CVs, Careerism, and Living Life to the Fullest

May 26, 2024 23:34

I’ve been asked this question many a time before, “How do I make my CV look stronger?”

I’ve had this ask directed to me by young professionals starting out in their careers, seeking to burnish their credentials to survive in an increasingly cutthroat, seemingly arbitrary job market where entry-level workers are squeezed by a myriad of forces, including automation, globalisation, structural change- and macro condition-induced downsizing decisions.

I’ve also heard this ask from highly ambitious and driven students looking to apply for top post-graduate programmes and internships. Alternatively, it would be the highly ambitious and equally driven parents of less-than-enthusiastic students seeking to place their children into top college programmes in the United States – the concern is that in the absence of a “stellar” CV, their children would remain uncompetitive and be denied entry into a “necessary” ticket into the fast lane of social mobility.

I do not fault parents for thinking this way: indeed, it is a most pragmatic and reasonable way of approaching education – and one that is increasingly ignored by those in charge of designing and running education systems, who arrive at the almost-cynical thought: whoever can pay, should be able to get in. Apropos this discussion and the many others that have recurred in the US, screening students based on their credentials, qualifications, and past experiences could well disadvantage students who have received fewer opportunities on the margin – yet remains largely more meritocratic than admitting students on the basis of how much their families can donate. It is for this reason, too, that I find the Commonwealth system of admissions (alongside admissions systems of former British colonies) fundamentally fairer and more meritocratic.

Yet I digress. To me, the ideal CV should be one that tells a story – a story that is both multi-faceted and authentic. Multi-faceted CVs should demonstrate not just the breadth of candidates, which is often fixated upon and quantified through the “number of accolades, titles, achievements” and such, but also the candidate’s depth, or potential to delve deeply, in particular fields. The ‘multi-’ here denotes an ability to straddle and combine both depth and breadth. Merely listing out 20 internships and 5 start-ups that one has worked on will get one nowhere – for the CV will reek of opportunism and shallow engagement.

Highlighting that one has followed a well-trodden and worn path that has led to others’ successes, does not necessarily signal that one is, too, on their way to success. This is where authenticity comes in: most jobs with significant growth potential and likely upward career trajectories, are jobs that prize one for one’s individuality, as opposed to conformity and homogeneity. Employers and admissions officers at preeminent institutions are ultimately interested in whether the candidate is willing to seize upon opportunities to grow, whether the candidate is capable of acknowledging and admitting their mistakes (in time to correct time), and whether the candidate possesses the requisite versatility to survive in industries where uncertainty is the norm and handling emergencies is par for the course.

All these requirements demand that the candidate lives, works, and speaks authentically: that they do not engage in platitudes and vacuous speech; that they are willing and capable of aspiring towards accomplishing things they have never done before, whilst remaining honest about the limitations and defects in their aptitudes. Employers are uninterested in embellished and falsified CVs that do not reflect the actual trajectories and stories these candidates have to tell: they want to get to know the real you. Even for jobs in sales and marketing – where one would be forgiven for thinking that more creative license could perhaps be taken when it comes to presenting oneself – we should not conflate the need for presentability, with the case for trite and disingenuous self-portrayals. Neither sales nor marketing requires one to lie exhaustively, and to be inauthentic. Indeed, authenticity sells surprisingly well.

This in turn spurs a further question – one concerning careerism. This is an era where our self-worth is increasingly tied to not so much our output or situatedness within the social fabric, but our ability to signal, using as little time and effort as possible, our purported standing. This turn towards express signalling “on the cheap” has in turn spurred the rise of careerism: a fixation upon grifting, grinding, and climbing up the greasy pole in order to polish and bolster one’s CV. In assessing whether we should or should not do something, many amongst us are propelled and driven to ask the inevitable, “What would this look like on my CV?”

Dare I say, this is not a particularly conducive way of looking at achievement. The Happiness Paradox stipulates that the more we seek out happiness, the less likely it is that we can find., May I propose a parallel when it comes to Achievements, albeit with a slight twist? The more we seek out express and explicitly known achievements, the less impressive the achievements become. This is because the public – indeed, hyper-public – nature of these accolades and achievements that we commonly construe to be valuable, would only in the long run render such accomplishments far too commonplace, to the point of inane mundanity.

Think of all the ‘Top 40’ and ‘Best 10’ rankings out there; or the plethora of fellowships and awards for individuals deemed to be the ‘Best of X’ or the ‘Star of Y’. Ultimately, what makes or breaks the careers of these individuals isn’t the number of awards they collect, but the extent to which they have in fact made a material impact on the people around them and the world at large. Sure, it may be a nice gesture to award an impactful achiever an accolade or two: but how caught up in the pursuit for gestures and tokenistic celebration should we be?

Living life to the fullest requires us to focus on what matters. All that glitters is not gold. One’s CV doesn’t have to be long, but it must be multi-faceted, authentic, and, fundamentally, stripped of the vainglorious insecurity that has poisoned the worldviews of many.

Assistant Professor, HKU