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Unconventional wisdom

Ana Honigman -- When applying for a job, it might seem illogical to highlight the year you spent teaching English in Japan or the summer you worked on your uncle's farm. But such jobs require the ability to relate and lead people and to navigate successfully through challenging, albeit offbeat, situations. As the adage goes, "every experience is a lesson."

Fulfilling jobs are now harder to find in a slower economy, so it is vital to appear flexible and well rounded. Knowing only one specific area or how to perform a single, specialized task can limit your appeal. Demonstrating energy and elasticity may fit a company's needs better then a conventional set of experiences. In the past, a broad range of work experience was frowned upon. But, thankfully that attitude is changing.

The key is to have your resume reflect the skills that you acquired at each job. Most people have more than just one career interest. Instead, there are a number of areas of study or career possibilities that intrigue them. If you diversify your resume to match the scope of your intellectual curiosity, you might have an edge over many who have taken conventional paths.

Off the Beaten Path

Take James B. He currently works in a leading book-publishing firm in New York City, but he took a convoluted path to get there. He could have saved himself time and trouble had he more proudly displayed his non-traditional experiences.

In college, he majored in philosophy and minored in poetry, which he knew would likely never lead to lucrative jobs. Realizing that money was a necessary evil, he decided to channel his creative expression and managerial skills into developing an independent theater troupe. Appearing in avant-garde festivals and even winning a number of non-commercial theater awards, he was thrilled to find a way to merge intellectual idealism and the prospect of financial prosperity. Unfortunately, after graduation, he discovered that New York wasn't really in the market for another avant-garde theatre-company.

Disillusioned, he discovered a program through the Internet that enabled him to teach English in Prague for a great salary (by independent theatre standards). The experience was glorious, but only lasted a year, after which he returned to the States seeking not a conventional job, but something that he felt right in doing. Still, he drifted, working in a health food store, a small second-hand bookshop, a pet shop, and selling comedy tickets to strangers on the street.

Time Off is not Time Wasted

Desiring a plan for where he was going next, he began applying for various "want-ad" jobs. During his interviews, he would talk in detail about his college experiences and their influence on his intellectual and personal development. But he would avoid discussing what he'd been doing recently, even though he felt like a different, more mature, and capable person than he had been in school because of these experiences. It was only when he started to analyze what his varied jobs had offered him and he had grown through them, that he understood the valuable skills he had developed during his time off.

Never let your prospective employer think that wasted time. If you spent a year working in an independent health food store, say so on your resume. Show your interviewer that you occupied your time and grew, even in strange and off-the-wall ways. The phrase "taking time off" is deceptive because it trivializes your experiences. You weren't "off," even if you were not marching directly along a prescribed path.

It is important to remember is that you are the product of all your experiences. Your choice to follow an unconventional path reflects the interests that make you a stronger, more valuable candidate for jobs that will help you continue to grow.

Ana Honigman graduated from Sarah Lawrence and survived a job search -- and job -- of the damned. She is now living the classic "love over cash" high life and her art reviews and interviews have been published in Contemporary Visual Arts, Zingmagazine, Washington Review, New Art Examiner, Art Papers, Art on Paper, and Frieze magazine.

(c) 2002

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