Don’t Tell Me Your History In Chronological Order

I meet a lot of people. I hear a lot of people introduce themselves. I interview a lot of people. Sometimes I want to hear their story; most of the time I don’t.

I’ve realized recently that I’m tired of hearing histories. And I’m tired of telling mine. It’s easy to find out most by a simple search on the web. Or a scan through LinkedIn. Or listening to one of the video interviews I’ve done where someone has said “tell me your story.”

I was thinking about this especially in the context of any interview. I don’t care where you went to school (I never have). I don’t care what your first job was. I don’t care what happened 15 years ago. I care what you did yesterday, and last month, and last quarter, and last year. That’s probably as deep as I want to go in the first five minutes of our interview. Sure – I’ll go back further in specific examples, but I don’t need to spend the first fifteen minutes hearing your story from beginning to today. It lulls me into a false sense of complacency, making me feel like I know you better because I now know your version of your history, when in fact I don’t know you at all.

I’ve learned a lot about interviewing people over the years. I used to be terrible at it. Now I’m pretty good. I don’t enjoy it very much, so I force myself to do a good job. I only interview senior execs and I separate clearly between evaluating people for the role and evaluating them for culture fit with the company. But in both cases I feel like I have to grind through the process. Some of it is my introverted nature; some of it is just not enjoying the interviewing a person thing.

I’ve realized that spending half of an interview listening to someone tell me their story is a total cop out on my part.  It lets me shift out of evaluate mode and be passive during the interview process. And, while a lot of people love to listen to themselves tell their story, it’s not doing them any good either since my goal is to make a recommendation as to whether or not they fit in the role and the organization they are interviewing for. I should be more focused on what they have learned over their career and how they apply it today, not the path they took to get to this point, which I can read on a resume or on LinkedIn.

I’m no longer interested in telling my own story. Each time I do it, I realize I am wasting another 15 minutes of my life. By starting with the now, and not worrying about going backward, I can get to the meat of whatever I’m communicating, or want to communicate. I’ll more quickly engage whomever I’m talking to – making the conversation immediately active instead of passive. When I need to reach into the past for a story to support an example, I will.

I’ve decided that going forward I’m telling my history in reverse chronological order whenever asked. I’ll start with what I am doing now. I’ll go backwards as relevant to the particular context. I’ll skip stuff that doesn’t matter, and I’ll stop when it’s time to go on. I expect my introductions will be a lot shorter going forward. And I’ll be less bored with myself. And that is a good thing, at least for me.

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  • Halley Suitt Tucker

    Maybe our CV’s should just be in WORDLE format. THIS matters, this does NOT.

    • Smart suggestion!

  • Works for me as well.

    Life is defined by what we are looking forward to, not what we’ve done. But of course what we’ve done is a core piece of how we design the future and convince others to be part of it.

    • Yup. And these are where the answers from the past come in as examples.

  • But will people know you less? Will they be less likely to understand why you say and feel as you do? While I don’t think you need a 15 minute shpiel on ones history, there is more to what makes up a person then what they did last quarter or last year. I think the important thing is what is relevant, whether it happened yesterday, last year or 10 years ago. IMHO

    • Agree. And this is where the examples come in. Some of my most profound moments are from 20+ years ago but if I told not in chron order it would be absurd.

  • Curious if my comments at end of Jan Re: your recent interviews influenced your thinking here

    • Not directly but maybe subconsciously.

      • I’m newly weary of hearing myself tell the same old motorcycle + car stories. They’re great stories, you know… the first time you hear ’em.

  • CliffElam

    Funny. I agree. I had that particular epiphany when I was interviewing someone some years ago and said, “so tell me a little about yourself” and they said: “Why, didn’t you read my resume?”

    Which was a bold statement, obviously. And I had read their resume, I was just being lazy.

    I’m with you – it’s not useful.

    I don’t mind, however, when someone uses their history to answer a more interesting question like “How did you end up wanting to do X?”


    • Yup – the specific parts of the history is useful for specific examples.

    • StevenHB

      What happened with the candidate who asked you whether you’d read his resume?

      • CliffElam

        Well, that wasn’t the only thing he did in the interview that convinced me that he’d be a difficult person to work with on a customer site.

        As Steve Martin said: Some people have a way with words, some no have way.


  • Hmm. I hear ya. And have similarly found myself bored in automaton biography mode… I think the way forward is being present and enjoying the flow of each conversation, whether that takes you deep into the past or to something that happened over breakfast earlier today.

    • The notion of being in the moment is a good one. I realize I zone out during history telling time. I’m definitely not in the moment when this is happening.

  • Interesting article. I never talk about the past, i just think people don’t care. But if someone needed to know my history, i would just say few key points Like: Started doing design in 1999, worked for x for few years, moved to, now i’m doing this and that. It lasts 15 sec, no more.

