A story approach to career

In her excellent book Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career (2009), Katharine Hansen gives the following activity for finding your stories:

  • Identify a dozen or so help-wanted ads or Internet job postings that typify the kind of job you seek.
  • List keywords that describe the skills and characteristics required for these jobs.
  • Now, highlight all the skills and characteristics keywords the ads or job postings have in common and make a list of these frequently appearing skills/characteristics.
  • For each skill/characteristic listed, compose a story that illustrates how you have successfully demonstrated that skill or characteristic in your career – or even in your personal life.
  • Be sure to compose stories that come from a variety of aspects of your life and career; don’t focus on just one job or extracurricular activity, for example. Draw your stories from fairly recent experience. Employers want to know what you’ve done lately that could benefit their organization.  (pg. 21-22)

Over here at Career Linguist, I call these little stories that you generate “pocket examples” because the idea is to have at least a handful of them in your pocket at the ready, and a few well-chosen ones when you head off to a networking event or a job interview. This puts you in the position of actively listening for places to bring them up, work them in, demonstrating enthusiasm when you do.  And along the way, finding and developing and practicing and getting feedback on these stories helps you to understand more about what you are passionate about.

This is the story approach to career.

Some of these stories will stick with you and grow and develop and change along with you, while others you will find that you don’t enjoy telling so much – this is data!!  Something to pay attention to.

One of the best ways to catalyze this process is to always be developing one or two of these pocket examples at all times.  When you find yourself chatting with people over the course of your day, you can test out one of the ideas in one of your pocket examples, something like “I can really lose track of time when I am working on a new business proposal – this is just a great puzzle for me, figuring out what a potential client needs and what we as an organization bring”  “is it the same for you? “are there similar projects that you work on where you find that you lose track of time?”  or it could be about something that happened.  When the projector wouldn’t work and I had to totally abandon my presentation and just talk for an hour, I really learning something about how I connect with an audience.  Has something like this ever happened to you? how did you/would you have reacted in this situation?”  Their feedback—on the event itself, on your reaction in the moment, on how you have come to understand it now—will helps you understand something about your lens, about how you see the world, about what this story DOES.  Ask specifically for feedback about what this story does.  What does it say about you?  Having insight into this question can put you in a much better position to know what it means to you, how it gets heard by others, and therefore how to better craft the story to do for you what you want it to (and not what you don’t). Your interpretations of this encounter will likely differ from those to whom you narrate it, but the more feedback the better in recognizing where skills, interests, and values are unique and where their application will be truly recognized and appreciated.

And pay attention to moments of confusion when you share your stories.  Misunderstandings are not often something that we chase, but they are tremendously informative as you work to shape a story. Dig in!! These will tell you whether you need to include more background so that the listener can see the same meaning in the experience that you do?  Or perhaps include more context about how you work so the listener can really see the challenges you were up against and the skills that you demonstrated in overcoming them. This process helps you understand your own skills well enough to be able to articulate which were being drawn upon, how, and to what effect.

You will be able to read more about about my story approach to career in my forthcoming  book Bringing Linguistics to Work.