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The ATH Field Guide: Overcome resume gaps to land a job

In the February 23, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is ready to chuck it all to save his sanity. Should he?

Question

I’ve been a project manager running million dollar software projects for 15 years. However, I’m sick of the stress, never-ending deadlines, and frantic pace of technology. I’m 41 and I can’t keep this up for another 10 years.

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I’m trained to recognize classic burn-out syndrome but dealing with it in myself isn’t easy. I find myself wanting to go pound nails for a builder or mow lawns or just to do something mindless. I think I could step out of corporate life for a while and come back later, but I will have lost my contacts. What’s the answer? “Would you like some fries with that, Sir?”

Nick’s Reply

No, no fries… but welcome to burn-out. It happens to many talented people. It’s nature telling you to flip the burger because one side is done. It’s time for the other side.

The conventional obstacles

Before I offer you suggestions about how to overcome the resume gaps you’re about to create, so you can land a new job later, let’s consider the obstacles you’re going to face. I’m sure you’ve read or heard the conventional wisdom about what you’re suggesting. Let’s play it:

  • It’s harder to get a job if you don’t have a job.
  • Employers discriminate against the unemployed.
  • If you stop working, your skills will go stale.
  • When you leave the work world, your network dries up.
  • Gaps in your resume are the kiss of death.
  • And so on…

To one degree or another, all those statements are true, of course. But it’s also true that we’re all gonna die… so what’s the point of living? (Consider the killer quote from Ring Lardner.)

What’s the point of being burned out and miserable?

The conventional wisdom doesn’t matter when you’ve got good reasons to do what you’re talking about: You’re free to get out of the kitchen and go kick the can for a while. Give yourself a break, or you will indeed burn up.

Jobs can be replaced, but you get only one body, one mind. There’s no reason to lose your contacts — it’s not hard to maintain the best ones when you take time off. Your skills need not dry up. You can learn new skills.

Afraid to get off the burner?

I was about 40 when I chucked it all to write a book, start a website, and follow my gut. Yes, it was a risk. But getting off the burner is necessary when you feel burnt. With the relief will come new experiences and new choices you forgot you had.

burn out

If you’re good at what you do now, I can almost assure you that you’ll be good at whatever you decide to do after some time off. And if you stay in touch with your best contacts, you’ll always have the support system you need to succeed again. More important, if you don’t get lazy, during the time you take off you’ll make loads of new contacts that can help you get back to work when the time comes.

Here’s the thing: Conventional wisdom is for the conventional person. It’s for whoever wants to nail themselves to a job the rest of their lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that (even if I apply a derogatory metaphor to it). If you’re going to be unconventional — and take time off — then you can’t let the rules apply to you. You must forge your own rules and methods for getting back to work later.

And that’s what Ask The Headhunter is all about. My test of the value of any method for landing a job is this: Does it make enough fundamental business sense that it can work under any circumstances — including taking a break?

Screw convention

I don’t like tricky job-search methods intended to mollify HR managers and personnel jockeys who scan credentials for excuses to reject someone without meeting them. For example, clever resumes that hide your gaps in employment, “functional resumes” that hide your age, and “consulting gigs” that cover up your unemployment.

There’s only one way to get a job under any circumstances without relying on luck, or faking it:

Get someone that knows the person in charge to introduce you and vouch for you, then don’t waste the employer’s time. Show why hiring you will pay off, so the manager won’t be able to do anything but hire you.

Who cares if you’re not employed?

Because what’s far, far worse is staying in the job that’s burning you out, and then showing up at job interviews shell-shocked and demoralized. Then no one’s going to hire you.

My vote — assuming you’ve got your finances in order — is to go away and come back later. Screw convention.

Here’s the secret: If you’re good at your work, then trust your ability to earn a living and to do useful work again. When you’re done kicking the can, you’ll be able to dust yourself off and figure out again what to do next, after flipping burgers and offering fries with that…

Life is short. Do what comes next now, and I think you’ll be better able to do what comes after that.

The Field Guide

Need help getting back to work after you’ve been away for a while — whatever the reason? Maybe you’ve just got gaps in your resume that raise red flags.

Here’s an Ask The Headhunter Field Guide that I’ve compiled from some of the best ATH resources. It’s more than you probably need, but I hope some of these tips will help you get introduced to the right employer and show why hiring you will pay off — even if you’ve been out of the market a long time. All are free online except where indicated:

Career coaches and pundits tend to avoid the “in-your-face” questions job seekers really need answers to. To explore the daunting obstacles that can stop you dead in your tracks — and to choose the help you need — check out the topic titles in the 9 PDF books that make up Fearless Job Hunting: The Complete Collection ($49.95).