    • Yup. I’m going to have a 30 second version of my history from now on. That’s enough.

  • I like the reverse chronological for a year or two. while I don’t want monthly all the way back from there, there are a couple potential “old” history points I want to know more about, as I believe they can have long-term impact, and I want to have that perspective.

    1 – your first “job” that supported your “life” at the time. often this is the “first job out of college.”
    2 – other significant moments in your career I should be aware of.

    what’s most important is that you don’t give me a long blow by blow of company names. hit the stuff that has influenced you, and give me more vision into your “recent” activity.

    • I’d rather have these as examples supporting specific ideas but the first job and why question is often a rich one.

  • katzgrau

    I think a few things come into play here:

    1. Back then, maybe you didn’t have the confidence you did today, so you asked the candidate about themselves to get them rambling and trying to prove themselves

    2. At some point after listening to thousands of life stories, you’ve found that one really cant express what makes someone awesome with a life story. What makes someone awesome are usually the small details that are left out, and nobody has time for that.

    3. It’s a crappy conversation starter, but it can at least be used to start tangential conversations. The best interviews I’ve done are ones where I hit all my questions, but the interview flowed like a conversation. The candidate is relaxed because it doesn’t even feel like an interview, and you see the ‘real’ them.

    • #2 is probably the biggest thing I’ve discovered.

  • Vernon Niven

    Perhaps you are just getting tired from constantly listening to and interviewing people?

    Good candidates will sometimes want you to know more about them and will volunteer their history without you asking. Because THEY feel it’s relevant.

    Here’s what we miss by not listening to their history:

    1. senior execs bring a variety of skills and experience to the table. This includes potential hires they can pull from their prior organizations. If all you do is focus on their last 3 months/year, you may miss this.

    2. you aren’t effectively selling the position to the candidate! People like to be listened to – it’s human nature.

    3. how do you determine cultural fit for a senior executive, without understanding their prior experiences?

    Personally, I like to hear a short history up-front, so I can ask better questions – and get them to base their answers on a prior gig.

    That said, reverse chrono intros are much better. Been doing that myself for a while.

    • 1. I should be able to get that from examples, rather than a monologue.
      2. I’ve always viewed selling the position as something different. It’s a lot more than just listening.

      3. I have about 10 questions I can ask – that I customize based on the company – that help me determine culture fit.

  • Peoples histories and how they have gotten from ‘here to there’ are like suspension bridges. There is really only a handful of experiences or towers that hold them up and define who they are. The longer the life, the longer the bridge, and more towers. But as an interviewer you should be able to hop from tower to tower in a few minutes to get from ‘here to there’. Some interviewee’s however would prefer you take the scenic route, walking the entire span, stopping at each tower to enjoy the view.

    • Love this analogy!

    • Josh B. Thomas

      well said – will help others craft how they convey their value.

  • jrbail01

    This makes me wonder if I talk too much about the past. Whenever I talk about our startup to people that I meet, I love to tell the story of how we came into existence. I have always thought it added a personality to what we are doing because of what we have done. Maybe I need to talk less about the past.

    • Agree. I find myself doing that too sometimes. But I am indeed tired of telling the same ol story repeatedly in one-on-one conversations. For someone who really wants to know, it’s all written out on my about page of my blog.

  • Fucking amazing post!, (I think it may be your best.)

    The operative word is ” care “.

    I care what you did yesterday, and last month, and last quarter, and last year. That’s probably as deep as I want to go.

  • Great advice. I just went through a mock “tell me your story” exercise, and it lasted an entire 45 seconds. It ended with …”If you’d like to know more, my full career history is on LinkedIn. Let’s switch gears and focus on the opportunity we have before us.” 🙂

  • Brad, a technique I’ve found a lot more interesting (and oftentime more informative)… ask the interviewee to ask the questions. You can get good insights into the type of questions people ask, and the order in which they ask can reveal their priorities. This approach can show how people react/adapt to the unexpected, and in my experience, often results in a more interesting dialogue vs. an “interview.”

    • Interesting approach. I’ll try it.

  • George Jankovic

    Brad, Or perhaps the best way is not chronological, either way, but to tell the most important things about you first, spending most time on them, then a few important (but not super important) ones and pretty much skip the rest.

    • Maybe but I find that when I try to do this with someone 10 minutes goes by and we are still talking about history.

  • I think the best thing to do is tell people what is important TO YOU rather than what is important ABOUT YOU. What you are passionate about tell more about youselve than just about anything.

  • Judy Bott

    Good post Brad. And I agree that most of us spend too much time reviewing the past. Living in the moment, thinking about and discussing what is important and happening NOW is far more relevant in an interview setting. Or in any setting. People evolve, and who they are today is all that really matters.

