Thursday 27 November 2008

The Course of Life

Curriculum Vitae is Latin for 'the course of life'. Heaney with his penchant for dispensing with prepositions would call it 'life course'. The Latin seems to suggest that curriculum means a path, as in a track around a race course. Certainly, some would say a career feels like that: circular, repetitive, competitive, and intended to separate winners from losers. But not I.

These past few weeks I've had the dubious pleasure of revisiting my CV. Writing a CV has become a kind of art form. In an age that values style over substance, you really have have to shape your CV a certain way – details, summary of skills, employment, projects, and so on. The important thing is to throw in keywords. They tell me that the overworked HR mandarin no longer has time to read a CV, not to mention a cover letter. Instead, they now use key word parsers to sift through candidates to find ones with the most hits.

It seems such a shame that a whole career of training and toil could be cast into oblivion simply because HR have decided to become search engines instead of managers. (It all began when the changed from being personnel – who dealt with people, to being HR – who deal merely with resources who happen to be human. But that's another story).

So nowadays you have to write your CV with Google in mind. This seriously limits your scope for using the English language. It makes jargon mandatory. You are compelled to be customer facing, instead of just dealing with them. You have to enable things instead of just doing them. You have competence not ability. Something that can perform a task has functionality. You have to think horizontal, vertical, upskill, downturn, and then take a helicopter view. You have to commit all this verbal violence while claiming to have 'an excellent command of English'.

Given that firms lie all the time in their job ads, you have to wonder how much you can lie about on your CV. I try not to lie at all. Everything on my CV has a truth to it. If I say I have done a job in the past, it means I have gone through all phases of that job, from concept to execution. At least in my head. For me it is still perfectly true to claim you have done something, if you think you could have! There is a risk here of being accused of being Walter Mitty, but I think you can get way with it if you are at least close to the mark. For me it's a bit like saying, yes I have driven a jaguar, knowing that you have only ever driven a mini. You have told a fundamental truth: I have driven cars. Now, to claim you have flown an F15 would be stretching it. Walter Mitty would have argued that this too was fundamentally sound: I have been in charge of a fast vehicle. The trouble would come if your new employer placed you in the cockpit.

I have kept most of my old CVs going back to the days when I was at college looking for a Summer job. Those CVs glow in the innocence of youth. At college, I remember a friend of mine being stunned at seeing a certain name that he knew down as a referee. Why not? I asked. A convict? he replied in disbelief. Maybe deep down I thought my ref had paid his debt to society, but really, I just hadn't even thought of it. Nor did it ever matter.

I wonder if all CVs have a kind of life of their own? Even some of my early experience has evolved over time. The more I learned about my profession the more I massaged the content of my earlier jobs. It's a bit like going back to the same canvass and touching up the background. Again, all of this in an effort to be as truthful as possible. As if I can say, on reflection, yes, I was rather central to that project. True, at the time I was peripheral, but as my life went on I became more central to it, or it to me. Or something like that!

I cannot decide whether it is a tragedy or a blessing that writing a CV does not involve the true meaning of the term: the life course. At one level it seems sad to formally revisit, reflect on, and have to show, only one dimension of a human life. True, the prospective employer is looking for the human side too: are you good with people? do you communicate well? are you proactive? can you cope with very long hours – I mean stress?

But the employer is not really looking for humanity – just a package of so called soft skills. If real humanity were required, you could talk openly about your weaknesses. You are timid or forgetful. You don't like meetings. You fear change. You take decisions but cannot cope with detail. But alas, any admission of humanity and you are set for the dustbin. (Interviews are dramatically shortened by revealing your humanity. Once you mention any weakness, a forced and lethal smile grows on the face of the employer, and very quickly, you're on your way).

But perhaps too it is a blessing. The task of writing down your frailties would be far more daunting than compiling a list of jargon. You would have to peer into your very core – to face your inner essence, with all its lights and shadows. And over time you'd see how the joy and hurt along that race track molded your life. You'd see it all, right there before you in words: tender and quick, wounded but strong, fearful and passionate - the indomitable self.

1 comment:

An Spailpín said...

Beautifully written a Thomaltaigh. The Sinn Féiners aren't the only purists, I'm afraid. :)