“Stop thinking of your career as a ladder. Ladders are neat, linear progressions along a narrow track. Your career is more like a painting where opportunities abound in every direction.” – Unknown
There is only one time in my life that an interviewer has cut an interview short with me. I was interviewing at a well-known horse racing institution in my old Kentucky home. The interviewer took one look at my concise resume on the desk in front of him and said, “I just can’t make sense of this. You haven’t taken the same linear path in your career that most candidates have. You’ve worked at a lot of jobs, and you’ve even worked at multiple different jobs at the same time. Why is that?”
It rapidly became apparent that the qualities I bring to the table were not qualities they were looking for. This role didn’t require the zest for learning or the drive that I’d tried to showcase in my resume. They were looking for someone more cookie-cutter, from a straight-and-narrow (read: linear) career path. They wanted someone who was ready to devote 100% of their time to their organization for years to come. They didn’t want an entrepreneurial spirit who deviates from the norm, nor did they want someone who doesn’t come from money and who’d pulled herself up by the bootstraps, even if it meant working multiple jobs at the same time.
After five minutes, the interviewer turned my resume over, placing it face-down on his desk, and asked the dreaded: “Do you have any other questions for me?”
That was the moment I knew I wasn’t getting that job. I did ask a follow-up question, to which the interviewer responded: “Do you have any other questions, or are we done here?”
If I’m honest, this was one of the most humiliating experiences of my professional career. I felt grateful that they never even called me to tell me I didn’t get the job. I never heard from them again. We both knew it wasn’t a fit for either of us. They didn’t want the very qualities that I am proudest of: my entrepreneurial spirit, my passion, and my work ethic. I am creative and I’ve taken a non-linear approach to my career path.
On paper, something can seem like a career misstep, which is why it’s crucial for recruiters, managers, and interviewers to ask candidates the right questions in person. That’s how you get to know the actual person applying for the job to determine whether they’re a fit for your time. That’s the only way to understand the reasons behind a candidate’s actions, why they took a certain path, and how it benefited them, even if that benefit was only to learn what NOT to do next time.
When recruiting and interviewing candidates, I do not consider a non-linear career path to necessarily indicate a red mark on a resume. Generations Y and Z have come of age during The Dotcom Bubble Crash, The Great Recession, The Great Resignation, and the Coronavirus Pandemic. We have had to make tricky decisions about our careers. Many of us have lost jobs to layoffs, burnout, or illness. We’ve struggled in job markets when competing against 500+ other applicants for the same job. We’ve sometimes had to take steps backward or sideways to save our livelihood in order to continue paying the bills.
Sometimes, the very things that seem like “red marks” or setbacks on paper can actually lead to innovation in reality. We learn to take risks, stepping back from the career ladder to stay on the same plane and expand horizontally for a while. We might occasionally shift gears and try an entirely new career. This resilience, flexibility, hard work, and creativity is something I’m proud of. There are countless organizations out there that are looking for people with these qualities, people who may not have the “perfect” resume but are trainable and willing to work hard. If I’m not a fit for your organization, that’s okay. These qualities make me who I am, and, crucially, I like who I am. I know my worth. My life has never been linear, but it’s been a damned good one.