Eason Yang was on an ambitious career trajectory, helping tech companies like Uber change the world. Until he got cancer.
Eason spent two years actively fighting for his life. This meant two years spent outside of the job market, creating a gap in his resume.
Potential employers often look down on such large resume gaps.
But stepping away from work helped Eason see his resume in a new way. Now he’s working to end the stigma cancer survivors face in the workplace.
Shin Yu Narration: If you watched the 2023 Super Bowl, you might have noticed a short spot that aired between quarters. “Monday” follows the journeys of two cancer survivors. The film was created by the third largest advertising agency in the world, a French multinational company that is led by CEO Arthur Sadoun. The campaign hoped to create awareness and help to end stigmas surrounding cancer in the workplace. Because Cancer isn’t the easiest thing to talk about.
Eason Yang is…still getting comfortable with his evolving elevator speech.
Eason: Um, I’m Eason, I’m a cancer survivor. Um, no, that’s wrong group . I’m a, I’m a designer. I’m a creative director. And I’m the founder of Not Entirely Dead.org.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason has had many identities over the years. And if you met him today, versus in the prime of his career as an art director for Ogilvy, you’d only know a small part of his story. His resume.
A resume is a professional calling card – a history of accomplishments and affiliations. Your bragging rights. A list of memberships and awards, and sometimes your service to your community. It’s also the pedigree of your academic credentials that announce to a recruiter “this job candidate is worth talking to.”
Shin Yu: If somebody picked it up and they were trying to, you know, uh, come up with a portrait of who Eason Yang was, what was the story it told?
Eason: I always care about my career so when thinking about, making the career goals and which company to work for, I always pick the best ones. Cuz I feel like I can be there, right? I don’t need to sell myself short to, you know, go to others. So when I think about that, I think that’s probably a big part of my personality. I, I’m just always super competitive. I’ve always wanted to be the best of the best.
Shin Yu Narration: But something happened that dramatically changed Eason’s resume and made him stick out to potential employers. And not in good way. It’s something that happens to a lot of us. A thing that doesn’t always have an easy or comfortable explanation. A gap in the resume.
This is Ten Thousand Things. A podcast about the modern artifacts of Asian American life.
I’m Shin Yu Pai. Today, the resume.
Eason has a shiny ten-star resume. But getting there wasn’t easy.
His Chinese parents had other ideas about the future of their only son. They dismissed his resistance as youthful impulse, hoping he’d outgrow his creative interests.
Eason: I am from a very traditional Asian academic family.
So my parents, they are professors. My father, he is a professor in computer science. So, you know, there’s that perspective, your father already set that path for you. So I studied computer science when I was in college. I just, I didn’t want to do computer science anymore. My father and my family. They were not okay in the beginning, you know, they were just like, okay, you are young they probably had a big plan for me already. Just didn’t want that plan.
Shin Yu: It wasn’t you,
Eason: it wasn’t me and I, I suffered a lot.
Shin Yu: Are you from the one child era?
Eason: I am one child. Yeah. I am the one child. Yes.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason spent some time feeling lost. Until he discovered design. It connected with his childhood memories of drawing and building toy models with his hands. He shifted away from computer science and found a school where he could study design. But it was far from home.
Shin Yu: How’d you pick Athens, Ohio? Did you know people that went to school there?
Eason: Not at all.
The reason was a big LeBron fan, LeBron James he started his career 2003. And when I was applying for school 2005 and 2006, I was just thinking, I wanna go to Ohio.
I wanna see this, basketball player. But I didn’t really know much about the states, about Ohio, nothing. And I just picked this, college called Ohio University. It actually turned out it was, four hours away from Cleveland.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason dove into design. Switching disciplines made him want to do more. And his competitive side propelled him forward.
Eason: I talked to one of the professors. I asked him what’s the most important thing? , do I need the skills or do I need the eyes? Or what do I need? And the professor told me like, you need passion. The passion means like when all your friends are going to the parties, watching the football over the weekend, you’d rather sitting in your chair and do all the work.
Shin Yu: Yeah. No, LeBron James games,
Eason: Not LeBron James. So I thought, okay. You know, I might, I might have that passion, so Yeah. But I didn’t have the skill by then.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason graduted from his program with a Masters in design and visual communications. He overcame many challenges from dealing with parental disapproval to international moves. His passion and discipline paid off.
He entered the professional world. Eason landed roles with major ad agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, and Ogilvy, and created campaigns for luxury cars.
Eason: I’m always pretty proud of my resume cuz I always worked for the biggest names in the industry, starting from creative agencies. I’m really committed to this design career. I just wanted to work for the best. I want to build this resume just to be spotless.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason then went on to work for Silicon Valley when it was booming…
Eason: I joined one of the most mission driven company, Uber, and it was super fast paced and everyone was really, just hyper about, you know, the job, the work. And there’s an Uber term called super pumped.
