Who (and I ask this sincerely) the fuck are you?
How we tell stories about ourselves to establish trust, and how it all might change pretty soon.
King Sargon of Akkad, who ruled roughly 4300 years ago, is considered the first emperor in history. He was the man who united the many disparate city-states of northern and southern Mesopotamia after conquering the Sumerian city of Uruk, and then went on to take over a chunk of what later became Persia.
But my interest in him, for the purposes of this essay, is much smaller, almost trivially so. Sargon offers the first grand example of someone pumping their resume in order to get a job, choosing which parts of his past to emphasize, which to hide, and which to just make up entirely.
You see, Sargon wasn’t a royal. His dad was a gardener and he became cupbearer to King Ur-Zababa of Kish, a city south of what’s now Baghdad. Being cupbearer was no joke of a title back then. It meant he tasted the King’s food, making sure it wasn’t poisoned and, since he was always at the King’s side, he acted as something of an advisor. When another king, Lugal-Zage-Si conquered Kish, he kept Sargon on. We don’t know what Sargon did, exactly, but one day Lugal-Zage-Si was king and then Sargon was.
The resume pumping is right there in the name. Sargon–or Šarru-ukīn–wasn’t his real name. It means “Real King,” or “Confirmed King.” Which is precisely what the son of a gardener who suddenly takes over a country would call himself.
He then conquered all the key cities for hundreds of miles and placed his resume–carved into rock–in each town center. Like this one in Nippur:
Sargon, king of Akkad, overseer of Inanna, king of Kish, anointed of Anu, king of the land, governor of Enlil: he defeated the city of Uruk and tore down its walls [and] took Lugalzagesi king of Uruk in the course of the battle, and led him in a collar to the gate of Enlil.
Since few people could read at the time, there would always be a cartoon-like version of the resume with scenes of the king conquering various lands and being anointed by the gods.
I’ve had to hire people—sifting through resumes, having awkward interviews—and it always makes me think of old Sargon, as they highlight those things they’ve done that make them look good (conquerer of Uruk; producer of a podcast about fine dining), hide things that make them look bad (killing their prior boss; getting fired after being way too lazy), and just make things up (a very much not confirmed king calling himself “confirmed king”; a low-level mailroom intern claiming credit for “project lead for interoffice communication.”) The end result is a myth, a tale about how every event since their birth has had one, clear purpose: to ensure that they, and they alone, would be the greatest Associate Producer of Podcast Development in history.
I am King Podcast Producer, anointed by Ira Glass, assembler of amazing audio recording, slayer of dull moments.
This practice of telling your own story so that you can convince someone you are worthy of praise or respect is, surely, as old as language; older: it’s at least as old as those neck frills that dinosaurs could flare out to make themselves seem bigger to a potential foe. Sargon was just one of the first to write it down.
And, as anyone who has ever hired people knows, the process—even if it is perhaps older than words themselves—is horrible. The resume, the interview, the calls to references, may help eliminate the very worst candidates. But hiring always feels like pure chance. The person with the greatest background and sterling references turns out to be a lazy do-nothing who saps the entire office of their will to live. Often the person performing best at work is someone who seemed questionable during hiring.
How is it that now, several hundred thousand years into us humans telling stories about our skills and abilities, there is still such a massive gulf between what we can actually do and what we say about what we have done?
Web3 and the ability to craft your own story
I have become crypto-pilled. I am a believer in web3. Or, more accurately, I’m incredibly excited about what web3 might be able to accomplish. I still see a ton of challenges, some of which might end up being insurmountable.
What got me into web3 was not the stuff about currencies. (I went on Stephen Colbert in 2013 and said I would never invest in Bitcoin. I still feel the same way, though Ethereum feels a bit more interesting.) And I am not spending tens of thousands or millions of dollars of eth on some jpeg of a cartoon ape.
What got me excited about web3 was storytelling. Specifically the story of yourself and the story of other people who you might want to work with. Web3 just might help make the stories we tell each other about ourselves more accurate, more revealing, and therefore more useful.