Would you dare to chuck it all to survive burn-out on the job? Is this a risk worth taking? If you’ve done it, how did you get back to work — or did you choose another path?

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22 Comments
  1. My advice would be to only quit if you have something you are passionate about doing – then surely quit to do it.

    But if you are burned out and “wanting to go pound nails for a builder or mow lawns or just to do something mindless” – try to change the attitude first. Cut your working times, sign up to a regular fitness class or yoga class. Force yourself to disconnect while off work. Stop thinking about deadlines. I.e. instead of last episode of “Office Space”, try first one – you don’t need dead shrink for this.

    I made myself do it when I found I was close to being burned out, signed up for fitness class 3 times a week in the middle of the working day, spent way less time working, etc. I found this time to be one of the most productive periods in my life. I spent less time working, but was working full energy, and even though I was very relaxed about deadlines, produced more than typical.

  2. I agree with Michael’s comment.
    Try disconnecting from your work. It’s not your job that’s the problem, it’s (I am assuming, in part) your inability to manage your work-life balance.
    Recently for a two year period, I’d walk two miles at lunchtime. I’d walk one mile to a restaurant to pick up my order (a side salad at McDonald’s, cost just over a buck), then walk that one mile back. I jammed to music in earbuds the entire time. It was exercise AND a way to lose my thoughts to la-la-land. I reduced my unhealthy weight, boosted my energy, and cleared my head. My career improved shortly thereafter because I was ALERT to my needs among my entire daily life both at work and at home.
    ****Your brain needs energy; not change****

  3. passion is the worst reason to quit. if passion paid the bills then yes, but if not, then no. Many PM’s go into business for themselves as freelancers or for a group that manages freelancers and then he would be able to make his own hours and have more flexibility. if he has been going hard for 15 years then that is his personality, since many PM’s dont burn out and work balanced. it comes down to money – does he have enough to live on and afford to take a break and come back to the job market, or (like you said) learn to balance his life and not burn out? or get his company to hire some help!

  4. I left my dayjob five years ago due to burnout. I still have no idea what I am passionate about that pays, but consulting part time is a lot better for my sanity than working full time was. Big risks can have big rewards.

  5. About 5 years back, a very successful friend of mine who ran a pharmaceutical company in the Boston area felt burned out. His decision was to sell the company and work as a math teacher at the local High School for a year. He then took most of the summer off before getting back into the rat race.
    He claims that this was the best decision he has ever made in his life. His time off recharged him, and he is happily back doing what he loves doing!

  6. If you have the means (finances, insurance, et. al.), go for it!

    Take a long vacation, then think about what you want to do.

    Be sure to keep up with your network. Meet for coffee or lunch on a regular basis.

    As for being able to step away from a job, it speaks volumes about your personal management…most people are a paycheck away from destitution.

  7. Here’s some unconventional advice: start reading all the Early Retirement Extreme blogs. Mr. Money Mustache is a great place to start. A few people in your situation super charge their savings so they can retire really early–like in their 30s or 40s. Then there’s absolutely no resume gap worries. Reading MMMM changed my attitude towards my job–I view it less as a prison sentence, more as my money machine on my road to freedom, which helps me deal with the stress and burnout better, because there’s a real, tangible goal in sight.

  8. Many great suggestions about alternatives to chucking it all, and I think that can work sometimes – but I think the OP made it very clear that he’s at the end of his rope. Sometimes a total change is a good choice. Trouble is, our system and attitude (culturally) about work is that there’s always a way to keep working at what hurts us. Sometimes there’s not.

  9. Thanks for the article, Nick. It reminds me why I do what I do. I left the corporate world about 5 years ago. After a few months trying to figure out what to do, I landed a position as an independent sales rep working from home. It’s not what I was looking for, but I thought I’d give it a shot. It turns out that I really enjoy it. I’ve even started getting work writing newsletters for a few companies, the side of the business I’d like to expand.

    Although I don’t have all the perks that come with working directly for a corporation, I believe the benefits exceed them. I’ll never be a millionaire, but that’s okay. A simpler life is a less stressful one. I’m no longer working for “the man”. I’m working for me.