Everyone was super pumped for the mission. Everyone thought like we were gonna change the world with this mobility thing. So yeah, that was a great job. And it was also like high pressure.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason’s job at Uber required him to spend half of his time in San Francisco, and half of his time in Beijing. It suited him.
Eason: I just thought that was the coolest thing, you know, if we could actually replace, ownership with usership of cars.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason ended up with a very impressive resume. And the competitive side of him took a lot of pride in the sexy titles and big companies.
Eason: So I was always really proud of my resume cuz it just, it’s really shiny. It’s, you know, one of the best resumes you could present.
Shin Yu Narration: This perfect resume changed one day. In Beijing. It was a week before Eason’s wife was expected to give birth to their first child.
At a routine health checkup, doctors discovered that Eason had a tumor
Eason: We were like shocked cuz we just didn’t understand it. I remember we asked question like, what do you mean tumor?
So we’ve heard this word cancer, is that the same thing? And the doctor just told us, like, yeah, that’s what we’re, um, talking about.
Shin Yu Narration: It was a lot for Eason and his wife to take in.
Eason: We just completely blacked out for a few days. We didn’t know what to do, and we went online, just Googled everything .
Shin Yu Narration: After that, everything happened very quickly. The cancer was fast growing. Eason quit his job right away. So that he could focus on fighting for his life. He went into surgery the day before his daughter was born.
Eason: After the surgery, doctor just told us this is already everywhere so I went in to do, um, chemotherapy right away.
Shin Yu: What was that like being a new father while you were fighting cancer?
Eason: It was hell. It was terrible the first time I met my daughter she was already a month old cuz my wife and I, we were in different hospitals. , and then we couldn’t really visit each other cuz the city was just too big. And I was impatient for a month after the surgery. That was just really, really heavy for me and us.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason’s cancer came back once. Twice. Three times. So many times he stopped counting. Each time he went through treatment, he got his hopes up. But it kept showing up again.
Eason: I just really wanted to kill it because it’s this fight, right just between you and cancer, and it’s either the cancer win or you,
Shin Yu Narration: After more than a year of fighting for his life, Eason found a cancer doctor on the other side of the world. in Indianapolis. The doctor had treated Lance Armstrong and helped him to beat metastatic testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.
Eason: I called him. I just told him like, you know, I’m just this, um, guy.
I live in Beijing right now, and I, I wanna live.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason has been cancer free since having surgery in Indianapolis, four and a half years ago. Things turned around, he regained his strength, and he started to think about returning to his career and to his identity before becoming a cancer survivor .
He was tired of the loneliness and the isolation that he felt as a cancer patient.
Eason: Because when you have this thing, you just become, uh, fallouts from society cuz you lost your social identity, right? You are still who you are, but you are not what you are anymore
And that was terrifying cuz um, I really cared about my career and I still love what I do. So I wanted to go back to my career. I wanted to have my job back.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason had battled cancer for two years. That’s a noticable gap on a resume. He was nervous about putting himself out there. In fact, he hadn’t yet told most colleagues about his cancer.
Eason: I didn’t know how to bring it up. There’s also a part of it, there’s a shame, embarrassment, uncomfortableness, just everything around this cancer thing, you just, I had no idea what to do, so I kept this a secret.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason started to hustle in his job search. And he landed some interviews. But he noticed that employers were criticial and suspicious of those two years… his resume gap.
Eason: When people saw that, they asked the questions like, Hey, , what did you do? And, what were you working on? And some people even ask.
Hey, are you still, relevant, to the workplace these days?
Shin Yu: How did you explain the career gap?
Eason: Um, in the beginning I was really tired of that. Um, dark memory, so I tried to hide it. I was saying I was a, staying at home, dad, I had a daughter and my daughter, now it’s three years old, so I’m ready to go back. People didn’t buy it,
Shin Yu: well, I think in our culture, , people are so, acculturated to thinking of like the mother Yeah. As the stay-at-home role. Yeah. And so then there’s a bias against the stay-at-home dad.
Eason: Then, um, I. I got annoyed again, . I just thought, okay, I’m done with this. I want to be honest with myself. So I just started to tell the truth. I had cancer, you know, I had cancer treatment. It was two years. So I had to focus on saving my own life.
Shin Yu Narration: People didn’t react well. Eason felt them freeze up on the other end of the phone.
Eason: Once, , I guess it was just too overwhelming for the recruiter. She just hang up the phone probably, she had nothing to say and didn’t know what to do.
Shin Yu: How did that make you feel?
Eason: I felt terrible cuz I felt, you know, that was the bias. I started to feel, okay, this is real, right? Everyone has the bias against this career gap. And before that, I heard of it, but I never experienced it.. But when it happened to you, especially someone like me, I was really proud of my career, my resume, you know, and all the achievement I made.
I felt really, really bad.
Shin Yu: Do you feel like there is any difference between how Chinese companies versus American companies were reacting to, your resume gap your disclosure about cancer?