  • Jeffrey Hartmann

    Here is my personal thought process on this, mostly focused on evaluating engineering talent:
    Tell me what makes you awesome for this job, what have you done specifically that will help. I don’t personally judge on how recent the experience is, I want to know exactly what mountains you climbed that make you stronger for this particular position. If you are an image processing guru, tell me the kinds of systems you have built and why that will help me build say a video processing system. An automation specialist? How many people have moved to different positions, how many less people got hired due to your changes? How much more efficient was the organization due to your changes? I want to know what mountains got moved due to your talent, and what mountains you see yourself moving for me and my team.

    I guess personally I drill down to exactly what has been accomplished that is relevant, I don’t directly care about how many years of experience you have with something. I also want to see how you connect your abilities and experience with what you know of my teams challenges.

    I think time boxing stuff can make sense sometimes, but I’m more interested in exactly what you think is important for me to know and no more. It tells me a bunch about how efficient and perceptive you are about solving problems and making connections.

  • sometimes a well placed quote from airplane 2 is a good stand in: 😉

    “Tell me everything that’s happened so far, Johnny.”

    “Well, first the Earth cooled, then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they died and turned to oil. And then the Arabs started buying Mercedes Benzes. And then Prince Charles started wearing all of Lady Di’s clothes, I couldn’t believe it…”

  • In the world of buyers and sellers, the role of seller is to understand the buyer’s needs and deliver to them. As an interviewee/seller, a chronological dump would seem to be the equivalent of a rep pulling out a feature sheet and asking: “see anything you like?”. If that’s how a senior candidate approaches an interview, might that not be a big, red flag?

  • Based on my limited interviewing experience, I think the content of what people choose to tell you is pretty instructive about how they will perform. A killer salesperson almost without exception has done so much homework on the person they are speaking with, that the content of what they say almost 1:1 maps back to problems you have that they can solve, or interests that you have that they can add value to. It seems like it’s not just your responsibility to ask the right questions – it’s more the responsibility of the person on the other side to prioritize all the crap in their head and intuit what will make you most excited. People either believe that time is precious and feel that need to add value to important interactions (and prepare accordingly), or they half ass it, just show up, and have some general expectations about it being a shared responsibility. IMO, that’s how that person tends to show up at work most days of the week too.

  • Makes me think of a line in the liner notes of Wowee Zowee (Malkmus/Pavement): “I hope and hope for an ahistorical moment, hence the garbled dizzy tone”. I like this nugget: “It lulls me into a false sense of complacency, making me feel like I know you better because I now know your version of your history, when in fact I don’t know you at all.” I fundamentally want to know who they “be” (cultural fit) and what they “do” (role fit); a history recap tends to add pseudo/noisy data to both buckets because I have 0.0001f trust with someone I don’t “know” (and if they are more line than dot, I already have the recap). Question phrasing may help lighten the history lesson, for instance “what’s the biggest work challenge you have right now” instead of “what have been your biggest challenges”, or “why do you write software” instead of “why are you a software engineer”.

  • Beth Smith

    WOW! You do sound bored! Maybe it’s time to take on your next challange… What do you want to accomplish next? I also interview people all day every day, except that I LOVE it! I will interview people for the rest of my career. It’s really not about what people tell you, it’s about how you hear it. If you aren’t hearing it, its time to move on and do something else… just my 2 cents.

  • DaveJ

    “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

    J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

  • It’s because many of them are linear thinkers (1st, 2nd, third, consequently, therefore…) and what they are doing is valuable information about their cognitive style and their limitations. There’s a waiter at Carelli’s who’ll take you 10 min. into the arugala, where it was grown, how it’s presented, etc., before he even asks if you want a salad.

  • idont

    “I don’t enjoy it very much, so I force myself to do a good job”

    (No offense) What would you do if your employee or (business) partner say that?

    • That line struck me too, and it struck me as awesome, for three reasons:

      1. Honest enough to admit a preference (we all have them, most don’t admit them).
      2. “Force myself” means it’s hard to do (even after all these years).
      3. “good job” not just “to get it done” or something.

      The cause and effect relationship described here is really powerful. Imagine identifying all the things you don’t like doing at work, and instead of just getting them done, you “forced yourself to do a good job.” That’s an excellent way to grow as a person – as this post demonstrates.

  • great post Brad. I think the style of interviewing with the classical start with the intro is outdated. I think people do it because that is what they have been taught to do and it takes some innovative folks to realize that this is not a good practice and in most cases a useless exercise. I am glad that you are taking a different approach. Still, clearly there are many of oppose this view judging by some of the comments below!

  • Bill Cosby: “I started out as a child.”

