Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#18) — On towers, maps and résumés
“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)
On towers, maps and résumés
“I will not be defined.
To do so defines me in the now, the present, holds me to my past and seeks to control my future.”
Looking back at the first few years after he quit his job to go solo, Ian Sanders was glad that he couldn’t be defined by a single label. He took pride in how he had carved out a work-life which reflected his multi-dimensional interests and talents. The downside, however, was that he wasn’t getting noticed. He wasn’t standing out. He had built “lots of small Lego towers” instead of a single tower that would “that would reflect the real me. The one that would get me noticed for the right reasons,” he writes.
“I had to take those bricks, and that experience, and repurpose them into one big tower. The small towers got broken up and the bricks went into building the foundations of the big, single-focused, tall one.”
It was about wrapping up everything he had done into a single proposition — clear for others to understand but still multi-dimensional “because much of that makes me who I am.” The single essential thread that holds everything together is “firing-up organisations, teams and individuals to do their best work. That’s my tower. That’s what I’m building. If I get offered a project that doesn’t add another brick into that tower, it’s not in.”
In his post, Sanders describes a problem most ‘solo professionals’ experience: how to answer the question ‘What do you do?’ According to Richard Martin in Show your map, this question requires a simplified response. But reality is, of course, invariably more shambolic. It resembles “a hyperlinked web of avenues followed and retraced, jump cuts to elsewhere, occasional returns, disappearances and new beginnings. It is a ball of wool, a tangle of spaghetti, rather than a long straight line or a ladder extending ever-upwards. There are parallel paths too, simultaneously followed, within this entangled mess,” he writes.
Where Sanders has found an answer in building a single Lego tower, Martin looks towards Grayson Perry’s A Map of Days.
In A Map of Days, “Perry presents his complex personality and plural identity in the form of a walled city,” Martin writes. “At the centre of Perry’s Map is a labyrinthine garden, in which a figure walks, off-centre, pursuing ‘a sense of self.’ Each time I look at the Map, either in a gallery or online, I question how my own version would differ from Perry’s. What words would I choose? What images?”
(Download Perry’s A Map of Days and zoom in to view its marvelous details.)
I have often said “I don’t want to labelled” because there isn’t a single vignette that captures what I do and who I am. But like Sanders, I have come to realise that there is a single thread running through my career. Or, rather, a question: ‘Why is it like this and not like that?’ Simple yet it catalyses change or, at least, makes people stop and think. It is like an elevator running through my tower, connecting all its stories and mezzanines. It can go slantways or longways or backways and even comes crashing down from time to time.
But I am also intrigued by the metaphor of the ‘walled city.’ Where Sanders’ tower is a coherent way of framing what you do, for the benefit of others, the city on Perry’s Map represents who you are — it is a ‘space’ where ‘being’ and ‘doing’ morph into each other. As Martin writes, “A map can be presented and interpreted in many different ways, it prompts curiosity and questions, inviting a conversation that rapidly leaves behind the shallow waters suggested by a curriculum vitae.”
Unfortunately, recruitment processes are still based on these “shallow waters” and the growing impact that artificial intelligence and machine learning have on these practices won’t change this for the better. We recruit people based on the things they have done — their past jobs, achievements and accolades — and not on who they are or could become. The selection of candidates is a backwards facing process while the actual choice largely depends on ‘culture fit,’ on conformity. On past and present or, rather, the status quo.
I don’t want to be judged solely on my curriculum vitae with its job titles and neat bullet points with responsibilities and achievements. These are all in the past and often seem distant as if they belong to someone else entirely. This is why I recently decided to no longer share ‘my past’ on LinkedIn. The fact that my ‘personal strength’ was instantly downgraded to ‘intermediate’ says it all. LinkedIn is about ‘ticking boxes’ for the benefit of recruiters. ‘Career-wise’ this may be a stupid decision but I comfort myself with the thought I would never have made it across the second hurdle, ‘culture fit,’ anyway.
Like Ian Sanders, I have built an ‘I do tower.’ On top in bright neon letters, it says, ‘I work with companies, their leaders and teams to catalyse thoughtful change.’ It is made up of past jobs, experiences, conversations, people I have met, the books I have read, my love for architecture and art, and much more. It is held together by curiosity, expressed in a single question, ‘Why is it like this and not like that?’
As for who I am. I am continually shaping and reshaping my map. It won’t be as beautifully designed as Perry’s A Map of Days but it will have dead-end streets, dark alleys of rejection, career lanes (the third and current one quickly reaching a crossroads), demolished buildings, unfinished ones, a mind palace, a public square which I imagine as Sienna’s Piazza del Campo or the ancient Agora of Athens, a boulevard of broken dreams, deckchairs for undisturbed reading, conversational spaces, a safe house for values, buildings designed by M.C. Escher for changing perspectives, a cabinet of curiosities, and, of course, parapets for seeing far and wide.
It may be time to start sketching my own map. “A living document that has the potential to enhance the organisational Atlas; a book of personal maps,” as Martin writes. As for LinkedIn? Well, that could be a modern-day Mercator — not a maker of maps but a collector and platform for sharing personal maps.
The Turin Papyrus Map is probably the world’s oldest topographical map. It was drawn about 1150 BCE by an Egyptian scribe named Amennakhte who prepared it for a quarrying expedition into the Wadi Hammamat (‘Valley of Many Baths’) in the middle of the Eastern Desert. The map shows a 15-kilometre (9.5-mile) stretch of the wadi and its surrounding hills. The fragment pictured above shows the ultimate destination of the journey: the quarry (where they extracted a beautiful grayish-green stone to carve into statues of gods, king, and nobles), a gold mine, a small settlement, and a temple dedicated to the god Amun (the large white area in the middle subdivided by walls). Our scribe helpfully labelled the map’s main features; for example, he tells us where the roads lead to, notes the distance between quarry and mine, and gives the locations of more scattered gold deposits in the hills. Unlike modern maps, however, the top of the map is orientated to the south-west; that is, to the source of the Nile river in Nubia, so we have to read it more or less upside down. (source: Zenobia)
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