How To Talk About A Career Gap, Or Your Less-Than-Thrilling Job

This article by Michael Pollock was first published on

You’re clear about your career aspirations — the work you really want to be doing — but sometimes, fate didn’t work in your favor, and you’ve had to accept the second best job just to pay the rent. Or third best. Or maybe you took a whole year off. Now what? Are you putting off sending out the resume because you don’t know what to say?

You shouldn’t just think of your value to your next employer as being exclusively based on what you are doing now. There is a whole history of your successes and passions that predate this current situation. And there is surely a boatload of learning, improving and new skill sets that add to what you now have to offer.

Let’s face it, even if you were certain that your current gig would be fantastic and advance your career big time, it may just not have delivered enough creative satisfaction over the long run. I used to work at a big ad agency where, after a few years, your portfolio was no longer good enough to get your own job back. Hey, this happens — things don’t always pan out the way you hope. Know that it’s not just about you and your performance. It is also affected by client whims, a boss who wasn’t up to your own standards, and of course, the constant change in everything that surrounds us.

Your worth doesn’t have to be only about the title and the product of the job you have right now. You must learn how to present your total value so it resonates. Don’t apologize for your gaps or those less-than-thrilling interim gigs — make a positive story about what you learned from them, provide a solid reason why they were a great idea and how the experience contributed to your own self-improvement.

So, what did you learn in your last job?

We all know we work for money; but if money was the only thing you got from your experience, then that is a sad state of affairs. Think hard about what else there was. Our failures and disappointments teach us important lessons. Very likely, those will turn out to be the most valuable ones.

Step back from your own sandbox a moment and ask yourself, “Why does an actor work at a bar?” To pay the rent, of course. But what else does he/she gain from it? They study human nature. They learn about character. They role-play with customers. They learn how to be efficient and clear. They practice working well with others. They hone memorization skills. (Ever seen a bartender make six drinks at a time?)

So now, apply that sort of analysis to your own situation. How about the job you currently have? What are you learning as you sweat in those trenches? What are you doing all day that makes you a smarter, better, more valuable player? Are you learning the do’s and don’ts of managing a team? Are you sharpening your project management skills? Are you polishing your presentation chops? Are you learning from an expert how to launch a successful product?  There is always something. From now on, ask yourself, “What am I learning now? How am I strengthening my story?” By doing this, you are finding the positive, so you won’t have to apologize.

Gap year? No worries. Now you’re a valuable hybrid.

If there’s a break in your career — or a job that, presented incorrectly, might seem like a gap — there is the strategy of presenting yourself as a hybrid candidate. This is an approach I particularly like.

You’re the innovation guru who took a year off to snowboard. The product manager who took a year off to hike the Appalachian Trail. The new mother who taught herself Mandarin while she was on leave. These combinations can make you more specifically appealing to a smart employer who sees the relevance to their own business. This might be about the substance of what you were doing, the connections you made, the endurance you demonstrated, the testing of your limits, your ability to learn, cultural broadening and so on. You should be clearly able to state what you gained from the experience.

You may feel that a hybrid strategy narrows your range of opportunity, but actually, it makes you a better fit for a more appropriate situation. You’ll beat out those one-dimensional applicants you are up against. You’d be the exact right person for exactly the right job. What you chose to do and how you chose to present it will make you very attractive to someone who respects that thing. And that someone is a person you’ll want to work with.

Accentuate the positive.

Whether you’ve been building your character, learning how-not-to, or amassing skills, don’t for a second be embarrassed about those gaps or sub-par gigs. Now you can see that they were so clearly making you a better candidate. And always remember, in the words of songwriter Johnny Mercer, “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”