Sam had a resume as varied, but far more interesting, than a Eurasian restaurant menu. She knew Mandarin, had studied Confucian literature, was a tour guide in Italy, and captained multiple transpacific voyages. She was certain that her dilettante past would be a barrier to beginning a “professional” career.
Research indicates that people tend to leave employers after four years. Staying with a position for longer can suggest a worker who fears change or it could tell a tale of an employee with loyalty and resolve. Working for multiple employers could relate the story of an impulsive dabbler who lacks discipline, or it could indicate someone who is able to think outside the box and take calculated risks.
Harboring guilt for having pursued her passions for so long, Sam didn’t think it was fair to her potential employers to portray a potentially “false” image of herself as someone who had developed a unique and desirable set of competencies.
A lifetime (short or long) contains a series of experiences. You’ve engaged in education, employment, and/or volunteer opportunities. The narrative, or thread, that links these events is you. As you connect the dots for yourself, and potential employers, you can entertain beliefs like, “I have nothing more to offer than other candidates,” or you can embrace thoughts like, “This organization is an obvious next chapter for me, and I am for them.” Adopting these preferred beliefs and storylines for yourself, it becomes easier to get a potential employer excited about your narrative; they’ll want to co-author your next chapter.
Sam had no idea how her “overly varied” background meshed with the dream position that just popped up, helping a company entertain colleagues and coordinate their strategic mission with a Chinese affiliate company. She didn’t want to exaggerate what she could bring to the table.
Every time you talk about your professional background, you are telling a “narrative.” According to dictionary.com, a narrative is “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.” Narratives are not simply sources of entertainment; a well-produced narrative can frame how we view our own circumstances, and how others view us.
When Sam got talking about her background, she did so in a nervous, scattered fashion, emphasizing that she was a “jack of all trades and master of none.”
Believing internal chatter that is dominated by stories of inadequacy, people can live out forgone negative conclusions regarding how they perform or who they are. “Narrative therapy” capitalizes on this idea, helping people to discover or rediscover their preferred stories. Attorneys know the power of narrative. According to UVA Law Professor, Ann Coughlin, “There is some reality that we must capture but…” she subsequently stated, “there are competing ways to understand that reality.” These competing views are “frames.” Cognitive linguist George Lakoff stated that frames “are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as good or bad outcomes of our actions.” We can cultivate frames that work for us rather than against us.
Sam realized that she was self-sabotaging in interviews. She started giving herself credit for the skills she learned during each segment of career, and sounded convincing as she practiced succinctly tying relevant pieces of her life saga together.
Internal or voiced language ties events and experiences together to form a narrative. Tales can be spun so that you or your listener is left wondering about your next step and why it should include them. Artful narratives cohesively place a positive frame around the past, fostering greater likelihood of a desired future outcome — like a dream job.
Sam nailed the interview. Her (now) employer was engaged in the story of how she learned Mandarin and could quickly envision how she would be well-received by the new Chinese affiliate. Sam illustrated how her understanding of Confucian literature also reflected her understanding of modern day Chinese values. Her enthusiasm was contagious as she shared how experiences as a boat captain and as a tour guide, contributed to her abilities of allowing others to feel secure with her leadership, and entertained in the process.
How can you switch gears, as Sam did? 1) Notice the beliefs that you cling to that may get in your own way; 2) Be mindful of how these beliefs link together the history that defines you; 3) Allow yourself to highlight key events, and try framing these events with a positive, confident narrative; 4) Observe how you feel during the moments when you believe this story; 5) Envision the excitement of your interviewer as they get caught up in the story too.
Wendy Bay Lewis and Tim Herzog, EdD are co-founders of Bozeman Career Center, which offers career coaching and corporate training. They can be reached at WendyBayLewis@gmail.com or Tim@ReachingAhead.com.