  • I wonder what prompted this post 🙂
    Someone in Seattle is probably thinking “Gee, I must have screwed up this interview so bad with Brad …”

    Kidding aside, there’s a difference between telling history & telling a story. Very few candidates can successfully give you the essence of their history as a short but interesting story that beautifully ties with what you are interviewing them about. If they do that well, something magical happens during the interview & you both know it.

  • This is exactly how CVs should be written. The applicant’s most recent job experience should be put on top of the list.

  • I love listening to your interviews from twist, Stanford, etc., but glad I won’t have to listen to pre-boulder part anymore 🙂

    • Indeed. And I’m glad I’m not going to have to tell it…

  • Earle Gregory

    I realized recently that I sometimes struggle to communicate complex topics in a simple, direct, and effective way. For me, sharing my background (whether in an interview or not) is hard because for me it is long and complex. Linear is easy but as you have noted not very efficient and often not effective. I recently read this post from Tomasz Tunguz over at Redpoint about using the pyramid structure. I’ve already found it very helpful.

  • I find a huge value in a hearing a candidate’s chronological history, but I think it’s critical not to let them blithely control how they tell it. If a candidate is far along in the process, and others have validated that they have the skill set/knowledge of an A player, then I use the history to determine work style and fit. I ask them, starting after college, to tell me why they took a particular job, what their expectations were, what their major accomplishment and key learning was, and why they moved on to the next opportunity. If they won’t get specific (e.g “we built an enterprise application using rails…”), I ask questions to make them get into the details. Usually, by the time they’ve described their third experience, I know all of the following. Do they care about their co-workers? Do their co-workers respect them? Do they resent or appreciate their bosses? Do their bosses trust them? Are they proactive? Do they find ways around obstacles or expect others to remove them for them? And so on. In addition to learning a lot about the candidate, this also provides a great basis of information to draw on when we are later conducting references.

    I can’t tell you how many technically solid candidates have failed this basis personality/behavioral investigation. And the few we’ve hired despite failing this, because we desperately needed their technical skill set, have inevitably caused more problems than they were worth. I can’t think of a single exception.

    Some people recommend this behavioral style of interviewing only for senior executives. However, I’ve been able to usefully adapt it even for fresh college grads (focusing more on extra-curricular activities and summer jobs than full time roles).

    The key is not to have everyone in your company who interviews a candidate get the same, glossy, high-level history of the candidate. Have one person focus on technical skills (what have they done lately, what do they know, sample problems, etc.), and avoid history all together. If they are percieved as an A player after that interview, only then should you dig through their history searching for behavioral patterns.

  • Interesting that you posted this. After watching your recent Naked Entrepreneur interview, I had the realization that you spend most of your time telling the same information (life story) in every interview. Doesn’t leave much time to get to the new nuggets.

  • At what point is it too short?
    ie:” I’ve done stuff,
    built business, sold businesses, spent it building new businesses.
    And I love growing companies.

    • My first question would be “tell me the last two successful things you’ve done.” Then I would ask “tell me two things you did that failed.” “Give me an example of a company you tried to grow that didn’t.” Based on what you say, I’d use Five Why’s on that.

  • Lewis Lin

    It sounds like your issue is more about the interview candidate droning on for 15 minutes when you have more relevant questions to ask. Next time, try asking the candidate to “tell me your history in 2 minutes or less.” Or if you want to be more specific, “tell me what you’ve done in the last 5 years, in 2 minutes or less.”

  • Kevin_A_Waller

    It’s my experience that even interviewee’s don’t want to tell their stories. The way they see it they’ve got 40minutes to an hour of the interviewers valuable time, and they’re wasting 15minutes of potentially career changing time fulfilling the whim of the interviewer who’s decided he fancies knowing their history. Of course they’re going to go into extra detail because they want the interviewer to believe they’ve answered the question fully. Massive time waste, and completely within the interviewers hands to control.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to attention – you’re absolutely right. Let’s get the right people into the right jobs, and let’s base that decision on who they are today, not where they were in the 90s!

  • Pingback: StartupBook » Curated News and Advice for Student Entrepreneurs » Brad Feld: “Simplify Your Personal History.”()

  • For years, I worked as a reporter, interviewing business owners and telling their story. One of my toughest assignments was interviewing a guy who sold nails and fasteners for a living. For a painful hour, he responded with a monosyllabic yes or no to my questions until I asked him about the projects he was working on now. Who knew a city the size of Albuquerque went through an entire semi-load of nails and fasteners every two days? Staying in the here and now – even if what got us here has everything to do with our past – is far more powerful and relevant than reciting our boiled down resume.

  • Interesting. Reinforces the thought that Americans focus on the present and future rather than the past. Not good or bad. Just our perspective.

  • I really hate interviews, I am not very good at them :/