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How To Write The Next Chapter Of Your Career Story

How To Write The Next Chapter Of Your Career Story

When we meet people in formal settings like job interviews and casual networking events they will ask you to tell them what you are doing and how you came to be playing that particular role at that particular place. They are asking, in other words, “What is your story?”

In my experience as a headhunter and later as a business school professor, I’ve heard people tell personal stories that are full of anger or betrayal as they relay tales of lost jobs or of being mistreated, and other stories rich with a sense of possibility and optimism about the future. What many people´s stories make clear is how little conscious thought they had put into choosing the overall arch of their professional life. Indeed, a striking takeaway of listening to so many stories is that many people do not seem to know how they have gotten to where they are.

That’s why I encourage everyone to work on their own story as a way of sorting out what its next chapter ought to be. The ability to clearly articulate your personal story is critical to forging your ongoing professional path, whether you’ve been on a relatively steady route or have crossed varied terrain.

This is easier said than done, because digging through our past choices, good and bad, can be difficult. To help people with the process, I often start with two metaphors:

When traveling down a river, it is the river that determines our speed and direction. Some who don´t feel a strong connection to their jobs identify with this metaphor. It also applies to the many people who set off on their career path by semi-randomly applying for an internship or getting an initial offer through a friend or relative. Many years later, they may find themselves on the same course, having put little thought as to where they want to go.

That is not to say that simply going downriver is easy. At times the river might move too slowly and at others the rapids can be exhilarating or even frightening. Some might capsize and others pay so much attention to the boat that they lose track of other aspects of life which are more important. In nature, rivers sometimes change course or even dry up.

The key point is that if the overall direction is not what someone really wants, then they will have to reach the riverbank and carry their boat to another river entirely, or in real life change careers.

What draws people to the river metaphor is a feeling that their professional journeys, in one way or another, are out of their control.

The Race

The second metaphor compares our professional lives to an adventure race, since career advancement often does feel like a race against others, and ourselves.

The race begins on a flat, well-maintained field stretching as far as the eye can see. At this stage, the faster you run, the farther you get. The next stage is the rough of more uneven and rocky terrain. Avoiding the pitfalls of the rough in business has to do with setting a reasonable pace.

At the edge of the forest, you need to take care not to run into a tree, or in real life a political obstacle. The forest itself is full of pitfalls and traps and it’s crucial to always stay on the path.

Beyond the forest lies the swamp, where visibility is poor and the ground is damp. If you find yourself lost with no way forward, you may have to return to the forest and pick another path in order to reach your desired destination.

Storytelling Essentials

No matter which metaphor you might apply to yourself, there are seven keys to telling your story in a compelling way:

1. It must be true. Hiring officers have an ear for picking up on stories that are exaggerated, misleading or outright lies. If they sense that something is false, your candidacy will be rejected.

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2. It should be interesting and succinct. I always advise people to prepare two versions of their story: a two-minute elevator pitch and a longer version, up to 10 minutes, that can be told over a cup of coffee.

3. How you tell it is as important as what you say. It’s OK to touch on difficult subjects while telling your story, but it’s wise to put them in a positive light. How did hardship help you grow?

4. Take responsibility. Similar to number 3 is owning up to your own shortcomings and mistakes rather than chalking up all the bumps on your professional road to bad luck.

5. The best stories focus on learning. For instance, telling a headhunter that you did not properly evaluate a past opportunity demonstrates honest introspection and evolution as a person.

6. Know your audience and adapt your storytelling accordingly. In a globalized business landscape, it’s important to be culturally sensitive. For example, Americans often speak proudly about their accomplishments in a way that many Europeans and Asians could consider arrogant.

7. The pandemic or other seismic events can play a role in your story. If COVID-19 or the invasion of Ukraine affected your journey, you are not alone. I only urge people to again take responsibility for their own situation and how it served as a model for self-improvement.

Forbes

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