More and more of my writing is now inspired by readers who send me questions - keep it up!
Recent mailbag question:
Does the market value of an individual whose startup fails go up or down? Is the company failure seen as individual weakness? What is the perception when he/she goes out to find a job in the corporate world?
This, to me, is really a question about how to tell a narrative. And the complexity comes from the intersecting narratives: your career x your company.
My inclination is to focus on the career arc vs any one company, but I know enough about biases to know that’s not how it works; the right (or wrong) company can completely make (or break) your narrative. When I worked at Amazon, no one thought much of it (Seattle was a total Microsoft zone, and most press around Amazon was negative) - but now I tend to be label-ed as “ex-Amazon”, in a good way (even though it was a 10 years and 3 jobs ago). I’m not complaining (because my career gets to bask in the afterglow of Amazon’s success), but it’s important to acknowledge that people’s career narratives can be tanked by even passing exposure to the wrong brand. So the question from the reader is very legitimate…
For anyone facing a similar choice (thinking about taking a job with narrative implications unclear, or in a situation where there’s a negative veneer that you’re not sure will ever lift), my guidance is the following:
narratives are inherently fluid and markets are always evolving: the upstart of today could be the category leader of tomorrow, every incumbent is eventually disrupted, etc…you have to make peace with the fact that part of resume revisions is refining the narrative so that it all makes sense in hindsight
narratives can be told from different altitudes: most resume advice I give to people is to pick the level they want to be operating at and then tell their story of bets placed and impact made from that vantage point…by the way this is a great way to gauge whether you are operating at a particular level - can you tell the story of the business from that altitude?
narratives need to fit a digestible pattern: human being are great at pattern matching, which is why there is so much bias / automation in hiring processes - we look for certain schools or companies to create a correlation to competence, and we look for associations with certain terms or people to suss out risk
So what is a person that is astutely trying to manage their career to do? My formula (which I learned through trial and error) is to focus on your learning objectives. Whatever decisions you make, whatever jobs you take, whatever roles you fill, whatever projects you work on, etc can all be reconciled around your learning goals. If you end up somewhere that’s a “drain” on a resume and someone asks why you ever went there (as if it was obvious years before), the most credible answer is because you were trying to learn something. And I will totally acknowledge that it’s a privilege to make learning potential your top criteria in a job search - for many people it’s income, flexibility, commute, health, etc…but in those cases, focus on your needs (survival) vs future narratives (thrival).
I’d love to hear from readers about their career choices and resume revisions - please chime in via comments👇. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing.
further reading / references
the idea that your criteria for job satisfaction shifts over time is something I’ve talked about before in an audio episode: Personal North Star Metrics
one thing I hope comes across in this post is that even when saddled with a “bad company” you can create a coherent narrative - I’ve talked about a similar idea with regards to product development (failure is a type of learning that you aren’t ready to understand yet, so take the time and space to gain perspective)
pitching your point of view, which I shared previously as a lesson for product builder and marketers, applies to career narratives and resume revisions too
here is a podcast episode where I talk about over-sanitized LinkedIn profiles that read like a greatest hits list, with no mention of trials and tribulations
childish drawing / interpretation