The Darkness That Separates Great Candidates From Good Ones
I was bullied for close to a decade and had no real friends before age 19. I was an overweight child in a drama- and sports-focused high school of overachievers. (I didn't do well.) I've been punched in the face twice. I lived inside online role-playing games and invested too many formative years in EverQuest. Before I went to college, I was told most days by my teachers how dumb I was and how little I'd do with my life. "Friends" and fellow students echoed the statement. I was undiagnosed ADHD (inattentive) for most of my life.
If I recounted this backstory to an HR representative, I'd be ushered out of the interviewing room. Which is really too bad, because it's a huge part of what makes me a driven, dedicated team member. My social and academic history is part of what my friend Phil Broughton calls the "black résumé": "skills that definitely contribute to [your] being a useful worker and provide keen insights into the human condition, that [you] would never list on [your] résumé/CV when applying for a job in [your] chosen field."
Broughton, who is a radiation protection professional at UC Berkeley, has among his many great qualities an encyclopedic knowledge of medical quackery, con jobs, and antique maps. (It's surprising how often these three things overlap in decontamination projects.) That love, and his year in Antarctica as a science/cryogenics technician, taught him everything there is to know about the value of good human contact--as opposed to any human contact.
Though less extreme, my years of bullying taught me empathy--and the chip I carry on my shoulder about it makes me a great deal more sensitive to even subtle denigration.
Living on a street with some of London's lower-income population taught me quickly that wealth meant nothing of a person's quality. EverQuest led to my first jobs covering the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) industry--and learning how to dedicate myself to monotonous tasks. Being on my own hours and hours of my teenage life taught me the power of solitude (and the value of actual, real human relationships, versus ones built on cliques or social status). When you don't have a lot of people willing to talk to you, you're grateful for anyone willing to--and that's something I'm happy to say I still carry around. It's hard to be snooty when you're a big, fat guy nobody likes.
In years of interviewing candidates, I've realized that many people are scared to discuss elements of themselves that are less than gleaming and professional. When asked, "What was a challenging moment in your life?" most respond with a professional thought. My answer? Having a teacher say, "Your family still counts like this, right, Ed?" in front of a class of my peers, at age 11, pointing to tally marks. And suffering as it became a cultural meme for the next year of my life.
The black résumé doesn't have to be negative, though. I also lost around 110 pounds in a year (I weighed in at 270 when a doctor told me I was unhealthy enough to potentially die from my obesity). No professional struggle has ever seemed as challenging as modifying my entire diet--especially because food was my crutch.
Your black résumé can even include seemingly irrelevant details that make you a more rounded person. Marc Andreessen went to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign--a great institution but not a hotbed of technological growth. He was born in Iowa. He was raised in Wisconsin. That alone, in my eyes, gives him far more of a developed worldview than any combination of well-monied San Franciscan. Among all the tech luminaries who have served on many boards of many huge companies, he's one of a few with critical life experience outside of the Valley--ironic, considering his status.
Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman had a keen interest in a totally different field--safecracking and security. During his work on the Manhattan Project, Feyman's somewhat dark sense of humor led to him to break into secure safes holding critical nuclear documents, leaving fake notes to scare a colleague into believing that the documents had been stolen by the Soviets. The reality of the notes led to a much tighter hold on key nuclear documents. Feynman's black résumé would have also included a dilution of social niceties when discussing physics, which meant that famed Danish physicist Niels Bohr would constantly request him for one-on-one meetings, as he was one of a few physicists who wouldn't get starstruck.
J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most well-known writers of all time, but (though I’m sure it could be part of a real résumé) his borderline obsessive background in philology is the core of why the Lord of the Rings books have entire languages built into them. He’d also lived through some of the worst battles of the First World War.
Dick Talens and Bryan Wang, former clients of mine, founded gamified social network Fitocracy. Talens certainly brought his own flavor of being able to bench oh-so-many pounds, but unlike most other gamification entrepreneurs, Talens, too, had spent a depressingly large chunk of his childhood invested in EverQuest. This meant that he was able to reward players for working out via a system that actually made sense and was addictive like a game. Furthermore, his dedication to mastering the draconian standards of leveling up made hours of coding seem relatively pedestrian. "Level 50 in the early days of EverQuest was way more time-consuming than any marathon coding session," said Talens. "At least at the end of a sleepless night's typing, I had achieved something in real life."
As much as we'd love to credit our successes and strengths exclusively to our work-friendly endeavors, the truth and complexity of the human condition oftentimes lies in the less splendid (and more embarrassing) encounters in our lives. Our bruises, our failures, and our unique events may endear us to others and empower our futures more than we realize.