I have recently been struck with a realization that we find ourselves feeling like we need to justify gaps in our own lives to other people. Similarly, we feel compelled to explain “why” to people when really, it just is not their concern. It is like if we deviate from a plan or from what other people expect of us (even what we expect of ourselves), we feel like we need to rationalize it. I do believe though that our culture, our society, has the capacity to overcome this.
I know, you are thinking, “Tell me more, Missy.” I was having a conversation recently with a friend who is looking for her next career move. She took some time off from her last job, and so I asked her, “What will you tell companies if they ask why there is a gap in your resume?” She said simply, “I will tell them I took some personal time. The end.” I pondered this for a moment as my brain usually wants more concrete answers. As we chatted more, I fully understood and agreed with her point. Why does she owe anyone an explanation? We are so used to always having to tell people a story when in actuality, it is not any of their business. For someone who is smart, accomplished, competent, likeable, savvy, why does she owe to anyone to explain a mere gap on her resume? Because the truth is, LIFE happened. And specifically what that means, well that is really nobody’s business.
Throughout my career, I have always been cognizant of not having a gap on my resume. The truth is, I took some time off to do short term jobs a few years after college (and working my first real job in finance) because well frankly, I was 25 years old. I was unsure what I wanted to do. I was young. I was disenchanted. And I wanted time to figure out where to go and what to do next. But no way in hell was I going to tell any potential employer that. I was far too worried they would view me as someone who was not motivated or ambitious or worse yet, a total flaky scatterbrain. Instead, I stretched the truth a tad and said that I worked for a family business for a year.
I remember going to interviews with my standard story. “I was living in Pittsburgh and I really wanted to move back home to New Jersey. The timing worked out as our family business was in need of some extra help.” That always satisfied the interviewer, and I did get a “real’ job once again when I was ready.
Looking back, as this was probably around 2004, maybe at that time, it was still expected that no gap go unexplained. Today though, I would like to think that our culture has changed. I do believe there is a higher acceptance of understanding that just because someone went off course does not mean they have less to offer. I wonder if I were to interview for a job tomorrow with a revised resume that does not reflect a year of working at a family business (and oh my, instead has a gap!) that I could be blunt and just say, “Well I was 25. I was not really loving my job anymore. My boyfriend moved to West Virginia. I didn’t want to be in Pittsburgh anymore and so I moved back home.” I would be surprised if at this point in my life that my 25 year old self would really work against me. I have a few years (ok fine shut up, more than a decade) of experience since then that would more than make up for it.
What if I actually gave no explanation of the gap and simply said, “I took some personal time off. The end.” Would anyone would even blink an eye? And really why should it matter if someone takes time off at 25 or 35 or 55? People have their reasons, which there is no limit to what those reasons could be. It is their reasons, their stories. Why should getting a job depend on them providing personal details to a complete stranger? People’s character and ambition should speak for themselves and overcome a gap.
And it isn’t just jobs where we have this expectation of having to explain ourselves. It goes beyond that. Look at dating. How many times have you felt (or heard friends express) the dread of having to explain why you haven’t dated in FOREVER? Why do we feel compelled to rationalize our single lives? Maybe instead of blaming it on long work hours or the city you live in is just the WORST for dating., you simply just say, “It just hasn’t happened yet.” That is the truth and so is saying, “Because I am awesome and have yet to meet someone as awesome as I am.” You get my point. We have such a tendency to feel like less of a person when we feel as if we fall short of expectations, and that simply should not be the case.
The gaps and “need’ to explain go on and on. Why did you take time off before going to college? Why did you wait 5 years after you got married before you had a baby? Why did you wait 4 years before you had your second baby? Why did you wait so long to get married?
The reality is people feel compelled to explain themselves or their situation because of the fear of being judged. And another reality is that, we all want to know “why” because we actually do want to judge, bad or good. We want to know WHY because we are trying to assess if there is something shady that we must uncover. Did you not work for a year because you nobody wanted to hire you? Have you not dated in a while because you are bat shit crazy? Did you not go to the happy hour because you are trying to make some kind of statement? My point is it all feels very cynical. We make judgments and assumptions based on very little information.
And the ironic thing is, often when we have these gaps or chose to go against the grain, contrary to popular belief, we come back from them as better humans. We often learn so much about ourselves and about others that we never would have gained had we stayed on a straight path. We gain knowledge and insight, even if the gap or break we took was due to something tragic or sad, we come back stronger and better. I encourage people to stop viewing gaps as something damaging. Start looking at them with respect and admiration. Start appreciating what they can do for a person, for a soul. There is something to be said for life experience when we deviate from the expected.