Unmentionables: What you leave out of a resume is often more revealing than what you put in.
A resume tells a story. It’s an idealized tale of professional accomplishment, garnished with action verbs and tasks completed.
But this is a different kind of story, about a job that isn’t on my resume and a task that never was finished:
I spent ten days one June working on an organic farm in New Mexico. On the tenth day, the midday air shimmered with heat waves as I lifted my head to inspect the pathetic progress I had made. Four hours, four rows. Baby eggplants drooped in the glare. My work — loosening dry soil and pulling up weeds that threatened to dwarf the wee plants — made me tense. Jab too aggressively, and I risked severing the very plants I labored to help. Hold back, and I was practically inviting the weeds to take over. How, I wondered wearily, would I ever get through this acre of organic eggplants?
As it turned out, lunch brought all the answers I would need.
“I don’t think this is working out,” said Eremita, the owner of the organic farm I had pledged my services to as an “intern,” and one tough cookie. “You just aren’t getting it and I don’t have time to keep watching you.”
I had to admit that Eremita was right. I wasn’t getting it. The baby plants seemed unworthy of my heroic labors, and anyway, this was her farm, not mine. My only profit was an education (read: period of indentured servitude) in organic farming and free room and board.
We parted ways after lunch. I took one more look at the wavering field, wished the tiny plants well and hoped to meet them again in some late-summer eggplant parmesan.
Can it be a surprise that my brief dalliance with organic farming never made the cut onto my resume? Like a rotten tomato, my picturesque foray into rural New Mexico was heaved into my professional trash bin, to compost with many other career unmentionables.
Recently, as I was examining my resume, that most over-requested and overrated document of professional life, I noticed that most of what I consider the really interesting things that I’ve done are missing. Not just the eggplant farm (which represented a gutsy leap of faith that sadly turned sour), but the construction work stint, the dude ranch summer, the half-year on the Italian farm — all missing. In my effort to describe my journalism and publishing experience, I reluctantly forfeit the space and context to outline my unique experiences.
Interning at the Dallas Morning News and working at High Country News and the University of California Press are qualifying credentials for the kinds of writing and editing jobs I find myself applying for. It’s harder to evaluate the summer I spent driving a trash truck at nearly 10,000 feet in Colorado, or the month I spent helping to build a house out of straw bales.
Given the opportunity, I might mention my six months in Italy, tending grape vines and whitewashing cottages, where I gained confidence and muscles in equal measure. The hodge-podge of work I did at that beautiful, bedraggled estate taught me more about the ways of the real world than I could have imagined. Sanding and refinishing old doors and windows, loading hay into a truck, and pruning decades old vines all taught me lessons about time management (don’t rush with the sander) resource management (don’t overload the truck), and long-term planning (be smart with those clippers).
With every tired swipe of the hoe, my eggplant fiasco burned in my memory the challenge (and in that case, the futility) of working well towards something you don’t quite believe in. I had said I wanted to learn organic farming, but what I really wanted, I realized, was a low-stress summer job in a place I’d never been. This was an important lesson in lining up your job and expectations early on.
As an East coast girl in Wyoming for the summer, I ran across my first incommunicable coworker. Coworkers, to be exact. The three wranglers who worked at the dude ranch were accustomed to rising before dawn and rounding up the horses. They were not accustomed to my chipper breakfast talk and chirpy curiosity, but they meant well. I thought of them often as I struggled to find a common ground with a boss at a publishing job who stared through me.
The guys I worked with during my brief stint as a construction worker on a remodel job in Philadelphia didn’t stare through me. They watched me, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with concern, as I struggled to reign in the “Sawz-all” that seemed to be moving me more than the wall I was supposed to cut up. To their credit, and my eternal relief and appreciation, they never looked at me with lasciviousness or scorn, something I’d feared thanks to my own stereotypes. Much as I wanted to prove myself, to them and for my own benefit, I learned grudgingly how to back out of jobs I knew I couldn’t handle.
It was embarrassing to stand around while the crew unloaded sheetrock and hoofed it upstairs, complaining all the way, but there was no way I could handle the panels. I made up for that inability by whacking extra hard against the brick wall I was supposed to make disappear. With every slam of the hammer, my forearm vibrated and my hand approached the “contractor’s clench,” the prized result of eight hours of non-stop tool-grasping. Slowly, the bricks fell.
Day by day I learned to balance my bragadoccio with my braininess, trying to make up for my lack in physique and experience with clever shortcuts. Sometimes it worked, as when I noticed that scoring cardboard before ripping it apart with your bare hands simplifies things tremendously. Sometimes it plain didn’t, as I learned watching a 300 pound Mike D. beat the living daylights out of a piece of wall I hadn’t made a dent in. Sometimes there’s no substitute for pure poundage.
Though demolition hasn’t been a marketable skill for me (not that I was all that good anyway), the self-knowledge I gained on that job has served me well as I’ve evaluated projects and chosen between short-cutting or grunting through head-on. And learning to eat disgusting hoagies with big guys I didn’t have a ton in common with before knocking down some walls together — safely, happily — makes me feel secure in the knowledge that I can work with anyone.
My non-resume experiences have this in common: they are often rural, non-professional and very physical. As a fairly wimpy city kid with undeniable professional aspirations, these qualities fill a gap in my experience. The country side (and the occasional construction site) is full of wonders that treat the eyes and challenge the body, but sadly lacking are jobs that also feed the mind. So I find myself see-sawing back and forth between writing and weeding, and in that pendulous motion is a truer tale of the kind of person I am than the deceptively linear march of my resume.
I am a zealot for change, finding in the bright unfamiliarity of a new environment an adrenalizing rush that keeps me happy. That’s a quality I would be happy to tout for potential employers, since I think it serves me well in the fast-paced work environment of the very late 20th century. And when I can, I do, mentioning my multifarious meanderings while putting an “assertive” spin on them, emphasizing how “challenging” and “fast-paced” it all was and just how well I “worked independently.”
But buzz words are buzz words no matter what they’re describing, and I haven ‘t yet found the courage, or the words, to bring my alter-resume to the fore.
In the meantime, I’m hearing reports of late-summer harvests in Colorado and wondering if there isn’t some orchard that could use a cheerful self-starter with a proven track record. It’d make a good story.