But to do so is painful. That's because I know that some people read a c.v. as if it is the person. "It says everything that you need to know about Gregory."
No... it does not. Not. Even. Close.
self-portrait (c. 1995)
A friend recently asked me in casual conversation: what is a c.v.? And what a question! But do I have a good answer? At first blush, I responded that it was like a resume, simply longer. The resume is traditionally one page, but the c.v. is as long as it can be or wants to be. Once you get really old, your c.v. might be fifty pages long, and that is okay. That's what we mean by "curriculum vitae": the course of one's life.
I kind of think it is impressive that I can now fill up four pages of my c.v. with stuff about me, but it is also sad, because if you would let me I would fill up four hundred pages to tell my story. So the question "what is a c.v.?" is not so much a question of how long it should be, but really: what does/should it say? What part of my four-hundred-page story becomes the condensed four-page mini-narrative? And how could anyone get away with thinking that those measly four pages represent me?
So while I am right that a c.v. can be as long as you want it to be, you cannot simply put anything on it. You do not include a list of all your romantic relationships, which ones reached different milestones such as sex or marriage, and then little filler information between certain relationships to explain why you were, say, single between 2003 and 2005—because people are really going to want to know that about you! No. I repeat: this information does not go into your c.v.
You do not list all the different pets that you have had over time: their names, their ages at time of death, et cetera. Nope, no pets.
You do not record when you first stood upright and you walked on two feet. You do not record when you said your first word and what that word was. You likewise do not record the funerals you have attended, the people close to you who have died, and what your relationship with them was.
In fact, almost anyone and everyone important in your life will never get onto the pages of your c.v. It's as if they never existed, and you were never impacted by their lives.
So what do you list on a c.v.? Well, you list 1) texts that you have published (and sometimes you can sneak in a few that you have written even if they are not published, but they must be eminently publishable); you list 2) public presentations that you have given; you list 3) the schools and programs you have received degrees from; you may list 4) organizations that you are a member of (but only if they are professional organizations similar to the professions held by the people reading your c.v.!).
Now you might think to yourself: the only person who is going to be able to fill up multiple pages of a c.v. with that kind of stuff is some kind of detached, soulless intellectual, am I right?!
Yes, you are right.
In fact, most people on Earth—wonderful, beautiful, creative, loving people—don't have c.v.s, and in the realm of c.v.-dom they just don't count.
Now, take a breath, and look away from the screen for a second. There are a select group of people on this Earth fretting and worrying about the format and placement of one thing or another on this piece (or pieces) of paper that only matter to a small group of other yet similar people. Meanwhile, good people—the best on Earth—are living their lives, helping others, doing amazing things, and none of it is chiseled into stone on a c.v.
So, to return to the question, "what is a c.v.?" Perhaps the best answer is that it is some kind of language or code that a small, select group of people use to judge and evaluate each other. Kind of like how an Olympic judge gives a seemingly random numeral grade for a floor routine in the field of gymnastics: the only people who really understand the nature of that grading system are the judges and the gymnasts. Right? I mean, how would I, for example, know what is a 9.1 performance versus a 9.9?
Anyone, with some work, can learn the code. Frankly, anyone can master it. There are people who actually get paid to listen to you talk about your life so that they can write up a c.v. for you. It's like, "tell me the 'course of your life' and I will turn that mundane English phrase into a Latin one!" :)
I'm not saying that the c.v. is all bad. Perhaps it serves an important purpose, although I do think that we who use and evaluate c.v.s are generally too competitive with each other and we think way too much about one-upmanship, about how one person's c.v. ranks against another's. But stop for a moment and think about how utterly stupid that is. You are taking one person's "course of their life" and then ranking it against someone else's. When and why did we ever start thinking that somehow human lives are comparable and rankable in this way? And what does it say about us that we so habitually do this to ourselves and to each other?
Of course, I do not mean just to criticize. The question now becomes: what can we do differently?
