participants rediscover interests and unearth predispositions. I then ask them to use the answers to connect what they rediscovered about themselves with the work that they pursue today. As John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
You can backdate your resume today. Start by interviewing someone who knew you well in your youth, or asking yourself these questions:
- What did I gravitate toward naturally?
- What activities did I lose myself in?
- What did I talk about all the time?
- What did I love to read?
See what themes you can extract to further your understanding of yourself. Connect these discoveries with what you do now or want to do. Seek out professional development opportunities that reconnect you to these early tendencies. Look at job postings through a new lens. And even be bold—tell a story from your youth in a job interview that explains why you think you’ll thrive in a new role.
Much of our thinking about our careers and our purpose in the world is about looking forward, thinking about how to make progress toward our ultimate goals. The beauty of uncovering your past is that you are afforded the chance to create a sturdier, truer road map for where you want to be. Backdating your resume lets you look forward and back so you can tap into your full story to inform your career choices.
I’m not suggesting you include your lemonade stand venture under “work experience.” But I do hope that the practice of rediscovering your early years will help unleash the why behind the titles on your resume, and help you find your purpose.