My first inkling about this possibility came early in my web3 journey. I had heard about DAOs, or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, which allow lots of people to collaborate with each other using blockchain-based tools. There are a ton of different DAOs, each with its own rules. I joined Bankless DAO because it was quick and free to get involved and they (I guess I should say, we) have a big commitment to explaining web3 to a broad audience. Bankless’s core purpose is to help others’ understand web3 and crypto. They do this through written articles, podcasts, and other media and are planning to offer courses and live events.
I went into their Discord server and, first, had to acknowledge that I read the rules promoting safe, friendly conversation. I then joined the Writers Guild. Bankless, like many DAOs, uses this word “guild” for its various project teams. There is a governance guild, a legal guild, an education guild, and several others. “Guild” is probably misleading, since these operate as roughly the exact opposite of medieval guilds or labor unions. Anyone can join any guild they want, and can be as involved as they want to be.
Soon, I was in a Discord conversation about writing and storytelling and cryptocurrency. I was the oldest person there and the one with the most experience in professional writing and I shared some thoughts. Others found what I said valuable and tipped me some $BANK, the “currency” token that the DAO uses to reward community members.
Later, I joined a strategy meeting to discuss the longer-term goals of the writers guild. Everybody who attended that meeting received a special NFT—a token that showed they had attended. Those tokens were created automatically by some bit of code that monitored who was actually in the room for the meeting and then sent out that mini-credential. I realized I could look at other people’s accounts and see what meetings they had attended.
As I was getting interested in web3, I wrote a couple pieces on mirror.xyz and offered them as NFTs—meaning people could buy a token indicating that they supported what I was writing.
On the one hand: who cares? The number of meetings attended could be, if anything, a reverse indicator of the actual value provided. And who cares what articles you read?
But on the other hand, I thought: this might solve a huge, fundamental problem in human collaboration. It might just change the world.
Proof of History
In the world of web3, people freely share their public addresses (mine is adamd.eth) and anyone with basic knowledge can peek inside and see every transaction that such an address was involved in. This means that if you know someone’s address, you can see all the tokens they have, all the NFTs they’ve bought or been granted.
For people active in DAOs, it’s easy and common to check out each others’ addresses to see how active they’ve been, how they’ve spent their time and focused their interest and how the people they collaborate with reward them (or don’t). The tools still feel rudimentary and only for a tiny group of the already-initiated. But it’s clear what is possible.
I started to imagine a fully web3-ified world, in which far more of the ways we spend our time and focus our attention is recorded on blockchains. (Many others have written smart, more technical pieces about this. I found this two part series by Jad Esber, founder of Koodos, and Harvard’s Scott Kominers to be especially helpful.) We each might have a ledger that records gratitude others have shown us, for volunteer work, help in the office, offering someone career advice, successfully leading a major work project. You could have a token that proves you, really, truly, were there at that small show, watching that band, years before they hit it big. (My dad claims to have been at Woodstock. I’m not saying he’s lying, but I’d like to see some proof; and I’ve met so many people who say they were at Bruce Springsteen’s iconic 1975 run at the tiny Bottom Line in Greenwich Village that I wonder how crowded those shows must have been.) I’d love to see lessons-learned tokens that celebrated a failure that led to richer understanding.
These tokens work just like the NFTs you read about in sensational stories about $69M jpegs. They are entered in a blockchain, which means they are visible to anybody (who knows how to look) and are immutable. Nobody can alter the date or recipient of such a thing. So, if someone wanted to falsify information–showing, say, that they had been active in a community for years–they could, possibly, buy someone else’s meeting tokens, but it would be clear that they had received them long after the meetings occurred and that someone else had owned them, first.
I began to imagine what it might be like, one day, to use the blockchain when considering hiring someone or collaborating with someone or, for that matter, dating them or just inviting them to a dinner party, you could quickly see a real-time ledger of their actual activity, preferences, associations. A publicly viewable “I got vaccinated” token would be very helpful. That person claiming to have loved REM way before “everybody hurts” could actually prove it—or be revealed as a fraud! The quiet, self-effacing interviewee might have an unusually large number of gratitude tokens from colleagues while the boisterous Harvard Business School grad’s wallet might show surprisingly little signs of actual accomplishment.
