18 August 2012

Staying hungry for new achievements

When do you start dropping items from your resume? If you've been working for a few years after graduating from high school, I'd suggest all high school related achievements as well as work and volunteering experiences are from too long ago and needs to be dropped.

In general, I've been told that anything roughly older than three years can be dropped from your resume.  Few care about the honors capstone project you did in university if you've been working in industry for three years.  Why?  Because if you couldn't accomplish anything in the last three years, your super duper honors project might have been a fluke as far as achievements go.  If you're consistently accomplishing valuable achievements, then there's bound to be plenty to talk about from the past three years anyway.

Most of the world are appreciative of one-hit wonders, but wouldn't want to hire one for the long run.

Sadly, this means the shelf life of a Bachelor's Degree (or any degree for that matter) is maybe three to five years. Definitely after five years, it's more of a necessary checkbox to fill than indicative of any real ability. You'll find it hard to get hired without the degree, but you'll probably also find it hard to get hired if that's all you have [1].

Due to the short shelf life of achievements, when people talk about what they've accomplished from a long time ago, it raises certain questions in my mind. Of course, if they do also have recent stories, then maybe they just like telling stories in general, some of which may just be very old.  But otherwise, it makes me wonder if their bringing up old achievements is because they lack recent ones to speak of? Do they have no recent achievements to speak of because they've lost their appetite for new business?
"Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

-Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech

As an example, some time ago I sat through the telling of a story, by one not very physically fit person, of his rock climbing a hard multipitch sport route when he was young. He hasn't climbed in years, but there's nothing wrong with his telling the story or his not climbing in years. People's interests can change. Had his story simply been an entertaining and fun treat for the audience, I wouldn't bring it up. But instead, in that specific context, I suspect he had intended his story as a way to gain social validation and to beautify his social standing amongst the people listening in. In other words, it was more an act of vanity.

A friend of mine mentioned another example recently. His manager wanted him to produce some software on the side for the company (unpaid work). The manager tried to persuade him that the software was easy to create, and of course the manager would know this because the manager has experience programming.  The manager then started telling stories of his days programming "back in the day", which means some 20 years ago.  Again, there's nothing wrong with telling stories had it been meant as an entertaining and fun treat for the audience.  In this case, however, the stories were meant to burnish his reputation and to manipulate the audience into (unpaid) action.


These and other situations have made me at times weary of stories detailing achievements from long ago. Depending on the context in which they are told, the telling of stories of long ago achievements sometimes raises the question of ulterior motives.
Don Draper: "Even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you've just eaten... 81% isn't enough. You're happy with 50%?! You're on top and you don't have enough. You're happy because you're successful — for now. But what is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness. I won't settle for 50% of anything, I want 100%... You don't want most of it, you want all of it."

-Mad Men, Episode 512 "Commissions and Fees" (2012)

Just the personal, private indulgence of thinking upon long past achievements may be unhealthy as well. It's good to think back on what you have accomplished, and feel proud and know how capable you are.  Too much of this, however, can dampen your hunger for creating new achievements.  After coasting on the successes of the past for a while, I fear we may find that we have accomplished nothing as of late, floating in stagnant waters, as it were.

I'm not sure if the achievements themselves are what's of most value. Certainly, achievements are worth accomplishing mainly because they are valuable in themselves.  At the same time, maybe it's not the achievements but the thrill of the chase that's even more valuable.  Aiming for and working to accomplish new achievements is a process where one can learn, grow, and make new friends.  It's a journey towards worthwhile destinations.


[1] I'm speaking only about jobs that require the degree in question, obviously. Not all jobs require a degree, and many important and valuable jobs don't require one. But in those cases, recent experience and recent accomplishments are just as, or even more, important.

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