Tom Rath is the author of “Life's Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to the World” and “StrengthsFinder 2.0,” one of Amazon’s top 20 best-selling books of all time. He spent 13 years at the Gallup organization and helped to lead the company’s employee engagement, well-being and leadership practices.
Rath spoke with LiveCareer about how emotion can enhance application materials and shares his thoughts on why it’s critical for job seekers to ask themselves, “Will I be healthier as a result of this new job?” This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Rath says it’s time to rethink your life’s work and look at whether you’re investing in your strengths and using them to be of service to others.
Q. What do you think is the biggest mistake someone makes when putting together a resume?
A. I think people use far too many impersonal and generic words to describe things that are actually very meaningful and important to them personally. For example, the easiest thing to go in resume are your functional skills and how you’ve mastered formulas in Excel or you’re a certified project manager in a certain area. But, that doesn’t get into the heart of what you’ve done, the lives you’ve helped develop or the people you’ve helped.
I would challenge people to think about how to bring the emotional and tangible impact you’ve had on other people into their resume. Human resources is looking for those who will add a complement of skills, have an emotional punch or who have helped build stronger relationships on a team. When people write a resume, they may use a header that says “Experience,” and under that they list their tactical, functional skills instead of life experiences showing how they’ve grown and helped others grow.
Q. Do you think part of the reason we may focus on functional skills in our resumes is because we don’t spend enough time thinking about who we are as people and how we impact others with our work?
"I'm hopeful that as people move into the mid- and late-stages of their careers that they can search for something that they see as more than a job and more than a paycheck."
A. Yes. The crux of the challenge is that we’ve whittled what we do down to job titles and job descriptions in a way that takes a lot of meaning out of what we do each day. That’s a problem because tying it back to that emotional influence is what gives us the motivation to keep going each day. Increasingly, the generation entering the workforce today, in particular, want to walk into a job where they can see the meaning and purpose of what they’re doing.
Q. So how do we spice up our resumes so that they’re not so sterile?
A. I would encourage people to use far more emotional language and words. Talk about the fact that you’re really good at connecting people, or that you know how to create energy on a team instead of using more of the functional language.
For example, “Here’s where I taught a group of 10 people to do X and Y and Z.” It’s that emotional influence you’ve had on other human beings. After you’ve written your first draft of a resume, go back through and look for ways to eliminate sterile language and instead make it more emotional and personal. If you’re naturally competitive, for example, talk about how that has been an asset and you’ve been able to achieve more than others in similar roles and brought in more revenue — you want to talk about the part of your personality that differentiates you and makes you tick.
Q. You’ve stated that “you cannot be anything you want to be — but you can be more of who you already are. While people can overcome adversity and are remarkably resilient, the most potential for growth and development lies in the areas where you have natural talent to start with.” When I’m considering my natural talents, how do I make them more appealing to an employer through a resume, cover letter or in a job interview?
A. The challenge when putting together a resume is to connect Point A (who you are, your natural talents and what drives you) with Point B (what are the outcomes that you know matter to the job for which you’re applying) and how you can help someone see that. For example, because of your natural creativity, you can provide the ways that you could contribute to new thought groups among software development teams.
Q. Do you think some people are uncomfortable talking about themselves in that way?
A. Yes. I think it’s far easier to talk about ourselves in transactional terms. That’s the default: “I was a senior software developer” or “I was a vice president of marketing.” But if you sit down with someone you really care about, you talk about what really matters and what you want out of a job. It doesn’t come back to job titles. That’s why I think it’s especially important when you’re looking for a job to avoid generic descriptors of yourself like “I’m a hard worker” or “I’m a high achiever.” No one is ever going to say they’re not one of those two things. I would challenge anyone to go back through their resume and look for the generic terms that anyone is likely to claim — and then try to come up with things that are more in line with their natural talents.
Q. Someone might say: “What I need is a good paycheck. I don’t really care about what I do, as long as I can pay rent and make my car payment. So, I’ll say or do whatever I have to in my resume or cover letter or interview in order to get a job.” What’s your response to that?
A. I think working solely for a paycheck is often the place that a lot of us have to start. It can be a good place to start if your primary concerns at the time are paying bills, shelter, food and providing for the people you love. That can be important at certain times in life. I’m hopeful that as people move into the mid- and late-stages of their careers that they can search for something that they see as more than a job and more than a paycheck. If you’re going to spend a majority of your waking hours doing something, if you’re not enjoying it — or can just tolerate it — it’s not good for your health and well-being. You could be happier and healthier and a better parent, spouse and friend if you spent that waking time doing something that you also happen to enjoy and has some meaning attached to it.
"We've whittled what we do down to job titles and job descriptions in a way that takes a lot of meaning out of what we do each day."
Q. You’ve said that the next time anyone considers a career move — from a new job to an internal job change or even quitting — that they ask themselves: “Will I be healthier as a result of this new job?” Are there some key things a job seeker should pay attention to in an interview, or questions that need to be asked to get an idea if it will be a healthy fit?
A. Walk around the (business) environment. Look at the people. How do they talk, walk, interact with one another? Look for visual cues from people about how they’re feeling — especially those people who work under the manager who will be your manager. See if you can meet a few people and have good, initial conversations with them. Then, find other ways to peek into the environment by checking out the company online, such as through reading reviews on Glassdoor.
Q. You’ve also suggested that when we’re considering any kind of job change that we should ask someone who has been doing that job for a long time to reconstruct a typical day. Is there a way to do that in a job interview?
A. An applicant can say to an interviewer, “Can you help me put myself in the shoes of being in this position to understand what I’d be doing every day? What does it look like?” To me, if I were the interviewer, it displays that the applicant has a lot of intellectual curiosity and they’re trying to get a comprehensive handle on what this job might look like and how they might fit into it. I don’t see much downside to asking that question.