Career – How to explain your non-standard career path

I was a corporate HR person for ages. I used to sit at recruiting meetings with the hiring managers in my company and review resumes with them. I always tried to convince my hiring managers to consider candidates with non-standard career path because once we met those people, they were always more interesting than the cookie-cutter people.

Without any conscious awareness of it, I knew in my gut that those candidates would be more interesting and insightful people, once we got to meet them. It always turned out to be true.

Sometimes were were hiring for a Senior Financial Analyst. There were tons of people who had spent two years in an entry level job with a tax and audit firm. After that, a lot of them had moved into a client firm as a junior financial analyst.

They spent a couple of years doing that and then most likely got promoted. There was a very clear ladder back then. The steps were laid out, just like the grades and assignments in school are laid out in stepwise fashion. Today, of course, the corporate ladder is sawdust under our feet.

Some candidates hadn’t followed the steps in exactly the prescribed order. Sometimes a candidate for our Senior Financial Analyst job earned his or her stripes a different way. Once we started interviewing, the correlation was clear: the more by-the-book a person’s career path was, the less interesting the person tended to be, and the fewer ideas he or she had to offer.

There are always exceptions, of course, but over time I began to trust my instincts and favor non-cookie-cutter candidates over people who had followed the established career steps without veering off the well-traveled path.

You might not think that you could sit down with a 35-or-40-year-old person and work hard to get an original thought out of them, but if so, you haven’t spent a lot of time interviewing! Lots and lots of people want to do what they are told. They don’t want to offer an opinion. They don’t know what their own opinion is.

I begged and pleaded. I told jokes. I did everything but magic tricks to get the candidates sitting with me to come alive. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

There are people in this world who cannot tell you what they think and what they believe. They simply don’t know. They are programmed to be the person they think someone in authority — a hiring authority, for instance — wants them to be.

Nowadays when we counsel employers, we tell them to interview the non-cookie-cutter people first.

The person who has stepped off the standard path, taken a chance or dealt with adversity has a wildly different worldview from a person who hasn’t done those things. There are lots of employers who will only consider a job candidate who looks on paper like they were born and raised in a petri dish to fill the posted job spec.

God bless those employers! What good thing could ever come out of a stodgy organization like that?

If you have a twisting or unconventional career history, you may have to do a little extra work in your resume to help employers understand it.

There is a lot of fear in the corporate and institutional worlds, and startups are not immune to fear either. People can get very stupid and fearful when they start to look at resumes.

If you wavered off the established roadmap, resume screeners may panic and throw your resume in the “no thanks” pile. Here are some ways to prevent that from happening.

If you did something non-standard during your career, whether it was joining the military after high school or starting your own business in college, you have to see the awesomeness of your leap first, before anyone else will.

Way too many job-seekers downplay and apologize for their off-the-grid activities when they should be trumpeting them! You can’t hide who you are, and why would you want to?

Let’s say you were in college and stopped going. You dropped out of college and began working. A lot of people would feel bad about that and apologize for it, or try to hide it.

That’s what I did when I dropped out of school after my sophomore year. I was embarrassed. All my friends from high school were still in college and I was working at an entry-level job.

But wait! I was supporting myself at age nineteen. If someone cannot appreciate that they can jump in a lake! Why would I want to work for someone so close-minded? Here’s how we might frame that story on a resume:

Acme Explosives

2006 – 2008

I left school to work at Acme after I heard our CEO speak at a conference. I wanted to get some work experience before completing my degree. At Acme I helped create the first customer service processes and grow the company from $1M to $15M in annual sales.

Who’s apologizing now? Who would stay in college once they’ve realized their heart isn’t in their program? Answer: a lot of people! They’d stick around because they were afraid of getting off the conveyor belt they were on. They don’t want to disappoint their parents or make anyone mad at them.

I felt the same way when I left school. I was sick over it. I thought my parents were going to kill me when I said I wasn’t going back for my junior year of college. My roommate Bev had dropped out a semester ahead of me and I saw no reason to stay in school either.

My voice teacher, Mr. Blazer, said “You will find your path, I know that.” My parents were so freaked out over my decision to bail on college that they sent me to a shrink. She was a horrible, judgmental lady who talked right down her nose at me, once a week.

I took off. My friend and I moved to Chicago, and there my new adventures began.

Let’s say that you started your own company, and wound it up when the company didn’t take off. Are you going to apologize for that? Don’t you dare! Our company, Human Workplace, by the grace of God is a huge success. It’s the fourth company I’ve started. Should I apologize for the other three?

Here’s how you can frame a start-up company that you launched and later shut down:

Mystic Toe Rings

2012 – 2013

I started Mystic Toe Rings with my cousin to bring Tibetan hammered silver toe rings to the U.S. We sold our products at craft fairs across the Midwest and got our toe rings into 15 jewelry and gift stores, generating $220K in sales in two years.

That’s all. You don’t have to say “I guess we failed, because you’ve never heard of Mystic Toe Rings.” Let me tell you something: the coolest companies are the ones you’ve never heard of. People are way too sheeplike today. They think that a big company is more secure or more legitimate than a small one.

They are wrong! Here’s what is legitimate: you are. Your trusty gut is the voice to listen to. Your background and your path are real. Big corporations are spun-sugar confections. Even if you go to work for one, I want you to rely on your instinct more than any other guide.

Trust your gut. If someone can’t see past the fact that you didn’t graduate from college, they are stuck in fear. If they don’t get you, they don’t deserve you.

Let’s say that you took some time off paid work. You stepped off the conveyor belt! Oh, horrors!

Some people would be panicked at the thought of leaving a job to spend time with a baby or an aging family member. God bless you for doing that. What’s more important — making your boss happy, staying in line and staying employed, or taking care of your loved ones?

Why are we alive in the first place, if not to care for our families? How ridiculous to judge someone for doing something every single one of us would do if we could afford it – taking a break from work to care for people who love us?

Here’s how you can frame that experience:


2013 – present

I took a break after Angry Chocolates was sold, to care for my father during his decline from Alzheimer’s. I managed his house and his medical treatments as a full-time caregiver and was privileged to be with him during his final days

Let someone judge you negatively for that. People judged Jesus Christ and Gandhi, too, and people will be judging folks who step off the standard path until our sun burns out in five billion years. Claim who you are.

Frame your experiences in a way that even slightly fearful people can understand, and once you meet them in person, the relationship may blossom. When you claim and frame your powerful life experiences in your resume, you invite the reader to rise up and be human.

Most people, even the ones who are beaten down by the corporate or institutional machinery, are dying to join us in the human realm. They will accept your invitation to remember that they have a heart and soul and so do you.

You don’t have to grovel in the dust because you took a different path. Only the people who get you,deserve you.

Ref : LinkedIn & WeForum

Author: Liz Ryan is the CEO and Founder of Human Workplace.

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