I believe there are three possible solutions to the problem of the c.v. One is to ban all c.v.s. Let's ban resumes, too. Or not ban them, but in all hiring situations we should simply ask people to send in whatever they want about themselves in whatever format they want. They can send in a written narrative, a resume or c.v., an audiotape or video recording, a portfolio of creative works or products, a basket of scented or tasty goodies, an envelope stuffed with cash. Really. Let people send in whatever they want.
I know what I would send in. I would write a super-duper-long cover letter, because I always want to write really long cover letters. I want to explain where I've come from and where I think I'm going, and how I believe this job/position fits into the trajectory of my life's adventure—my 'life's course' (aka curriculum vitae!). But I might also send in a few photographs of myself: pictures of me smiling and interacting with other people, to show that I am a personable guy and that I love working with others. (Indeed, one of the best jobs that I ever had was won—at least partly—by me sharing unsolicited photographs like the ones I just described! I am telling you: send in those smiling pictures!)
The second possible solution is: let's force everyone to have a c.v. Not just writers and thinkers and academics. But farmers, astronauts, nurses, politicians, plumbers, freelancers, breakdancers. Everyone should have a c.v. This way we would have to inevitably break down the artificial taxonomy of what goes in and what stays out of a c.v. The breakdancer would list all of their accomplishments as a dancer. The plumber list the skills s/he has acquired and the various jobs s/he has successfully completed. The academic will list their published books and articles. To everything there is a season; for everyone there is a c.v.
And how would that change my c.v.? Well, if you listed your experiences dancing, I'd probably list mine, too. (I performed with my college's modern dance company for one year in 2002-2003, but that's not on my current c.v. Too bad!). I have no experience as a plumber or an astronaut, but I have worked a bit on an organic vegetable farm. That's not on my c.v. But really, why not?
Finally, there is a third way—a middle path: the human c.v.
What do I mean by "human c.v."? Well, it's kind of like what I am describing above under option two. If you ever performed in a dance company, list it! If you ever walked one hundred miles across the desert without stop, and you slept on the side of the road, list it! If you fell deeply in love, had your heart broken, and wrote a poem about it, list it! If you had a child, or you lost a grandparent, list it!
Now don't go listing everything. Because who is going to read a four-hundred-page c.v. I'll read your four-hundred-page autobiography if you write it, but not a c.v. Sure, the human c.v. can be a little hybrid of the two: you can tell some narratives rather than just listing everything. I mean, whose "course of life" unfolded like a bunch of lists? Not mine. My life is more like a bunch of snaking stories that wind in and out of each other's ways, sometimes getting tangled up. Once in a while a story-snake just crokes, or gets chopped into two, and usually they simply splinter up into multiple new snakes like a many-headed hydra.
Tell your story. That's what the "human c.v." is all about. And who are you telling it to? Well... the world! Tell it. Not because you need to, or because you want people to judge or evaluate you—that's what the boring old normal c.v. is for. Tell your story because you are proud of it, and because when people ask you "who are you?" you can confidently point to your "human c.v." and say: that's me. (Of course it isn't. The only thing that is you is you. But being able to express yourself in words or images—to tell your story the way you want to tell it—may be an important and liberating adventure. It's worth a try!)
All I know is that my c.v. is not me and I am not my c.v. (It's like the Buddhist monk who once ripped up all his cards—his driver's license, his social security card, his credit cards—and with each rip said: "this card is not me. I am not this card.") The c.v. is, in the end, just some kind of fantastic and twisted mirror of one's self. It reflects a sort of "way of being" that I can perform, but it hardly reflects a "course of life" that I have lived and am still living. I think that this is the key difference between a c.v. and a "human c.v." The former is a tool for attaining a goal; the latter is a story that gives meaning to our lives.
I have never made a "human c.v." before, but I am working on one here. (And now I've got to go add that modern dance company line to it!). Please let me know what you think about this idea and project. And if you have a "human c.v." to share, I would love to see it! (No judgement. No evaluation. Just loving-kindness, respect, and appreciation for one's willingness to share their 'life course.')