My friends, I have had a revelation. And, mercy me, it was a humbling revelation, a revelation that reminded me — because I needed reminding — that I am a sinner in the workplace. A sinner, I tell you, a sinner and a hypocrite, one who is not fit to lick the mud off of Stephen Covey’s highly effective boots. And I share this revelation with you now, as my penance, and to remind you — because you need reminding, don’t we all need reminding — that we are all only human, that even the most righteously professional of us can stray from the path to career fulfillment.
Oh, and I believed I was righteous, didn’t I, this week, as I reviewed my students’ cover letters, as I judged them, finding this one too vague and that one too casual. I let loose the fateful lightning of my terrible red pen! With love, of course, only with love. I meant only to show my children the error of their ways, for they knew not what they did. And of all that they did, no transgression was more lamentable than that seductive snake in the grass, the autobiography.
You know what I speak of! That cover letter that wanders like Moses in the desert, over one page, two pages — saints preserve us, three pages! — explaining one adult life in desperate detail. Listing every responsibility ever held at work, every class ever taken in law school, every penmanship award ever won in college. Each page crammed with 10-point type letters, like angels on the head of a pin. Every honor, every activity, every arguably praiseworthy experience swarming like a plague of locusts feeding on 28-lb. premium bond paper.
I know — and in your heart, you know that you know — that these cover letters will not do their jobs. For I tell you this: well there may be, among those irrelevancies whose name is legion, nuggets of value that might stir the heart of an employer. But my friends, will any employer even see such a mote of worthwhile experience if it is buried in a plank of indiscriminate autobiography?
And so I sat there, in my office, carefully penning my messages of redemption. Explaining that, painful as it is, we must each of us make choices. We cannot just throw everything into our cover letters, hoping that the reader will find the gold among the dross. We cannot be lazy. We cannot be timid. We must be ruthless in cutting away what we do not need, what the reader will not care about, and if we feel we do not know enough to decide what to eliminate, that is no excuse! Figure it out! Get the information you need! Learn and choose and cull, until there is nothing in your cover letter that does not belong. Nothing that is not needed.
And, oh, dare I say, I sat there in my office, feeling righteous, feeling holier-than-thou; sat among my stacks of paper and brimming filing cabinets, so proud of my ability to prune the dead wood from any cover letter, leaving only the vital core; sat there as my e-mail box reached its size limit, and dozens of manila folders merged into an incomprehensible blur . . . and then, friends, then I saw the light! The scales fell from my eyes, I knew that I was naked, and I was ashamed!
For had I not committed the very same sin I had been condemning? Was I not clutching and keeping every scrap, every photocopy, every bit of correspondence? Not because each was important, but because I could not be bothered to figure out which was not? I tell you, slowly I turned, then, in my ergonomic swivel chair, to behold the overstuffed warehouse that my office had become, and I wept. Well, not really “wept”; I was at work, after all. But I cried inside, where it counts.
And so: maybe it is human nature to avoid making choices when we feel we do not have to. Maybe it is natural for us to trick ourselves into believing we need to hold onto every qualification, every distinction, every piece of paper, every e-mail, because if it has any value, it might conceivably turn out to be invaluable. Maybe none of us can escape that trickster voice that whispers that we should keep that one additional little thing, because it’s so small and you never know if it might make the difference . . . But with strength, and attention, and faith in our choices, we can learn to ignore it.