chasing the cheeseThink you’ve got holes in your resume and skill set? If so, you can learn something from cheese–specifically, Swiss cheese.

The “rat race” runs on bait. Everybody knows that. But what is less obvious is that the mice and rats are themselves dangling bait — bait with holes in it.

The rat race—fierce competition to get and keep jobs, customers, sales or market share—dangles profits, perks, salaries and wages as what is instinctively thought of as the payoff cheese.  But there is that second kind of rat-race career cheese: the bait dangled to lure and motivate prospective and customers, clients, colleagues and current bosses. One of the most prominent forms of this bait is expertise, and one of its most worried-about problems is “holes” in it.

Rat-Race Holes

How often do you hear someone say, as I did in a spontaneous conversation with a friendly music major at a bus stop recently, that there are too many gaps—holes, if you will—in their professional competence?

Failing when comparing oneself with others in one’s field, or worse, with those who are not, and, as a result, feeling threatened, incompetent or just plain lazy by comparison is not an uncommon experience. Even worse is the dawning realization that the gap can’t be bridged—the feeling of being swept up in a rat-race for cheese that simply can’t be won with the cheese one is offering in exchange.

Usually it leads to resolutions to work harder, study more, to try to catch up with the pack and to try to learn it all—meanwhile hoping that one’s deficiencies won’t be exposed and that feeling like a fraud will only be temporary. Just as commonly, it leads to futile desperation, chronic frustration and a hovering sense of inadequacy, if not outright feeling like a failure for not measuring up to the challenge and expectations.

The Illusion of Wholes without Holes

Those were the concerns voiced during our chat at the Gibsons seaside bus stop, by “Riva” (pseudonym), a bright, open undergraduate preparing for a career in music, but nagged by the feeling that she doesn’t know or work hard enough. While waiting for our bus, Riva revealed that feeling and her hope that by studying, practicing and mastering more, she will have a shot at filling in the holes and the gaps in her skill set before others see through them or punch more holes in the flimsiest parts.

The problem is that it simply is not possible to eliminate or prevent such holes. That’s what I told her. However, the good news is that neither is it necessary to try, which I also told her. The reason that filling in the holes is neither possible nor necessary is, I said, that knowledge is more like Swiss cheese than like the pizza you may put it on.

Competence as More Pizza, or More Swiss Cheese?

Thinking that the corpus of professional knowledge and expertise is like a pizza leads to the notion that given a big enough appetite, reach, access and determination, it should be possible to (competitively) gobble up all of it, or at least as much as anyone else. Discovering that others have more or bigger slices of that knowledge and skill pie creates unease, usually in the form of a sense of competitive anxiety, envy, jealousy and feelings of inferiority. But this is a flawed model of learning and career advancement. Swiss cheese provides a better one, and for a number of reasons:

In the real world, holes perpetually come and go: Accept the holes. A key thing that makes learning, knowledge and expertise engaging is knowing that they are not static, that, instead, they are always evolving—especially in an innovative, competitive capitalist economy and in an era like the modern one in which research and technology are expanding and advancing at the speed of a blinding, hole-burning laser beam.

Old holes get filled in, new ones get created. The foregoing sentence sums up one of the cardinal, yet commonly unrecognized truths of business, education and industry.

In fact, some careers are built extensively, if not exclusively, on shooting holes in the careers and beliefs of others, without being limited to the occupations of movie critic, historian, pharmaceutical sales rep, major league pitcher or campaigning politician.

Expecting one’s knowledge base to neither have preexisting holes nor to have holes shot into it is like expecting the universe to have no black holes. In fact, in the galaxy of careers, as in the universe itself and in Swiss cheese, the holes will always be among us and a source of their fascination and development.

Career holes, like the holes in Swiss cheese, can be defining: A municipal road crew puts up a sign that says, “Men at Work. Caution!”, next to an open manhole in the street under repair. That’s a paradigm case of a job literally and concretely defined, in part, by a hole. A circus is another one, if you think of the rings as holes to be filled with ponies, clowns and dancing bears. Doughnut manufacture is a third. More abstractly viewed, there are careers that require holes in expertise to be viable, credible, justifiable or sustainable.

The most obvious instance is military or civilian intelligence, e.g., the CIA and Army recon units, whose entire rationale for existing depends on the assumption that there will always be information holes to be identified, filled and sought. No holes? No need, no job. So, before concluding that holes in your knowledge base are a liability, be sure they aren’t a prerequisite for keeping the job or otherwise an asset, e.g., like the successfully created hole in a donut or the ever-present gaps and holes in military intelligence.

More cheese, more holes: A defining principle of careers, on a par with “no pain, no gain”, is, as the CIA example illustrates, “no holes, no cheese”. An important variation on this theme is “more cheese, more holes”. This is a picturesque variant of the cautionary schoolchild’s ditty, which I learned as a child, that proposed, “The more you study, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can forget; the more you can forget, the more you do forget; the more you do forget, the less you know. So why study?” (Apparently it was not among the things that I learned and did forget.)

The germane and valid point of this cute sophistry is that every skill-set gain carries the risk of the potential pain of a hole, whether in (other, displaced) memory, knowledge or skill. Choose any career skill; the moment you commit to it, you commit to filling the holes. In committing to filling those holes, you are led to awareness of more holes. This is fractal: holes between cheese within which there are patches with smaller holes between cheese within which there are patches with even smaller holes….ad infinitum.

For example, you decide to be a recruiter. So, that fills your career choice hole. But, on the job, you discover holes regarding resume software. You fill that in with familiarization with your company’s resume software. But that creates other holes:  missing knowledge of competing software, or the use of specific features of the software you’re using, questions about how much you should practically or morally rely on impersonal software screening that can kill a candidate’s hopes by crushing his chances.

Magnify the cheesy part of the cheese, and you’ll almost always find more holes, even if only smaller ones.

Size and proximity of holes count:  On reflection, it should be clear that one of the most important things that matters is that the slice of cheese you’ve bitten into or are offering should be bigger than the closest holes: What this means in professional terms is that peaceful coexistence with career holes is possible and unproblematic, if what you have mastered is more obvious than what you haven’t—either because it dwarfs your ignorance or because the holes in your expertise are distant from your routine performance requirements.

A career with more evident areas of incompetence than capability will appear to be like a slice of Swiss cheese with holes that are bigger or more numerous than are its patches of solid cheese—a tenuous, flimsy lattice of competence precariously packaged and unappealingly lacking substance.  So, if your temp service covers a wide range of corporate placements, but IT firms are your bread and butter, put and display your solid expertise patch of cheese on those client slices and hold the retail, accounting and (coles)law holes when pitching a job to an applicant.

The key is to showcase what you can do, without calling attention to what you can’t. Seems obvious? Not to Rika and many others like her who are burdened with anxiety and naïve guilt for and while not “plugging” all the holes. To put it metaphorically, slice and place your career Swiss cheese so as to minimize the number and size of holes you expose. In practical terms, this means choosing jobs that showcase your cheese, but hide the holes. If that sounds cunning, well, welcome to the real world, since that’s what happens every day and what many careerists instinctively do.

However, the one thing that Rika and the others should never do is to conceal incompetence that will jeopardize the execution of the job description. It is one thing to conceal the fact that you don’t know C++ when the job doesn’t require it; it’s quite another when it does.

In short, never package holes as cheese.

Transform liability-holes into asset-holes: Suppose Riva graduates and can’t find a job in music, or the job she’s found with a symphony won’t open up for six months. That’s a looming hole, worse in the former case, since unemployment with no end in sight becomes a liability as skills and experience stagnate and as some companies continue to weirdly discriminate against the unemployed. Given that the hole is going to exist in any case and that not only can it be filled, but also that it really needs to be, filling it in with training is a smart idea. Thereby, hole-as-liability is transformed into hole-as-asset, even though, from the employment-history standpoint it remains a hole, despite having been “filled”.

What is unique about this phenomenon of semi-filling holes is that the result is a hole that is not a hole, and a liability that is also in part, if not also entirely, an asset.

Observe, and Learn

If you have not yet grasped the importance of this semi-filling of holes, of recognizing that sometimes holes are an essential part of the job, of the need to focus on the size and proximity of holes, of understanding that filling one hole today is surely to be followed by the need to fill one tomorrow, or of the wisdom of hiding holes, there is one thing you can do to instantly grasp all of these.

Observe police on their doughnut runs or, afterwards, in their parked squad cars.



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