Resume Tips: Don’t Let Past Career Decisions Hold You Back

By the time most people reach the middle of their working lives, they’ve been through at least one career transition , and sometimes two or three. Most people have also had at least one episode of soul searching, one or two attempted business endeavors, a return to school, or a rough patch in which they held a poorly matched job for a while just to pay the bills. None of these things are career-ending decisions—they’re just the results of a fully lived life.

But these decisions don’t always make immediate sense to employers reviewing a resume. So as you draft your application and search for work, how can you clean up and organize your past? How can you make sure the arc of your career appears logical and linear? Keep these considerations in mind.

Tell a Story

Your career should read like a simplified version of a story—a hero’s journey. No matter who you are, what you do, or how many positions you’ve held and left, the story should look something like this:

  • The beginning: You started out in school or just after graduation with a specific passion and a specific mission. You pursued this mission, learning and growing as you did so.
  • The middle: Then you changed course, due to a new opportunity, a new realization, or an unexpected event. Then, this happened again. And again.
  • The end: At each turn, you learned something new, and no matter where your winding path has taken you, your end mission is clear: it’s in this position, with this specific company. Everything in your past has led you directly to this moment. During each chapter along the way, you’ve learned what you need to know to excel at this kind of work.

Your resume should lay out this tale, chapter by chapter, and your summary should contain the entire arc of your hero’s journey in two or three simple sentences. In one short paragraph, answer three questions:

  1. Where are you going?
  2. Where have you been?
  3. How have your adventures made you perfect for this job?

What About Irrelevant Positions?

If your career arc has taken you through one year of pre-med, then a switch to epidemiology, then a few years in academia, then admission to nursing school, and now you’re looking for your first position as an RN, how should your resume address your first summer as an adult student, when you were 32 and waiting on tables between semesters?

The answer is simple: it shouldn’t. If you’re afraid your restaurant job will confuse your readers, omit it from your resume and discuss this chapter only if employers ask.

When and if they question you about this gap, be ready to explain how your tenure in food service taught you important truths that will make you a better clinician, a smarter person, and a stronger employee.

You’re Here To Save the Day

Be proud of who you are and what you’ve done. You’ve had a good reason for every decision you’ve made along the twisting path of your career. Your task at this point is simple: show your readers how your decisions and your lessons translate directly into revenue, success, productivity, and growth for their own organizations.