To get a job, write your story instead of a resume

woman-writing-in-diary-1055085by Brooke Allen 

I am 61 years old and I have been doing paid work since I was 16. I’ve been a grocery clerk, camp counselor, film projectionist, sound man, light man, cameraman, freight loader, computer programmer, teacher, operations research analyst, manager, salesman, writer, consultant, and for the last 30 years I’ve been a securities trader and hedge fund manager.

Yet I have only once gotten work by answering an ad. Even then I was turned down at first, but it led to a different job six months later after I established a relationship with the hiring manager who had first said no. And I’ve never been asked for a resume until after I received an offer, and then only because HR always needs something to put in their files. I haven’t needed a resume to get work because my resume doesn’t reveal my work. I am my work, and to know my work you need to know me.

Here are some things I’ve discovered about finding worthwhile work that have helped me, and that might help you.

Lead a thoughtful life

The secret of a well-written cover letter is to learn to write well. The secret of an interesting resume is to have done interesting things. So do interesting things and learn to write about them. Ben Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” You might do one or the other but it is better to do both; that’s what Franklin did.

Learn to think. Reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a good place to start. He says, “Writing is thinking on paper.” In order to think deep mathematical thoughts you must write formulas, and similarly you cannot think deeply about much else without writing words. Learn to think mathematically because otherwise you cannot say you know how to think any more than you can say you can drive a car but can’t turn left. Likewise, saying you can think without knowing how to write is like saying you can’t turn right. If you live long enough and you only go straight ahead, then eventually you’ll drive off a cliff.

Get your story straight

Resumes are your life in bullet-point form. The story of your life is more interesting than can possibly be expressed with a list of sentence fragments. Skip the resume and write the story.

Good stories also have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In your case, you are in the middle. Continue reading “To get a job, write your story instead of a resume”

Want passion? Look for something that makes you angry.


Whenever I speak at colleges I begin by asking, “Why are you here?”

This catches the students off guard and after batting the question around for a bit someone says, “To find my passion.” The rest agree and they imagine they are done with the topic.

But I am not done with them.

I ask them to define “passion” because if you cannot say what a word means then you are shooting the shit rather than answering a question.

So they discuss that for a while longer and eventually settle on some variant of, “I don’t know what passion is but I’ll know when I have passion for my work because I won’t have to motivate myself to do it.”

“Really?” I say, “Where I come from we have a word for that, and it is ‘like’ as in ‘I like my job.’ But I know I am passionate when I do something even though I hate every second.”

“Why would anyone do a job they hate?” someone asks.

I want to say, “It might be because you have bills to pay and you don’t want to live off your parents or the state.”

But, instead I say, “I don’t know. Why did my dad lie about his age so he could enlist a year earlier than allowed by law to become a paratrooper and jump out of airplanes while the Japanese shot at him? That was something he hated to do, but he did it anyway, and he did it because of something called passion.”

At this point the class looks flummoxed but intrigued. Continue reading “Want passion? Look for something that makes you angry.”

How my life was changed when I began caring about the people I did not hire.

Ask yourself this question, “What do employers owe the people they do not hire?” I asked myself that question more than a decade ago and it changed my life forever.

On Sunday, January 18, 2004, I ran a help-wanted ad in the New York Times that read in its entirety, “Programmer – Will train, enjoyment of mathematics a plus” followed by an email address. I was heading a statistical arbitrage trading desk and I needed help maintaining all the code I’d written.


I was surprised to get more than 300 resumes and because nobody had experience in the language we use (APL), and I could not gauge learning potential from a resume, I sent everyone a link to a 500-page manual (latest version available here), and I suggested applicants try their hand at a half-dozen puzzle questions they could easily answer in this language.

openhouse07Thirty-eight people answered the questions so I invited them in for an open house. I had them sit on our trading floor for a bit where they played a game I’d written called BF Game that simulated an information market. We talked about the technology and the nature of our work and then I asked them what they thought I should do next.

Twenty-seven of the applicants suggested I teach them all first and then make a hiring decision, so I ordered tables and chairs that arrived the next day. And the day after that we built a classroom. Continue reading “How my life was changed when I began caring about the people I did not hire.”

URGENT: Help Make Work More Fun

In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.

Over Super Bowl Weekend (Feb 1-2) some friends and I will be attending an Education Start-UP Weekend to develop tools that will help people bring more fun to work.


Here is how you can help us:

1) Tell us your stories: How did you or someone you know make an onerous task more fun? How do you teach others to do the same thing?

2) Tell us your needs: How could your work be more fun?

3) Tell us your ideas:  How could employers make work more fun? How can employees do the same? How can job hunting be more fun?

4) Tell us how to help you: Our goal is to create something you can use whether you are doing work, looking for it, or managing others. Tell us how we can contact you when we have something to give you.

Noel Coward thought work is more fun than fun.WHY THE URGENCY?

At Start-UP Weekend events you are only given from Friday night at 6:30 until early morning on Sunday to come up with an idea, implement it, and launch it into the world. Early afternoon on Sunday we will need to present our project to a panel of judges.

Although we appreciate your ideas no matter when you submit them, if you can get them to us by 6PM on Saturday, Feb 1, 2014 then we can include them in our project.


Please write to me with your ideas right away:



What questions should we ask ourselves?

Woman in Mirror by Dennis Brekke - creatie commonsResearchers have shown that it if you want to do something it is better to
ask yourself questions rather than to tell yourself things.

Ask, don’t tell

by Brooke Allen

If you want to exercise today then it is not a good idea to get up in the morning and say, “I will exercise today.” This tells your unconscious that the issue is settled so there is nothing to do. Of course, as you go to bed you might say, “Gee… I forgot all about exercising.”

Instead, ask yourself, “Will I exercise today?” This question can only be answered in the affirmative by actually exercising, and this makes it much more likely that you will actually exercise.

The Lens of MotivationI have used this in the design of the 54 questions to ask yourself that I’ve printed on a deck of playing cards. You can use these to design a personal philosophy of life, and you can find them at

Question form

I call my questions “lenses” and they are in the form: “Because X, ask yourself: Y.”

Some examples:

The Lens of the Boss: Because it is important to know who will bear ultimate responsibility for your life, ask yourself: Who is the boss of me?

The Lens of Needs: Because we survive and thrive by meeting each other’s needs, ask yourself: What do I need? What is needed of me?

The Lens of Followership: Because followers have responsibility too, ask yourself: Have I chosen my leaders wisely? Am I blaming my leaders for things that could be my responsibility instead?

Help us make work more fun

Following on the success of The Lens Game, I’ve begun working on “Work as Fun” ― a series of questions to ask yourself that can help you make work more fun. After all, as Mary Poppins said, “In every task that must be done there is an element of fun. Find the fun and – SNAP – the work’s a game.”

What questions do you think should be included in this project?

Remember, the form of the question is “Because X ask yourself Y” where X is an irrefutable reason for why the question is important, and Y is in the form of a “first person interrogative” – which is fancy talk for a question that you ask yourself.

Here are some examples appropriate to making work fun.

Lens of Fun: Because fun is hard to define and it encompasses much more than just pleasure, ask yourself: What does fun mean to you?

Lens of Optionality: Because it is no fun to be forced to do something, ask yourself: How can I see something that must be done as a choice I make voluntarily?

Lens of Leveling Up: Because what was once fun can become boring once you’ve mastered it, ask yourself: How can I up my game?

What do you think?

Because many brains are better than one, I ask myself: What ideas might my readers have for questions you can ask yourself?

Send me the questions you think everyone should ask themselves if they want their work to be more fun.

I am at: