Having A Life Shouldn’t Be Optional

Ever get the impression part of the job search is proving you have no life beyond what you do?

I see it sometimes when I apply for jobs, or hear of it when friends talk about their adventures. Perhaps it comes as a requested link to a portfolio or an example of code or discussion of a project. Sometimes in the interview process – and the application process – you discuss the hobbies you do that are, well, the same as your job.

This isn’t a given everywhere or in every job, but it’s something that keeps coming up. Show people your GIT repository, show them a website that you wrote. Show something that says your life is the same in and out of work.

Hell, *I* emphasize this. It’s great when hobbies combine with your jobs, as it brings fulfillment, shows dedication, and lets you monetize goofing off. But I’m thinking it’s gone a bit too far.

This tweet from BR3NDA got me thinking.

This whole “do your job as your hobby thing” can be overdone – but I think there’s more – and less – to it than we think.

The Load Of Code

Now in most cases when I see the idea that someone should eat, sleep, breathe, and fornicate their job it’s almost inevitably coding, with music and writing a distant second. Then again I live in Silicon Valley, so this may seem somewhat normal. Well, our kind of normal – we are the land of things like dry-cleaning startups.

However, even when it comes to coders, though I see a lot of the “please show us all your job-related hobbies” questions and hear it talked about, it’s still not the norm. This is the kind of thing that comes up with startups, with leaner companies, and with deep-tech jobs. It’s even the kind of thing that’s asked about generically, just another question “oh, hey do you do this?”

So when I encounter it, it’s omnipresent in people’s minds, but not something that’s a constant. I’ve never heard of someone not getting a job due to noting that perhaps they have a life. I’ve done interviews and never been expected to ask about such things.

But the idea is there, diffused into IT culture (and I imagine related parts of geek culture).

Which makes me thinks about the hiring process and what this really means.

The Job And Only The Job

Now again, I am a big advocate of using hobbies in your career and vice versa. However I view that as part of having an integrated life – and if keeping hobbies and career is needed to have a life, then so be it. If you’re a proctologist or mortician maybe you don’t want to go bring your work and hobbies together. Not without gloves.

But in interviews I’ve had, interviews I’ve done, when it comes to my hobbies people ask most about my:

  • Writing (which is, let’s face it, a hobby).
  • Cooking (which is . . . well a bit of an obsession).
  • Social involvements with museums.

I actually have to bring up my websites and my work-related hobbies to make it matter, and my projects and membership at PMI comes up less than I’d expected. People all too often ask about the whole person in interviews.

When I conduct an interview, I focus on the person as a whole. I worry about someone who doesn’t have hobbies outside of their job, or who is monomaniacal about a few things. They can’t adapt, or get out of their spheres of thought.

Which is making me think that, at least in IT, the idea that you have to code and only code is an illusion, relevant only for some jobs (and those may not be ones you want)

But it certainly seems for now, a lot of people want to prove they do the job and only the job.

And I think it’s a bad idea.

The Whole Person And The Uncanny Valley

As noted, when I interview people I want to know the person – and I give the sense of myself as a person when I interview. I’m a professional geek, a cook, a raconteur, driven by curiosity, a desire to help people, and organization. If anything the more I stay in management the more my IT hobbies like websites seem to point as a whole person, as opposed to, say some management wonk.

(Though I am a management wonk, and my current obsession is agile operation techniques.)

I think people want a whole person in the job, again with some exceptions (and if you want to work for a place that’s the exception, that’s your business). It’s a matter of two things.

First of all, a person who is broad enough is someone who can adapt, adjust, and relate. If you’ve got hobbies and interests outside of work that shows you’re adaptable, adjustable, and have ways to connect to people. It shows you’re a whole person, not a poorly disguised work automaton.

Secondly, and more subtly, a person who shows broad interests and a diverse life out of work, simply, is more human.

It’s the uncanny valley of having a life. Much as CGI creatures and creations can seem human enough to be inhuman and thus disturbing, so can your life. You look like a person, act like one, but when all you talk about is one thing, even your job, it seems weird. It seems off. It seems wrong.

And who do you think will probably get the job? The person who appears to be a disturbing simulacra, or the coder who also collects books?

The Role Of Hobbies: A Multi-Edged Sword

So let’s get to your hobbies – and to professional geekery. This is an area where, in your job search and professional image you’ll need to make a call.

Namely, how do you present them to look like a person and a professional? I usually talk the importance of narrative, but I think this idea of do-the-same-thing-all-the-time warrants exploring this part of said narrative.

Your hobbies can speak to your professional dedication – or make you look like you have no life. They can show a lack of focus – or speak to a sense of purpose.  What kind of stories does your hobby tell?

It’s certainly more complex than I thought, now that I see it. But, based on my experiences, I can offer some advice.

  1. In your resume, portfolio, websites, what have you make sure you come off as a properly diverse human being. Leaving things out is probably more worrysome than putting them in.
  2. Ask yourself how you come off in your search and job search materials. Do you seem to be a functional human being or just an automaton?
  3. What are the roles of your job, hobbies, etc. in your career and your whole life? I’ve had people outright tell me about their dedication to work-life balance – from the confidence of having an actual job where they enjoyed it.
  4. How can you communicate your “whole person” in interviews while still showing you can do the job?

A job search is all about communication. Ask what you’re saying in that search – and if you feel you have to give up your humanity to get a job, you may not want to.

Warning Signs

One of the things I think you’ll find, by looking at this is just how much of a life you have.

When I crafted this essay, I was pleased to find that, well, I have a life. I mean I figured I did, but I have my friends, my job, my cooking, my writing, my love of walks.  It’s nice to see that.

However, in the past I had moments of “no-lifeism” and I can easily see how I could have fallen into that. Ironically, had I gone into management earlier I could easily have been one of those work-only types.  I owe my fellow geeks for keeping me a bit crazy and human.

When you look you may find out that you don’t have a life. That there’s only work. That’s OK, it’s OK to admit, but when you look into this you may have some unpleasant discoveries.

But at least you’ll know.

And yeah, I should probably do a series on that sometime . . . but the coffee is running out and I’m jet lagged.  We’ll see how this goes.

Let’s Move On

So look, we know the work-only-person is probably pathological and unrealistic. We know people want to hire humans, despite what we may think – and they may say.

So let’s make an effort to look human – and if we’re involved in hiring, hire humans.

Last interview I did to place someone was a UI guy. He had a lot of self-training, a media and music background, and looked a bit like Dave Navarro. He wasn’t “typical” and he had a life and music.

He turned out to be awesome.

An important lesson.


– Steven Savage