Knowing Your Career Story

“Tell me about yourself.”

“What are you looking for?”

Uncomfortable questions made less so when you know your career story. Meeting with recruiters, preparing for interviews, or networking among friends or at formal events can leave us struggling with how to explain what we want to do or why we’ve had multiple employers, sudden demotions, industry jumps or employment gaps. Unsatisfactory explanations leave the listener to their own imagination, while overly detailed explanations send everybody running.

Think of it as an upside down pyramid. To get started, the very thing you have to ask yourself is what do I want to do? Everything that follows will be built upon that point. You then reconstruct details of your professional past that lead in that direction. I recently met someone who had no idea how to articulate her story. My inquiry into what she was looking for prompted an answer more clearly resembling a speech that chronicled minute details of the past two decades of her career. Not only was she unable to speak to her future, she couldn’t effectively articulate her past. A good story needs to do both.

“Why so many recent job changes?”

“What makes you a good fit for the role?”

Part of the struggle is we often don’t see the continuity in our own careers. We go from job to job, and unless we are among the fortunate few with a seamless flow, we see the progression as somewhat disconnected. It’s the joining of the dots that makes your story. More simple than complicated and framed with a definite starting point, your story presents past highlights, framing where you are today and how the journey has positioned you for what’s next. Too many details and you bore the listener, too few and they start to see red flags. Exactly what you share will vary depending on if you’re talking to a CEO, an HR Manager, a friend or a recruiter, but the goal is always the same. To effectively align your story with what you see as your desired future.

As recruiters we often meet people who are eager for us to find them a job, but they have no idea what they wish that to be. Or we’ll meet professionals who express frustration at having sent out hundreds of resumes with little to no results. Something’s off, and it’s likely the sense of direction. People can get desperate and as the tail begins to wag the dog, they send resumes to any job they can do, not necessarily those they want to do, and before they know it they don’t even know who they are. Where are you  headed? What do you want to do, and how does what you’ve done tie into that? How has it prepared you? This is your story. Plot out key indicators including job title, industry, location, environment and culture, and then speak to your experience that bounces around inside this box.

“What happened at your last job?”

“What have you been doing for the past half year?”

“What have I done for the past half year?” Maybe you were caring for an aging parent, recovering from health issues or just looking for work. We address the issue of dealing with setbacks in our next blog, but for now let us simply say that every story is bound to have them. The key is to not linger on them, or let them control the narrative. Touch briefly on the adversity before quickly pivoting into what takes the story forward and ties it out with clear direction and new goals. That point where things began to fall into place, our vision began to clear and we found ourselves back on track. Keep in mind, few of us experience setbacks and events that don’t happen to people every day. It’s how you present or retell them that sets you apart.

Careers are like life, rarely what we plan. But knowing your story puts you in the driver’s seat and back in control. Over time, it will develop and evolve, and the degree to which you know and manage it will directly affect the ease with which you move on to the next chapter. We all have a compelling story, and as Dostoevsky once asked “But how could you live and have no story to tell?”

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