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David Bouchier: My vanishing résumé

Margaret Barse
Alabama Extension Flickr

My résumé gets shorter as I get older. It’s down to about six lines now, and even those seem rather unreal. Every year, more and more fragments of the past seem irrelevant, and indeed imaginary. I’m tempted to start over, the way the immigrants did when they arrived at Ellis Island and got new names, and no doubt invented new biographies for themselves. Nobody should be a prisoner of his or her own past.

The infinite flexibility of personal history is a fact of life. I have read a lot of résumés, and few of them had any detectable connection with the person whose name was at the top. Many showed signs of having been compiled by professional résumé services staffed by unemployed writers of fantasy and science fiction. I suspect that very few résumés, including mine, would stand up to close forensic examination. That may be the reason why we don’t have a word in the English language for this document. We are so embarrassed by its blatant falsity that we can only name it in French or Latin. The French call it a résumé (a summary) and the British call it a curriculum vitae, literally the course of one’s life.

We have moved far beyond the traditional practice of résumé padding. Now we are into wholesale résumé invention. A famous example was the English peer and politician Lord Archer was caught out telling a spectacular string of lies about his past, many of which were published in Who’s Who. Almost every day we read exposés of self-taught doctors, fake lawyers and sham academics, and we worry about even more dangerous hoaxers, like shortsighted airline pilots and compulsively honest politicians, who have somehow achieved their positions without having any of the necessary qualifications.

Qualifications do matter. But now that university diplomas and whole Ph. D. theses are available online, paper qualifications don’t mean as much.

Employers have tried to fight back with “résumé evaluation software,” but résumé invention software always seems to be a step ahead.

So how much can we learn from a carefully-prepared résumé? Almost nothing. Personal references from schools, colleges or previous employers are even less reliable. Even if we know for certain that an employee or student is lazy, shifty, dishonest and incompetent, we dare not say so on paper. The lawsuit would be instantaneous. So a glowing recommendation is double edged: it’s impossible to know whether it’s true, or just a measure of the writer’s desire to see the back of that particular person.

This is a great gift of freedom. A résumé is a straitjacket, an enemy of imagination and possibility. In the past a person’s “character” followed him or her all through life, so that past was always present. Now, nobody has a past that can’t be deleted or improved with a few keystrokes. Candidates for high office often find it convenient to leave out their arrest records and juvenile drug use, for example. Every slate is a clean slate.

Looking at my own shrinking résumé, I see that I have work to do. Things need to be added — the genius awards, the distinguished conduct medal, the bestselling novels, and many other distinctions that it would be embarrassing to name. After a few minutes of typing my résumé is much longer, and once again shining with talent and promise. But who will be foolish enough to believe it? Not I.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.