One thing that seems to characterise highly creative people is that their CVs are messy. You don’t see a career path that starts with a solid plan and then proceeds, by logical, linear steps, toward a goal with a clearly recognised, successful outcome. What you see instead are compromises, missteps, course corrections, curiosity driven detours, disasters, flashes of outstanding brilliance and evidence of general incomprehension by their peers and managers about the things the person in question is actually capable of doing.
You read of their dead ends and disappointments, the great things that were thwarted or unappreciated, because they were ahead of their time. When recruiters try to figure out what the creative person is good at or has a track record of success in, so that they can pigeon hole them into one of the existing career categories that they know about, they can’t.
Often, the person in question has done many things, to a high degree of accomplishment, but not always with a crisp, acclaimed, obviously successful outcome. Sure, they might have learned massive amounts about a wide range of skills along the way and have deep experience covering a lot of bases, but to somebody reading their CV, it’s incomprehensible and not evidential. Failure is not considered valuable and neither is a breadth of skills or range of ideas. Nobody gets the value of finding ninety nine ways to definitely not make a light bulb. Only an Edison would.
The ideal employee is somebody that does just one thing, has always done just one thing and has always been fortunate in having successful outcomes, for doing that one thing. That’s a monomath. The opposite is the creative, curious person, trying to find their way, experimenting, trying new and challenging things, thinking outside the box and colouring outside the lines. Innovation is highly suspect, as is any evidence that you might have better ideas or strategic plans than the CEO of the company they’re recruiting for. Yet, if the track record doesn’t reveal obvious successes, then the claims of great ideas, the ability to bring them to life and their ultimate acceptance by customers rings hollow, irrespective of the real reasons for the plans to have panned out in an unfortunate way.
Sure, you might have worked long and hard and created millionaires along the way. If it doesn’t follow a well-defined narrative, with recognisable milestones of development and an existing job title, then it might as well have all been for nothing. At least that is what they would have you believe.
If you want to fully and sincerely understand a creative person, or artist, their CV is probably the hardest way to do so. It is such a rigid format for conveying information about a person that it can’t possibly reveal their unique contributions, the skills that only they have and the brilliance of their approach. What a CV does, by its very format, is prescribe what is important, what matters and what counts and these are typically not the things that the innovative, maverick, curious individual can lay claim to. In fact, their value, as human beings, is in their difference to those prescribed norms. Being outstanding means that you don’t, won’t and can’t fit the format.
The CV format and the recruitment process have a built in bias against polymaths. Their existence is denied and yet I know hundreds of people that I would count as polymaths. Acknowledging and dealing with the existence of polymaths would clash with the hierarchical command and control structure of the vast majority of organisations. The assumption that your superiors are your superiors for a reason, which the organisation’s structure crucially depends upon, would simply fold. The profits of the collaborative enterprise, for one thing, would also have to be shared differently. The people that benefit most from the pretence wouldn’t want that.
Hence, polymaths that I know, who have outstanding and perhaps seemingly unrelated skills across a board range of interests and curiosities, must select just one of their skills and make a career out of that, pretending that their other skills (their other limbs, if you will permit an analogy) are inconsequential; so much so that they’re never even mentioned. If they find themselves applying those “non-core” skills in their daily work, there will be no recognition or compensation for those additional skills. Only for the one skill that was nominated as their career skill. It is my suspicion that the occurrence of polymaths is much more common in the population than we think, but that they are all required to pretend to be monomaths.
In the end, it’s about attracting the resources to fulfil your own unique vision and destiny. With those resources, you have to take your personal project to the end. If you’re lucky, it will be successful. There’s nothing else you can do. Trying to fit into a slot and conform to a well-defined, often-repeated, vanilla career path is not something you can or should do. What makes you special and valuable is that you aren’t an interchangeable unit of some pre-packaged flavour or another. You’re not a commodity. You can’t be shoe-horned into an existing job role. Recruiters only deal with interchangeable, commodity job descriptions and roles, not individuals that are hard to grasp, hard to understand and difficult to place. I’ve never seen a job advertised for a disruptive innovator or strategic visionary. Somehow, that always seems to be the role that the founder of the company reserves for themselves. That tells you something important.
It would be nice if there were a way to tell your own story, your own way, spelling out your particular passions, interests, amazing super powers, values and motivations, as a cohesive, if messy, whole. Well, actually you can. It’s called a web site. You should make a web site telling the story of you in all of its messy, glorious, confusing detail. If that doesn’t fit one of the existing job categories, or show a linear progression toward ultimate success and acclaim, then so be it. What it should do is demonstrate all that you are and all that you can still be. Maybe you’ll find some customers that way and earn some income. You shouldn’t have to starve for the sin of not being a conveniently labelled monomath.
What you probably shouldn’t do is pretend that all your other amazing insights, gifts, talents and interests somehow don’t matter and don’t count and cherry pick only those aspects of your work history and story that fit a given job category. That’s living a lie. If you have a unique and valuable contribution to make, then it’s dishonest to hide that under a bushel, so that you don’t confuse the recruiters. Drawing a stick man version of your essence isn’t the answer. Drawing the fullest, most colourful, textured, detailed, even abstract view is the best way and if that’s too much stuff to include on a CV, because it isn’t brief enough or narrow enough, why should you conform to that format? Why should you present yourself as anything less than all you are, just so that you get a regular job? You probably should be inventing your own, special, one-of-a-kind job anyway.
It can feel pretty insulting, depressing, loveless and like you’re a misfit when a recruiter wants to hear something simple, but you are complex. I don’t think pretending to be simple will work. I think you need to present your complexity, your own way and see what comes of that. Pretending to be a humble, clearly-defined functionary when you are not one will only give you high blood pressure and an ulcer, in the end.
The most interesting people have the strangest stories.