Life lessons from a Brazilian prison

I often find myself browsing online for lighter news articles that might balance out the ‘Brexit will kill us all, stock up on medicine and baked beans’ headlines that have slipped into my daily reading. This morning I stumbled across this BBC video about Brazilian prisoners learning to crochet in prison, which caught my attention.  Now you might not think articles about Brazilian prisons are uplifting, but compared to ‘Actually, Brexit doesn’t really matter, because Donald Trump will kill us all’, I found myself cheered by the tale of the prisoners for whom learning a new skill had been such a positive experience.

I can’t crochet.  I have tried to learn from a book, I have tried to learn by watching videos, and a brave friend once tried to teach me.  The result of my efforts, repeatedly, has been a tangled mess of wool attached to a hook being hurled across the room, and subsequently substituted in my talentless hands by a massive glass of Chardonnay.

Anyway… the crochet.  These guys in the prison got really good at it; they even had a fashion show to display their creations.  Pretty impressive.  A new skill – and talent – to add to their CVs, which will serve them well as they adapt to life on the outside.

The thing about CVs is, you never know what information the person that reads them is going to be drawn to.  Many years ago, I bulked out my CV by listing some computer skills.  Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, Excel, and so on.  This wasn’t entirely accurate.  My Excel skills consisted of opening Excel, entering data into a spreadsheet, and closing Excel.  The requirement to do anything more complicated than that would likely result in my laptop being angrily snapped shut and replaced in my talentless hands by a massive glass of Chardonnay.

Rather than admit this in an interview though, I decided just to blag it.  The interviewer saw no need to test me on my Excel abilities since I was clearly brimming with youthful confidence, and I ended up getting the job.  I’m not proud of any of this by the way, and needless to say I spent a few sleepless nights frantically learning Excel from scratch.  I also survived a couple of scary moments when I realised the laptop I was assigned had a different version of Windows on it than the one I had been learning on (Damn you, Vista.)

If I were to write my CV now, I probably wouldn’t put ‘strong Excel skills’ on it.  Or ‘crochet’, for that matter (or ‘Chardonnay’, but for different reasons).

There are two points I am trying to make here, particularly for this year’s graduates, or anyone that is writing a professional CV for the first time. First of all, make sure your content is truthful.  Don’t get caught out in a lie.  Sometimes the most insignificant things can come back and haunt you.  In the past I’ve had a candidate that claimed to speak German on his CV that was torn apart by a terrifying client that insisted on conducting part of the interview in German.  It might be possible to learn Excel in a week, but probably not the entire German language (although in my twenties, I probably would have thought ‘hmm, sounds like a challenge to me’, but I think we have already established that I was an idiot in my twenties.)

The second point is, your achievements are a lot more interesting to employers than your hobbies, no matter how interesting you think they are.  ‘My crocheted garments were recently featured in a fashion show’ is a lot more appealing than ‘I love crochet.’  Employers are looking for motivated self-starters – but the worst thing you could say about yourself is ‘I am a motivated self-starter’.  Don’t say this – its awful.  Instead, provide some evidence that speaks for itself.  And I’m thinking along the lines of ‘I organised/volunteered/took part in…’ rather than ‘I solemnly taught myself pivot tables in the middle of the night in order to avoid getting sacked in my first week’.

A little more time spent on your CV can give you the edge over the competition, and the chance to get your foot in the door with an employer.

Good luck out there.