Eason: I think if we’re considering the cultural aspect even makes that more complicated.
Shin Yu: How?
Eason: I’ll just be honest. I think the Chinese companies they’re doing. Much, much worse job than Americans. It’s, um, you know, it’s pretty bad.
Shin Yu: Well, let’s talk about that, like, you know, there are some Chinese taboos about talking about death and illness and mortality. Exactly.
Eason: I think that’s, um, that’s a big part of Chinese culture, and we all have the taboos and superstitions and all these things around sickness, death, and a huge amount of, um, shame came from it. And I think in the workplace it’s even worse, you know, cuz people never mention these things.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason was frustrated. He felt like no one would take a chance on him. On top of that, he felt even more competent than before. The work he had done for two years fighting for his life had given him MORE skills, not less.
Eason: You know, there’s this cliche thing when they say, let’s hire a person, not a resume. Basically, they’re hiring a resume.
No one’s really looking at you as a person, right? And when you are looking for the perfect, like they say, rockstar employees, they wanted to look for these soft skills like resilience, tenacity, grit, determination, strength, especially in crisis, take no for an answer, attitude, fall down seven times and right eight times. All these things, they’re looking for all these things. Who are the best people represent these things. They’re survivors. Sure.
So when they’re overlooking survivors, I just feel bad for the companies. They’re really missing out
Shin Yu Narration: Eason started to think very seriously about the social injustice of it all. He knew what he had lived through and wanted to do something about it. He wanted to change the narrative.As a designer, Eason was used to listening to his instincts. He knew what he had gone through personally. And he was certain that his experience was not unique. So he decided to go back to graduate school.Eason enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle to get his Masters in Interaction Design and Visual Communication Design . He spent his time researching the stigma and unconcious bias that affects cancer survivors in the workplace. And he found that he wasn’t just cynical.
Eason: All the professors and scholars around the world, thousands of thousands of them they’ve been talking about this for years. This social issue, this career break and resume gap issue. Not only for people who had severe disease or cancer survivors, for everyone. Right. Mothers with babies. Mothers. Right, exactly. Mothers are allies.
We already saw this. We can’t really, you know, unsee it.
Shin Yu Narration: Design is all about finding a practical solution to a problem. Eason called his solution NED. It stands for Not Entirely Dead. It’s a design hack on LinkedIn that cancer survivors can add to their professional LinkedIn resume, like an employer. And it bridges the resume gap to help avoid bots that screen out job candidates, who have experienced periods of unemployment.
NED is also a website and non-profit organization fighting to change the stigma for cancer survivors in the workplace.
Eason: It’s a, it’s a hack cuz when people have their resume gaps, they probably got spotted.
You can actually put Ned on your LinkedIn profile. So you could work for NED no matter how long you have this career gap, starting from your diagnosis, so this will actually help you mediate that gap for you to fight that automation.
Shin Yu Narration: Eason designed the entire concept and brand for NED. The logo is a tangram – a Chinese Puzzle game of triangles, squares, and rectangles- configured into the shape of an elephant…The elephant represents what’s unspoken in the room. The career gap caused by cancer.
He rearranged the shapes into different images, like badges, to represent different traits that cancer survivors bring. Traits like empathy, determination, tenacity, confidence, conscientiousness, and proactivity. But Eason is hoping NED will be more than a resume hack and a cool logo. He’s hoping that NED will change the narrative around cancer survivors, go beyond the stigma of cancer to make real change.
Eason: My intention is to fight people’s bias, right? Cuz when you go to the LinkedIn, when you see this on your profile, if recruiters. and managers see this, they probably will be curious.
When they go to the website, they read these people’s story, they will really get to know you.
That’s what I’m selling. I want people to know you. .
Shin Yu Narration: Back to a cliche: a company says let’s hire a person not a resume. Yet they hire the resume.
A resume only tells part of the story. And that story can be manipulated or fabricated. We may omit the years that we graduated from college; Highlight our skills and accomplishments instead of the failures; Brag about the money that we fundraised, the employees that we managed, the television coverage we earned; Tout all the things that we did, with no insights into who we were or are.
Eason: The resume we talked about in the beginning, the early version, that was only about what I was now, really who I was and the jobs I had. I would, people cared about these big titles, the big names, all these things, but no one really cared about the things I actually did and who I was, , in the workplace actually.
Right. I think now, who I am is actually what I do. So when you see my resume, that’s just me. There’s nothing to hide,
Shin Yu Narration: A resume is a piece of paper, not a person. our life trajectories will often shatter form, have its own life off the page. and it’s the most compelling stories that arise out of the gaps. And the uncomfortable silences.
Eason: today I’m really proud, even more proud of my resume. It’s, it isn’t name card, right? It’s about my life and it’s who I am.
Eason Yang is a designer, creative director, and cancer survivor. We have more information about his organization, Not Entirely Dead, in our show notes. Next week’s object is steelhead.