Whether I’m at Yale or surrounded by ambitious entrepreneurs in San Francisco, people often feel the need to make their accomplishments known. Last weekend, I went to a summit hosted by the Thiel Foundation—an organization that pays undergrads money to drop out of college and work on ideas they’re excited about. The attendees were interesting and absurdly successful for their age. But on the whole, the event felt more like a “humble brag” fest than an opportunity to make real connections. Many of the people I met were walking, talking LinkedIn profiles.
Their achievements were impressive and deserving of recognition, but there was something that bothered me about the quality of conversation. Several days later, I figured out what.
This summer, I’m one of the True Entrepreneur Corps fellows at True Ventures in San Francisco. I work four days per week at a startup called Storehouse. On the remaining day, the venture capital firm brings interesting founders to their office, where we get to pick their brains for a few hours. Before we start these sessions, the speakers ask us a question in order to get a better sense of who we are. Normally, these questions are fairly run of the mill. But last week, Tony Conrad—the founder and CEO of about.me—asked something that made me realize why the Thiel Foundation Summit had rubbed me the wrong way:
What’s the job that’s not on your resume?
This one question got people to tell stories that they would never have otherwise shared. It removed the social pressure to subtly name drop the interesting places they’ve worked in the past. Some people worked in retail. Others, for the National Park Service. One intern even went door-to-door selling a product for toilets.
So much of what makes us who we are happens outside of the context of resume-worthy jobs. These experiences are character building. They teach important interpersonal skills and the value of hard work. And yet, we’re not often given the opportunity talk about them in professional settings. Odd jobs open a window into people’s lives that is normally closed. They make accomplished people seem human and down to earth.
When people tell the stories of their own success, they tend to be selective about the details they recount. This is more of a cognitive bias than a purposeful deception. The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the narrative fallacy:
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them.
Successful people often make their path to success seem more like a highway than a trail through the wilderness. But the question about non-resume jobs helps remove some of this romanticization and forces them to provide a more raw, authentic account of their experiences. Their success is the product of all their experiences—including the ones that aren’t as glamorous. The best questions are like magnets; they attract interesting stories from the depths of people’s memories. “What’s the job that’s not on your resume?” happens to be a very large and powerful magnet.
It’s obvious that the question informs the work that Tony Conrad does at about.me—a web service that allows users to easily make their own personal home pages with links to their presence across the Internet.
“I’m not going to let algorithms or a social graph define me,” he said, referring to Facebook and LinkedIn’s restrictive profiles. With about.me, people can tell the story of who they are in a way that isn’t possible on a resume. The philosophy of that website is one we should bring to the offline world. I’m happy that the students at the Thiel summit have been able to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time, but there’s something dehumanizing about conversations that revolve only around dazzling achievements. We are more than the sum of our professional experiences.