Friday, April 26, 2013

Get your story straight

We make sense of our lives by telling ourselves a story about it. The story makes sense to us, but it can confuse others. It doesn't meet their expectations for behavior.

This can be an issue in our careers when we're moving from one thing to another. In these transitions we need a story to explain ourselves to others.

Many years ago I was in an outplacement program -- meaning I was in a forced transition. One day we spent an hour sitting around a table telling our stories to each other. The tendency in these situations is to say, "I just got fired and I have no idea what's going to happen."

That's true, of course, but not the only truth. For me, a positive truth was easy: "I'm a writer and editor."

This is a marvelous setup. The almost automatic response: "Oh, what do you write?"

Off I go. I can answer that any way I want.

Dorie Clark, a strategy consultant, offers some suggestions for crafting your transition story.
Create a narrative that connects your past and present. A young helicopter pilot in the Army, for example, wanted to enter the world of business. She explained how she managed eight $30 million Apache helicopters and the 30 people who worked them. 
Identify the underlying themes that connect your professional experiences, because people generally prefer narrative continuity: a story is "better" and makes more sense to them if they see it as a logical extension of the past, rather than a rupture. Editing is basically editing, for example, whether its someone's autobiography or book on accounting. 
It's important to explain your trajectory in terms of the value you bring to others. Career transitions can sometimes be viewed as a sign of narcissism or a midlife crisis, and you don't help that perception if you frame it as all about you. "Wanting to be fulfilled" is nice, but it's not a valid reason for others to hand you a job or give you their business. Instead, you need to make it clear it's not about you; it's about the value you bring.
The traditional career progression is pretty confused today, and employers know it, because as individuals they live it, too. Still, they like to hear a good story.

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