Musings

The Hard Graft of CV Writing or It’s a Can of Poo Anyway

At this time of year resolutions are like fresh air. One can’t get enough of the stuff. Vows are made, affirmed, written down, prayed upon and sworn to. “I will absolutely quit my shit job and find the perfect employ where I WILL be fulfilled. And earn much more. I’ll show them”. Of course. Note though that talk is cheap. Cheaper than making a phonecard call to Africa. Cheaper than Skype. After the swearing and puffing comes writing the CV and that’s where we get our comeuppance and die. The task is hard.

Everyone knows financial people are a cut above the rest. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. The facts are incontestable. One of my colleagues reckons people should give their investment managers the freedom to do whatever these hallowed folks think they need to do to earn their sumptuous fees. My friend cautiously adds that you need to appoint the right manager in the first place. The reason for this extreme postulation is that often an investment manager will see an opportunity to make his client (you) money but what he wants to do is not permitted by the mandate you gave him. You (quite sensibly) restricted his activities to only those things you comfortably felt should be done with your money. The problem there is you know damn squat about investments and by tying your manager down you end up with a sub-par portfolio. Plausible, eh?

The flaw with my friends suggestion is obvious even if you’ve never heard of Bernie Madoff and Sir Allen Stanford. The postulate works if two premises are true. The first is that people are trustworthy. The second that human judgement is sound. Why? You need to choose the right manager and then trust they will do the right thing by you. The first premise is, let’s be candid, laughable. People are the least trustworthy of all nature’s creations. At least with a carnivorous beast or a virus you know they’ll kill you as soon as they could. But a wo/man can and often will laugh with you, sup at your table and then under the cover of using the bathroom, sneak upstairs and rob granny. And the worst thing? The next day s/he’ll (not the granny) be driving around in a Porsche giving you the wicked Sarah Palin eye.

The second premise has been thoroughly trashed by behavioural psychologists. We think we are fully rational and logical and objective. It’s not true. As Kahneman recounts in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, we are pretty much ruled by the irrational part of our brain (termed System 1 as opposed to System 2 which is the rational part). The reason is that System 1 has had hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary practice to develop an intuitive way to respond quickly. You meet someone and the stars go ballistic (“love at first sight”, divorce in a hundred). You know nothing about them. Nothing. (“You know like you meet your soul mate. I just knew”). Careful.

To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that financial people are crooks and can’t be trusted. They get taught ethics too. Just remember our old folks had a saying “A fool and his money …”. Trust, but verify. If one of your resolutions is to invest for prosperity because you think you’re smart and can do it yourself. Careful. If you choose to employ someone to manage your money because you “feel” they have the gift. Careful.

What does all this have to do with your CV and the can of poo? Well, picture that recruiter reading your CV and justifying binning your CV to her colleagues thus: “She doesn’t match the job. There were better candidates” – when in fact you were binned because the recruiter did not like the schools you attended (not posh), or the font on your CV (not professional), or the sound of your name (not from here) or, hell forbid if you sent in a picture, the shape of your face. On the other hand the guy who throws in a can of poo (bullshit in polite language) gets the interview. If he talks a good talk he gets the job. That’s why writing CVs is so hard – I mean, just what do you put in them?

Books, Culture

So You Think You Can Write?

Do you ever wonder what is good writing? Seems to me the first question to answer is “what is good?”. Only then can one decide if what one has written is good. Trying to answer what is good leads us naturally to Plato. I’m going to pick Plato’s Theaetetus where Socrates debates Protagoras’ famous maxim that “Man is the measure of all things”. In other words what you think is good is good to you. As Socrates noted, what may be good to you might be crap to most other people. So what are we to do?

Sticking with Plato, in “Crito” Socrates argues against fleeing the city to avoid his execution. He argues that since the city made laws it thinks are good for it and since Socrates himself chose to live in that city then he must necessarily abide by the judgement of the city including the judgement that he be executed. Similarly, we might determine that what is good writing is good only if other writers (which ones – the majority, the influential ones etc) judge the work to be good.

When the impressionists started out, they were derided by traditionalists. Now no one with a “good” eye thinks Monet inferior to Titian. Or do they? Who knows? What we can say from observation is that what is good for a group of people may not be so for a different group. Rome thought it was good to erase Carthage. It’s unlikely the Carthaginians thought so. The biblical God thought it was good to erase the first born of all Egyptians. It’s also unlikely the Egyptians thought likewise.

In art, we can safely say that “good” depends on genre/style/education and experience of the reader/viewer/listener and so on. Hunter S Thompson may be good if you like that jumbled up style but for me personally he’s just a nuisance. I think Vasily Grossman’s Life And Fate not only “good” but excellent but many westerners don’t have a clue who he is. Back to Plato’s Crito, Socrates argues one should take advice from experts – on fitness from a trainer, on health from a doctor and so on. In modern science we are trained to not trust one source but to critique and seek out a multitude of views. Likewise in writing, “good” can be assumed to be by common consent.

To get back to the point then, how do I assess if what I’ve written is good? I think I’ve written something good when I’m excited about my writing with the same heat of excitement I have after reading a really “good” book or author. A bit of circularity there. If despite my heat, virtually everyone else thinks my work is crap then I may well be self-delusional and mad. Vincent van Gogh died with few people thinking his work good but today we all think he was a genius. So what is “good”? Perhaps only the gods know.

(Reproduced from my comments on a blog about good writing)