As with many web3 things, Joey DeBruin explains the potential of such credentialing clearly and thoughtfully in his newsletter, which you should read. He points out that we have something kind of like this now, in the form of LinkedIn endorsements, which allow the people you’ve worked with (or, in my case, a lot of total strangers) to endorse your ability to do something or other. As Joey explains, we all know that those are total bullshit. (On my LinkedIn profile, I have been endorsed by 16 people for my skills in “AP Style” for some reason. I know next to nothing about AP Style. I have only received 10 endorsements for my skills in “podcasting” and, if I may be a totally arrogant jerk, I’m a goddamn Peabody-award-winning pioneer in podcasting!)
It’s worth lingering a moment here on the likely difference between LinkedIn endorsements and web3 tokens, because it gets at the heart of some of the crucial differences between web 2.0 and web3.
LinkedIn, like most social media companies, wants to promote engagement. It hires software engineers whose job is to constantly come up with more reasons for all of us to click on things within the LinkedIn ecosystem. The endorsements—it seems clear to me—are precisely that: a gimmick designed to promote clicking. I get some email or popup asking me to endorse others with some automatically generated keywords. It’s trivially easy to click “endorse.” There is no cost to me if I am wrong, since LinkedIn buries the names of the people doing the endorsing and only highlights the raw number of endorsements. Once I click on an endorsement of someone else, they get some inducement to engage, seeing how they have been endorsed.
Someone could create a similar web3 version of the same thing: an easy, meaningless set of tokens that people start sending around. But it wouldn’t have the monopoly-esque power of the ability to control one massive ecosystem. I could create shitty, low-value tokens and send them to everyone. But those wouldn’t have much value. You could create more well-designed and thoughtful tokens that would be more thoughtfully received.
By moving from one, centrally-controlled platform, controlled by people who prioritize, above all else, the platform’s own interest to a decentralized system in which lots of people can try out lots of things will lead to … lots of things. Some will be useless or worse. Some will be great. Some folks will try to game the system, selling fake tokens that are designed to simulate the trappings of real accomplishments, and others will study how to differentiate between the scams and the real ones.
On balance, I think the blockchain—transparent, immutable—will be a more trusted and trustworthy recording of our actual accomplishments and interests and experiences than the system we have now.
There are already several new companies and DAOs experimenting with how to properly generate and share signals of contribution and how to best present and read potential contributors’ wallets. DeBruin is involved with a project called Backdrop, he also points to Rabbithole and Station. Every day, in every DAO, people are building signals of trust on the blockchain that allow strangers—many of whom remain pseudonymous—to collaborate effectively. The implications for how organizations are designed are enormous.
But, for now, I want to focus on storytelling.
To be human is to err
I mean the term “storytelling” broadly. Your resume is a story. The way you talk, in a job interview, about your work history is a story.
I’m not sure if your web3 wallet, showing all those tokens you had received over the years, would be a story in itself. If this vision of blockchain credentialing is realized, we will all probably find ourselves with wallets overstuffed with tens or hundreds of thousands of tokens indicating everything from the countless meetings we’ve attended to volunteer activities we took part in to gratitude from colleagues and bosses for projects well-executed. The raw numbers shouldn’t intimidate us. There will be software solutions to sort through these tokens and present something of a clearer picture. When you use, say, Mint, you see how easy it is to take the countless financial transactions you conduct in a year and, quickly and visually, tell a clear story about how you spend your money. The blockchain, in effect, is a record of interpersonal transactions and those, too, will be encodable and presentable in all sorts of ways.
But all that data will require us to get better at telling the story of our lives and careers. We will need to put shape to all that information, guide a potential collaborator through that forest so they know which trees to consider.
When I think of storytelling, I immediately think of failure, of pain, and of frustration. This is what resumes never show. They tell a very basic tale, a staircase or escalator moving up and to the right, from position to position, as skills and experience grow. But our lives are a friggin’ mess. We try things and fail and we try again and learn something and do better. We spend years pursuing a goal and then give it up.
