Unconventional resumes

When people make a decision to dramatically change their course in life, it is seen as both admirable and inferior. Perhaps it is admirable because it involves making oneself ‘inferior’—materially depriving oneself and taking oneself out of a linear career path. Dreams are not always enough when healthy salaries and CBD offices are on offer. Doing what you are passionate about can mean less nice clothes and less restaurant dinners. And being held in lesser esteem by people with ‘real’ jobs and mortgages.

What does it mean to make such a decision? Once you ‘work the restlessness out of [your] system,’ can you ‘settle down and get a job at a good firm somewhere’? Will Holman believed as much, and set off in search of adventures rather than accepting a standard architecture job following work placements. His essay in Design Observer is lengthy, but worth the perseverance. He details the incredible experiences he has had in ‘social design’ in place of a corporate graduate role, the endless loading of his old Corolla and criss-crossing America to take up internships and longer term positions at Arcosanti, Rural Studio and YouthBuild, followed by some freelancing and furniture-making. Though he had every opportunity to do things the sensible way, Will forged his own path, driven by a passion for getting his hands dirty and by a belief that design can respond more ethically to the needs rather than wants of the world.

His choices echo the catchcry of the First Things First manifesto, originally penned in 1964 and updated in 2000 in Adbusters, signed by ‘graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators.’* Any recent graduate might find themselves crying, ‘There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills!’ when faced with the sheer futility of the corporate job they have taken.

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. … We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication—a mind shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

Reading this declaration, the beginning of a critical, theoretical design book (a rarity amongst the pared-back descriptions of colour theory and typography), brought back a flood of memories from my first effort at design school, a time of reading dystopian zines and anarchic cookbooks and Adbusters, of sitting in the library reading Marx and critiques of consumerism. This was the first time I made a hard left: On being told by my lecturers that I was destined for advertising, I signed up for a degree in philosophy.

Caroline Fryar, whose endless sock-knitting I ploughed through bemusedly, and whose enthusiasm for spinning I sympathised with, turned a hard left from academia. Destined for postgraduate research in all manner of classics and ancient Greek and linguistics, Caroline happened upon her plan B of ditching university to be a shepherdess. Having innocently found her blog while searching ‘knitting,’ and seeing that she described herself most prominently as ‘farm manager,’ my curiosity was piqued—how did she get here? The answer is simply this: She saw an ad. She applied for the job. She got it, and, brushing off the constant questioning of ‘aren’t you wasting your education? your brilliant mind?’ accepted it.

How crazy is it to walk into class and answer your professor’s ‘So, how’s your future looking? Hear from any schools over break?’ with, ‘Um well actually I am going to go be a shepherdess instead!’ ?

‘Well, that’s a surprise! …and I did just have you all read the Eclogues over break.’

While the world at large says things like, ‘good on you for following your dreams,’ it stomps on us as it turns its back on us. Following your dreams is good because it makes you happy to do what you most want to do. Following your dreams is admirable because it’s hard. Following your dreams is hard because most people don’t, and because most people put up with something else, that something else becomes the norm which then makes it hard to stray from the standard path.

Yesterday, I quit my job. Which is to say, I gave notice, and will finish in two weeks. This means my days will soon be freed up to do all the things I most want to do—productive, creative, challenging things that are rewarding for me but not considered of equal monetary value as the screwing around I have been doing in my highly-paid job. Leaving that job is in every way unconventional, reduces my security, and makes my life thoroughly unpredictable. But for now, that hard left feels good.

Will Holman admits, ‘My unconventional resume has proven to be a liability in a competitive job market; architecture firms I’ve interviewed at are looking for people with traditional commercial experience and advanced software skills. … This situation is of my own making, and I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken — forward, sideways or backwards — but I do wish there was more allowance in the licensure process for unconventional paths like mine.’

