When Your Need to Impress Gets Out of Control

17 Oct

Back in high school, my closest friends – and also a number of people who hated my guts – called me Mr. Resume.

This was a well-deserved nickname, and it wasn’t a compliment. I’d earned it through my relentless devotion to padding my resume for college applications. Yearbook. Newspaper. Track team. National Honor Society. Writing contests. Summer leadership camps. Volunteer shifts at the public library. If it had any chance of impressing an admissions officer, I was all over it.

So what if I never had a girlfriend? Or read a book merely for pleasure? Or enjoyed a spontaneous thought?

Because you know what I did have? One hell of a good resume.

And in the end, it delivered what I thought I wanted – entry tickets into several excellent universities.

But when I arrived at one of them 21 years ago this fall for my freshman year, I encountered an unexpected problem. I’d spent so much time doing all the things I thought would impress somebody else that I’d never stopped to consider what I actually wanted to do. And I’m not just talking about career. I’m talking about life in general.

Suddenly, all around me were people with legitimate interests and passions I’d never deem worthy of a resume, but they seemed to love them anyway. My roommate, for example, delighted in doing anything that might potentially kill him, like jumping out of airplanes or scaling domed auditoriums in the middle of the night. Others in my dorm lavished time on dancing or watching movies or shooting pool.

I, meanwhile, could not name a single pursuit in my own life that had not been undertaken to strike a pose or impress somebody in some way. An existential crisis followed that I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say, I’d never put it on my resume.

As the years went on, it became obvious that I wasn’t the only one with this problem. In fact, the older we get the harder it is to know what our deepest desires are. It’s harder still to actually find time to spend on them. Things, big things, are expected of us by our jobs and our families and society overall, and what we want for ourselves, the things that rejuvenate us, get squeezed out.

I’m not here to propose a solution to this predicament, which is otherwise known as “growing up.” However, I will say this: It’s worth trying to do at least one thing a day that would look totally stupid and unproductive on a resume of any kind.

In the summer, right about dusk, I like to go outside and listen to the cicadas in the trees. It’s a hum that’s soothing and ancient and sorrowful all at the same time, and I’ll sometimes spend the better part of an hour just soaking it in.

I could spend that time doing other things that would impress people more, but I’ve discovered, slowly and reluctantly, that it isn’t worth it. The cicadas are my anti-resume fix. What’s yours?

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10 Responses to “When Your Need to Impress Gets Out of Control”

  1. Gregg Vanourek October 18, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    Great post, and one that resonated with me too. Some of us have a filter that runs things through how they will look for others. With age and experience comes an opportunity to reflect, perhaps change course. Also an impatience with such constraints.

    Perhaps another approach would be to re-write our resumes too, embracing the things that make us unique and showing what we are really passionate about. I’ve read that Google has started reading CVs upside down, looking at activities and interests as key indicators. What if we spent less time recounting box-checking activities and more time articulating who we really are and what we aspire to?

    Thanks also for your vulnerability in sharing mistakes you’ve made. It is indeed a messy quest for all of us, despite our Facebook updates that don’t always present it that way.

    • Stephen October 25, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

      Gregg — great to hear from you and sorry for my delayed reply to your comment. Trying to move to a new house and overwhelmed with boxes and debris! Love your idea for re-writing our resumes along the lines of what we’re passionate about. Would love a guest post from you on that as a matter of fact! Also, really big fan of Life Entrepreneurs. It’s a great book I give to all my interns. Congrats on your new book as well!

  2. Portia Mount October 18, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Here’s my favorite line of this post “It’s worth trying to do at least one thing a day that would look totally stupid and unproductive on a resume of any kind.” You nailed this post.

    It doesn’t help that our American culture of “bigger is better” drives many of us to try and impress for pretty silly reasons. A great gut check.

    • Stephen October 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

      Thanks, Portia. Increasingly, it’s not a problem for me to do at least one stupid thing a day. Often, I do that several times, but I don’t let you know about it. Great point, too, about how our culture fosters a false “need to impress” even more.

  3. Mary Jo October 19, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    Wow,your best post EVER! I think it holds the seed for a book going into the 21 year journey that got you from there to where you are now. That existential crisis is what life is made of.

    I am a cradle Catholic who graduated from a well respected university. I was never smart or clever enough to beef up anything – my resume, how I acted or dressed, etc. I’d call home and cry and tell my parents that I didn’t have the kind of clothes or air about me to be at that school. I told my Dad he had to take me out because we weren’t rich enough and I didn’t even have shoes to match my outfits like all the girls in my dorm did. Heck, I had been in a uniform for 13 years. (Yes, I even went to a Catholic kindergarten). In between lots of tears, I remember my Dad saying, “It doesn’t matter that you’re not as rich as all those other girls. What matters is that you’re as rich inside.” Whoa! I’d be embarrassed to admit how many years it took for me to get that. Even though I have all the “right stuff” now, inside I still feel like the same girl, sometimes with some of the same struggles. It’s just now that I have props like a big house and a fast car. But I could never pay for how “poor” I used to be, and truthfully still feel more comfortable with those who are.

    • Stephen October 25, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words, Mary Jo, and especially for the honesty of your comment here. Very well said. My uncle, who is a Capuchin priest, gave me advice similar to your dad’s when I was in high school. I was going off on a rant about a guy I was jealous of, and my uncle basically said, “Stop worrying about what God didn’t give you and focus on what you do have.” Like you, I didn’t get it either back then. Slowly, I’m starting to now. Hope to see you more on the comment boards here.

  4. Allison October 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    As a high schooler right now, I can relate.
    I really feel like I ought to be doing something more “impressive” sometimes, but I feel too lazy about it.
    Other times, I just want to spend time with my siblings.

    What exactly would be the correct balance between having “good” activities on a resume and having downtime?

    • Stephen October 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      Hi Allison — thanks for joining the conversation! You ask a great question, and I’m not sure there’s an easy way to answer it. What you probably need to sort out first are your values and your passions and then let things flow from there. Let me recommend a great book by Gregg Vanourek (who also commented on this post) and Christopher Gergen. It’s called Life Entrepreneurs and is about how to uncover your passions, work on a unique vision for your life and then live it out. You are the perfect age to read it.

  5. Hiten October 24, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Hi Stephen,

    Wonderful post, indeed! What you wrote reminded me of when I reached my early twenties. I realised how much of life I had missed out on, because of the limitations I had placed on myself due to stuttering. So I began to work on adding all those life experiences to my resume, which I had previously missed out on.

    My anti-resume fix at the moment has to be attending improv class once a week. It is an opportunity for this 33 year old to act 25 years younger!

    • Stephen October 25, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

      Just 33! You’re making me feel really old, Hiten. Really like that you’re attending the improv class, and your thoughts about your own journey through stuttering never fail to inspire. Always good to hear from you, my friend!

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