Currently, we are too often assessed in sporadic moments—a job interview, a VC pitch, a date—where a stranger has a brief moment to make a quick assessment of our value before making a decision that could have a huge impact on our future plans. These events incentivize us to think through our past, hide anything negative about ourselves, and to so aggressively highlight the positive that we are either lying or, at best, lie-adjacent. (My biggest flaw? Hmmm. I suppose it’s that I work too hard and am too dedicated to the companies that hire me.)
My fantasy of a web3-ified future means that we are less able to bullshit our way to a job, a relationship, a funding commitment. That’s because the existence of a ledger, containing our actual activity, will either support or destroy the narrative we tell about ourselves. If we say we were personally responsible for shepherding a big project in our last job, our job interviewer might wonder why we don’t have any tokens showing this. If we are claiming to have 10,000 active monthly users on our new app, a potential funder can easily see if that’s actually true.
Here’s the good news: we can’t bullshit. But neither can anybody else. There will just be too much damn info that was recorded in real-time. We all will have left fingerprints all over our history. Sure, we’ll be able to show our successes. But our failures and missteps will be clearer, too.
For me, the biggest surprise of web3, as I’ve been getting to know it, has been that it can reveal our humanity. It’s so often talked about as some kind of techno-utopia or, for the haters, a techno-dystopia, of cult-like libertarian money launderers, drug dealers, and scammers, sitting, isolated, in their bunkers. But, in my experience of various DAOs and the exuberant weirdness of early-stage NFTs, is that web3 reveals each of our weirdness. It’s the current system, the 20th-century structure of large corporations, defined career paths, standardized credentials, that makes us all into interchangeable robots of production.
I thought of this while talking with Chris Hartwell, a professor at the Jon Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. Chris studies how successful most hiring practices are at actually selecting employees who are likely to do a job well.
Scholars, like Hartwell, will work alongside companies as they hire. They will get hiring managers’ assessments of potential candidates based on their resumes or interviews or other techniques. Then, a few months or a year or two later, they will ask managers how well the people selected for a job are actually doing.
The findings are grim. Chris told me that resumes are useless. Past experience—even in nearly identical jobs—has zero correlation with actual accomplishment at a new position. Where you went to school doesn’t matter much, neither do recommendations.
The single-best predictor of success is to ask job candidates to perform a bit of the job they might end up doing. That is the best and it’s still lousy. According to Hartwell’s data, high rating on a work sample only has a 1 in 4 chance of correlating with a high rating at the actual job a few months or years later.
Chris had not heard of these web3 approaches to credentials and past experience, but he got quite excited when I told him about this new idea. One major reason that job recruitment is so unsuccessful is that candidates, well, lie. Or they pump up their backgrounds to make it seem like they were far more crucial to a company or team’s success than they actually were.
There is a weird paradox in hiring. Past success can be a contra-indicator of future success. Star performers at one firm, Chris told me, often become mediocrities at another. Different companies work differently and thriving in a place that, say, prizes collaborative consensus might make it less likely that someone will do well in a culture of political infighting.
The idea of web3 terrifies people for all sorts of reasons. And, I’m sure, the idea of a real-time ledger of the stuff we’re doing and liking and thinking, visible to anybody who wants to look, could seem like a nightmare in which you are constantly susceptible to humiliation for whatever the dumbest thing is that you ever took part in.
But maybe, if we all have that ledger, we’ll come to realize that being a human being is complicated and involves missteps, growth, failure, and the like. Maybe we’ll be more human with each other and, even, make better decisions about who to spend our time with, and how.
Sargon of Akkad erased his own past. He didn’t tell us what it was like growing up the son of a humble gardener or what it felt like to be picked to spend his days next to a king. We don’t know how he planned his eventual coup. We don’t even know his name. But all that is the most interesting stuff about him; it’s what we most want to know and what makes him such a captivating figure.
You can actually take part in web3 right now. You can buy a piece of this essay as an NFT. It’ll be there, in your wallet, showing the world that you got these ideas early! You were reading stuff like this long before anyone else. (Or, I’m completely wrong, this whole wallet idea will go away, and nobody will know that you wasted a few bucks.)
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