  10. To the point, the guy’s clear that he’s burned out..as a Software PM..and recognizes it for what it is.

    All due respect to the suggestions on morphing to life/work balance, if the guy’s a Software PM he’s in the hi-tech world where life/work balance is 80% to the company/project and 20% to you. Where the 20% is for begrudged frivolity e.g. sleeping and eating & the really committed do that at the office. It’s like playing pinball…if you do a good job, your reward is to do it again & again & again.

    Stress, mental & physical exact a price..life limiting poor health if you really work at it.

    Given what the guy said, I think he should step off the grinder and regroup. But not that casually. Rather apply his PM skills to it, call it a personal recovery project, develop a plan and execute. Include when to leave, what to do when gone (definitely including suggestions to get back in good shape, and network build) develop a comfortable return to the world objective (when and to do what). Network building and the time to do it should be a key component, tied to ideas about what you’d like to try next. There’s an irony in good networking. The better you are at it, the more time it takes to sustain it. and you’ll have the time.

    I agree 100% if you’re good at what you do, it doesn’t evaporate if you kick back. Call the whole thing your personal sabbatical & use that term when you discuss (not hide) your working gap. That says you weren’t tossed aside. Rather your message can be that you took a voluntary personal Sabbaticals which is what very competent and confident professionals do.

    If you’re a good PM, you can be sure you’ll be good at other callings, if you so choose. There’s no rules that say you have to return to PM either. You’ll find one way to counter burn out, is to do remove yourself from that PM rut & do something different. Who says you have to spend your working life doing project management?

    Per Nick’s question, I’ve burnt out more than once (I’m almost 77). I’ve never voluntarily walked away from a job, but I’ve been involuntarily helped out. But to recover I have walked away from vocations, career paths etc and retooled myself into other directions, vocations, callings. Jumped out of my comfort zones. That’s how I became a recruiter. And it can be refreshing, even invigorating …to the point where you flame out again.

    I’ve had some sense of guilt that overall, I haven’t had a “calling”, been a generalist. When it comes to generalists, the corporate world has a forked tongue. On one hand saying they are valuable, but on the other hand, recruiting bias is to specialists.
    If you are one of those or your fear making a change into something different lessens your value, take note of this very interesting TED talk by Emilie Wapnick who reveal I’m a multipotentialite.
    https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_calling#t-346401

    Go for it. Put your health, peace of mind and future at a higher priority than burning out on a treadmill. I don’t think you’ll regret it. Just don’t knee-jerk it.

  11. I was in your shoes in 2007, only I wasn’t running million-dollar projects but handling technical product support and logistics for my employer, a manufacturer. They added a boatload of new customers but no additional Product Specialists to provide the education and hand-holding the new customers required.

    It was scary to leave because I had family, mortgage and little savings but I was miserable and drinking too much wine with dinner every night.

    I gave them 3 wks notice and they asked me to leave that day. I had zero plans. I temped for 6 months, took a job I hated (out of desperation) and a few months later found a job I loved at a logistics company making a bit less.

    I wish you luck. I’m not familiar with the field of software project management, but perhaps there are contract jobs you could take periodically to keep your skills sharp and establish new contacts if and when you decide to return to the field full-time.

    My husband had a career as a chef and restaurant manager and he grew to hate the 55+ hour weeks working for corporate chain restaurants. He now works as a food service manager for a non-profit that runs a soup kitchen and food pantry. He’s got a 40-hr, M-F workweek and a pay/benefits pkg that is comparable to what he was making. More important, the stress level of this job is far lower and he feels appreciated by both his colleagues and the clients. He never thought he’d be working at a non-profit but now he can’t imagine leaving the job.

    Perhaps that’s another avenue to use your skills but avoid burnout.

  12. Terrific set of comments, equal to the terrific content of the blog. Thanks, all.

  13. BOPM (Burned Out Project Manager) is at the end of his rope. I am glad that you recognize that you are burned out and that you don’t want to continue like this for another 10 years. Stress and burn out are commonplace, and what many people fail to recognize is their impact on your life and health and relationships.

    Do you have vacation time, sick time, personal time that you could use? If not, and if you still think you want to (or need to) go back to that employer, I wonder if you could take time off to rest and recharge your batteries. Federal law allows you to take 12 weeks of UNPAID leave. You might have to get a letter from your doctor stating that you need the time off for health reasons. That would not be difficult–you’re fried, and it would be good for your overall physical and mental health to have some time off.

