When our recent book about resume-writing for college students came out, my co-author and I expected to hear from seniors and recent graduates worried about their job prospects. Instead, we immediately began receiving emails and letters from midlife job seekers who were changing careers or reentering the job market.
Thanks to those unexpected correspondents, I soon realized that the job-search problem is essentially the same for fresh graduates and older job seekers: how to persuade potential employers to interview them when they seem to lack career-specific experience. Moreover, I realized that the answer to this dilemma is identical for both groups: translating God-given life experience into job-specific career potential.
The Whole You
My holistic view of career development focuses on transferring all of your life experience into employment potential. The “whole you” is not just your paid work experience, but your entire life experience. It includes everything from volunteer activities to hobbies and family life. Moreover, the whole you includes “transferable” experiences from previous employment, even if on the surface the old and new jobs don’t seem related.
The three key categories to consider in your life experience are skills(what you can do), knowledge(what you know about), and traits(your qualities of character). Too often job seekers concentrate only on the specific skills they seem to lack—such as a particular technological skill. They fail to see that they might have the traits (for example, being a quick learner or being self-motivated) or knowledge (how people should relate to one another or how an organization works—or doesn’t work) that would convince an employer they can acquire new skills quickly and effectively without taking up a lot of coworkers’ time.
God is always preparing followers for new tasks. As Paul puts it, we are “God’s workmanship” (literarily, God’s art or poetry), created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has already prepared (Eph. 2:10). These good works are not just church or career tasks. They are our everyday actions, from speaking encouraging words to a colleague to writing an email to a relative. They even include unnoticed good works, such as silently praying for someone in need.
Receiving each day gratefully is itself a deeply good work that implicitly serves those around us. Cynical, unappreciative, critical people are a time-consuming, energy-zapping drain on others. Grateful friends and colleagues are a blessing. Which type of person would you rather worth with?
God’s providential sense of humor is evident in the inexplicable career changes and reversals that practically everyone knows firsthand. Jesus can call us to specific careers, but he first calls us to follow him faithfully wherever he leads us, preparing good works along the journey.
I ended up being a professor of communication after growing up in a deeply dysfunctional family that lacked helpful role models. I had no particular interest in or gift for communication. I lacked a vision for the occupational future that I would eventually inherit. Yet along the way I began seeing how even my challenging childhood was preparation. In fact, overcoming life’s obstacles is among the best career preparations. God’s future glory is often evident in our responses to current weaknesses, not just in our application of apparent strengths.
One of the best ways to discern God’s unfolding will for our occupational lives is to consider how we have already been prepared for good works. What have you been doing over the past few years or even the past decade? What do those life experiences tell you about your potentially transferable skills, knowledge, and traits?
I encourage you to create a “Master list” of your 10 most life-shaping activities or experiences from the past 10 years. Again, don’t limit the list to paid work. What has God been up to in your life? Which experiences or activities have given you the most insight into your skills, knowledge, and traits? List them. Then begin adding to each item on your list the specific kinds of skills, knowledge, and traits evident in that. Meditate on your experiences, asking God for insight. Be honest with yourself. Don’t worry about what you want to do. Consider what God has already done.
The Master’s Work
A developed Master list will provide the evidence you’ll need to support the items on your resume and the claims you make about yourself in interviews. Think of your Master list as a record of God’s preparation, not just a journal of your life experiences. Some of the items might be too personal to include on a resume. Yet such personal entries, along with your other, more public ones, will together reveal to you much about your career potential.
One of the letters I received after the book came out was from a 50-something woman who had been out of the job market for 10 years while raising a family. She had recently written and circulated a resume without receiving a single response, let alone an interview.
When I glanced at her resume I immediately identified the problem. The resume was nothing more than a list of long-past jobs along with her long-ago academic accomplishments. The resume gave the impression that she hadn’t lived for the past decade! Indeed, she believed that she hadn’t been doing anything that “counted” as legitimate experience.
After struggling with her Master list for a week, she had some amazing breakthroughs. She realized that she had been doing all kinds of organizational work for her family, neighborhood, and church. Without receiving any compensation, she had initiated and completed many short-term projects by using her communication skills to organize, equip, and support people. So she completely rewrote her resume to highlight volunteer experiences and added a summary at the top of the resume that captured the organizational skills, knowledge, and traits she discerned in her Master list.
In short, this seemingly inexperienced woman discovered that the Master had already been preparing her for particular kinds of organizational good works. Her whole attitude about herself—and about God’s providential preparation—changed. She gained not only a compelling resume but considerably more self-confidence. With a bit more guidance, she learned how to write position-specific cover letters that linked her life experience to each position she applied for. She received callbacks to interview at the next three places she applied and was soon satisfactorily employed.
Life Beyond Careers
One of my greatest joys is teaching students the fact that they’ll always be more than their careers. In God’s economy, careers come and go. Human plans change. Doors open and close. I still can’t say for certain what I want to be when I grow up, even though I’m approaching 60. I don’t want to reduce myself to any so-called career—a word that comes from the French and means “racetrack.” Careerists are people running around a track in circles, typically so focused on the race that they don’t know where they have already been.
Where we’ve journeyed in life is crucial to knowing what good works we are being prepared to accomplish. That’s why it’s so helpful to get off the track and consider the route we’ve already taken. God has been with us, forming our undisclosed futures. His works give us transferable value in the marketplace, regardless of whether we are college students, midlife career seekers, or retirees.