I don’t know how things will work out for us unconventional types with ‘holes’ in our resumes and educations—presumably we succeed or we end up homeless, with nothing. Then again, I was homeless for several months during the past year despite my job security and respectable income, so who is to say that one path is more stable than the other? I know that I’m doing what I need to do, because with only one lifetime in which to be as rad as possible, I don’t want to disappear into the faceless piles of perfect resumes.

* Looking Closer 4 Critical Writings on Graphic Design. 2002. Eds: Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller. Allworth Press: New York.


Career progression

‘Higher’ level jobs all seem to involve more planning, strategy and coordination than actual performance of a job. One might be a builder, but as the boss, one has to get plans approved by the council, visit the tile shop to order in the correct tiles, calculate all the bricks needed to construct the house, and present quotes to potential clients. The ‘higher’ up a builder is, the less cementing bricks to other bricks and nailing wood to more wood he or she does—those ‘lower’ jobs can be left to day labourers and contractors.

But what if you really just like building? At some point, we each have to make a choice about what it is that we enjoy and value, and construct our own hierarchies. Of course there will always be chains of command, with a boss-figure directing subordinates, with one person overseeing other people’s work because that person has the broader picture. But we need to separate that functional structure from our own conception of the value of what we do.

‘The modern era is often described as a skills economy,’ writes Richard Sennett* (p. 37), ‘but what exactly is a skill?’ It is assumed that the more skilled one is, the more advanced in one’s career one ought to be, with more responsibilities and more strategic influence. But skills, Sennett argues, are more about problem solving through repetition. One acquires them through a learning process of repeating a task until something ‘clicks’ and then repeating it some more until one finds better ways of doing it. ‘Skill opens up in this way only because the rhythm of solving and opening up occurs again and again’ (p. 38).

If one is at a point in one’s career that enables one to simply focus on the job rather than fighting with peripherals, one is far better positioned to develop these skills. What’s more, one is more likely to be enjoying it, since one signed up to be a builder / illustrator / physicist, and thus is likely inclined to prefer building / illustrating / theorising about physics more than chasing clients or applying for grants. Actually completing the tasks presents challenges that give a sense of achievement once overcome, once problems are solved. And the longer one lingers at this ‘lower’ level, the more refined one’s skills will become.

It is possible that the world isn’t entirely composed of people who like to use their hands when solving problems. Perhaps some people really do get a kick out of hands-free strategising, at a safe distance from the dirt. If your skill is really and truly administration, well, good for you. But I would never esteem you as being far above labourers, researchers and painters simply for your overarching role in an organisation. The little people have these skills too—only they know where the real satisfaction in work lies, and it’s not at the top.

* Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin Books: London.


In pursuit of occupation

I had thought of gaining entry to the realm of full-time, professional work as entering through a portal of sorts, that once one had gained admission, one had a lifetime membership into the secret society, the club of the Middle Class. Having gained that entry, my position feels far more tenuous. I passed through no portal: I have been perched upon a high wall and the side to which I shall fall is by no means certain.

Though the mental anguish I endure suggests I would be far happier whence I came from, it is not mere money that makes me linger. It is status.

A waitress will always be there to serve the more socially elevated. The more socially elevated get to feel intrinsically superior because they dress nicer and don’t spend their time scraping other people’s chewed food into the bin. Fine. Just tell me this: why are they actually considered to be of higher status (and therefore granted more money)?

I linger on this ledge because if I return to my humble Cinderella covered in soot position, not only will my income almost halve, I will have to work considerably harder for it. That’s what bites. I would be ‘entitled to’ so much less for giving so much more, and having to get dirty and dishevelled for it, and eating less and sleeping less. Entitled, because, it seems, working harder mean you are a less worthy member of society.

I understand that there is physical work and there is mental work, and that mental work can be endlessly draining. I merely object to the fact that the two are not equally valued as being equally taxing. I have a brain, but no one wants me to use it, not as a waitress, and not in Middle Class Land. The only way I get to use it is in my downtime or in paying someone else for the privilege.