You? You’re Just a Bunch of Actions

Ever been in the position of sorting through CVs? I have, and it’s not pretty. Typos, ugly formatting (big no-no), and lots of obvious bullshit. But one type of phrase I’d see again and again made me wince more than all the glaring mistakes combined…

“I’m an innovative, motivated, and passionate individual…” Sigh. Really? What have you innovated? What are you motivated to do? What are you passionate about?

See, I don’t doubt that a lot of these are good people. That’s what made the process painful. There’s so much good stuff inside of people, but if it stays bottled up in there then they’re no different than the rest of the world, who are equally capable of describing themselves with impressive sounding adjectives.

Here’s the problem: We all believe that our internal processes define us. Spending 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in our head is a pretty good way to get to know how awesome we are.

But what’s on the inside only matters to the extent that it affects what’s on the outside. Others judge us based on what we do, not what we think. And rightfully so: the only reason I want to hire someone who is innovative, motivated, and passionate is so that they act in an innovative, motivated, and passionate way. Writing it on your resume does nothing to prove to me that this is likely. As Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

So why don’t people do things? It’s a tough question. Part of it has to do with the education system. Society has encouraged us to use official credentials to prove our worth, rather than our work. Want to be hired as a programmer? Wouldn’t your previous projects give a better display of your abilities than a degree? Hoping to be a journalist? Wouldn’t a portfolio of your writing prove your talent more than a recommendation from your professor?

But, rather than blaming the education system, let’s get to the core problem: fear. By doing stuff, we’re forced to face reality. And that’s scary. There’s no risk in thinking about Plato and calling yourself a philosopher. But put your thoughts into a blog post and read the comments and see how your ego holds up.

This reluctance to face reality in the name of ego-protection is the most common barrier I’ve seen to people accomplishing things. Looking good has become more important than being good. But, when we put that fear aside, it’s easy to see that creating and putting things out into the world not only gives us something to show for our internal processes, but allows us to stress-test our ideas and improve. Those nasty blog comments are your guide on the path to improvement, not the path to depression.

We need to learn to embrace this pain. By daydreaming about our brilliant plans that we “just haven’t gotten around to yet” and postponing our inevitable confrontation with reality, we’re only hurting ourselves. The soil may be what allows the tree to grow, but all we really care about is the fruit. An awesome person is just a regular person who does awesome things.

There’s a million ways this fear manifests itself. “But I’m starting a business I don’t care about so I have enough money to do good for the world later” … “But I’m spending months learning about exercise without joining a gym so I can be more efficient later.” But, but, but, but, but. Fuck that. Stop it. Go do the stuff you care about. Your life is your message.


  1. Henry Wright

    As a hiring manager at a major corporation I wish more people would read this. Most resumes just disappear into the masses.

    • Zach

      It’s good to see people thinking like this. Do you think that’s common among hiring managers? Or that most are more comfortable sticking to the status quo?

  2. Florian

    At least for programmers there’s a relatively easy solution to the problem.

    1) Throw the CV straight into the garbage bin after scanning it for github/website links.
    2) Go to the applicants github/website, see if you find that the applicant has been motivated to put innovative and passionate things there.

    Problem solved.

    • Zach

      Right on. I think (as usual) programming is leading the way for other professions. I’d like to see being judged by doing things as the standard for all industries, not as a strange opportunity only for tech guys, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.

  3. Ethan

    Nailed it. This is so lost on the education system its abominable. Everyone’s forced to write essays and study for worthless exams so they can get their degree, but obviously this amounts to nothing, and then they hit the real world and are stunned when there are no jobs. As if going through the system and working hard for your exams means you deserve a job. And then there’s those who long ago dropped out of school, taught themselves what they needed to know, and went out and did something awesome.

    School is getting in the way of people doing things. Somehow, we need to radically change the educational paradigm to fix that.

    • Zach

      It’s a chicken and the egg thing though. Hirers still look for it, so young ambitious people still go through it, so hirers still look for it, etc.

      We’re just starting to get to the point where formal education is such a dominated option that students can reasonably build up the courage to create their own path. I think we’re going to see some cool institutions popping up to fill in the little gaps (motivation, credentialing, social scene, etc.) until there really is no justification left.

  4. Emma Harris

    Hey Zach, I just came across you blog and I have to say, it’s a great read. You are in Brazil now? Best of luck – I’m sure whatever you are up to these days is just as interesting as you are. Life has taken me to Africa now, and I’m here until February sometime. I’ll be reading, take care!

  5. tyrone

    I would have to disagree with one line that the inside matters only as much as it affect the outside but rather would like to challenge you that because they are interconnected they are interdependent and their importance to one another is relative atleast in this duality. We both agree on the overall message but the difference is very subtle.

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