    I’ve worked in academia for the past 16 years, and for many faculty, sabbaticals are the norm. For many faculty taking sabbaticals, the time away is used to do research, write books, publish articles in academic and professional journals, attend conferences, etc. It is still work, but they’re not teaching, sitting on committees and in endless meetings, dealing with budget and hiring issues, dealing with students. Other faculty use a sabbatical to truly relax. I often think staff should have the same perquisite–we have burn out issues, just not in the same way faculty do. And I wish that sabbaticals were part of working world outside of academia.

    A few years ago Nick posted this article: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/3639/how-do-i-tell-my-boss-im-overworked.

    It isn’t exactly on point with this week q & a, but I think it is related and relevant.

    BOPM: you’re tired and fried. If you think or decide that you want to stay, is it possible to get help, etc.? Nick’s advice in the older article are helpful here. If not (you’ve decided that your health and sanity are more important), then Nick’s advice in this week’s q & a is on point. Can you afford to quit? How long can you live without a paycheck? Insurance (COBRA is really expensive)?

    If you can’t afford to leave, can you re-structure your job so it is more manageable? I am unfamiliar with project management in general, let alone the culture of working for software giants.

    In the link to the older article, there was a comment from a reader who talked about how stress and long hours finally killed his brother-in-law (BIL had a heart attack and died). No job is worth your health or your life.

  14. As far as the much vomited idea that you go “stale” when one leaves a career for a time . . . maybe in HR that’s the case if there is no talent to begin with. Math is still math, social skills are still social skills, etc. Pure bunk! Just another easy out to eliminate those pesky, legit candidates (not to put too fine a point :))

  15. Just throwing this out there.. but is it possible that we get burned out when we are in the wrong job to begin with? i mean look, as human beings we are resilient, we’re intelligent, courageous, …all those things. We can do whatever we set our mind to doing. But how many of us specifically set out to do the job we are doing today? Something in the cosmos puts us on a path and we continue on it because originally it put food on our table and later on because they promoted us. But that doesn’t mean we are best suited for the job. It doesn’t mean our personalities are suited for it.

    So I’m just throwing it out there..does burnout happen if we’re in the right job?

  16. @John Krytus: Yes, I think burnout can happen even when we’re in the right job. It happens when you have too much on your plate, when you’re doing the work of 2 other people PLUS your own job, when management doesn’t appreciate or reward your successes, when you’re not allowed to move forward/up or develop new skills…..

  17. The job I referenced in my prior post was one I absolutely loved. I was there 8 years and could have happily worked there my entire career.

    The company hired a dedicated sales person and increased the distributors for the product I supported by 50% in one year. Yet they made no increases in the product support dept but expected us to maintain the same superior level of service. It was unsustainable and short-sighted of them.

  18. @John Krytus: “is it possible that we get burned out when we are in the wrong job to begin with?”

    Yep – great insight. You’ll love this:

    http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/8334/600-editions-the-best-of-ask-the-headhunter
    “Before you accept a new job, check It’s the people, Stupid and — yuck — Don’t suck canal water. I keep telling you that the #1 reason people go job hunting is because they took the wrong job to begin with. Don’t fall into that trap!”

  19. great TED talk by Emilie Wapnick – thanks for posting it

  20. I think this was a well thought out answer from Nick to the reader demonstrating a very articulate and intelligent way to get back in the game when the mind has renewed. The key is: not being convential as Nick stated. Know your value, take care if your body and mind and use these guidelines to navigate what you want out of life and a career.

  21. Afraid I must disagree with leaving a job before you have something else lined up. In the past I would say, leave but in the current job environment hiring managers and HR have gone full idiot. Really can’t count how many fantastically talented people I know who are out of work – primarily because they have a dreaded “gap” in their resume.

    While there are multiple studies showing that people retain skills years after last using them, HR staff insist people lose all working memory within weeks of not working. Guess they have never heard of long-term memory?

    Currently, HR managers are looking for any reason to disqualify job candidates.

    • @Anna: While I don’t disagree that having a job can make it easier to win over a dopey HR manager who thinks a resume gap is the mark of failure, I think HR rejects applicants for so many ridiculous “reasons” that quitting your job to find a better one is not likely to be the critical factor.

      Of course, reducing the reasons HR sees to reject you is a smart approach. But each factor like that exacts a cost, too. Job hunting part-time while you’re demoralized at your job doesn’t help the job search.

      Your last line says it all.

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