Once Upon a Time…Telling Your Career Story
Learning from other people’s stories can also help you to tell your own.
Michael B. Arthur, Ph.D., Svetlana N. Khapova, Ph.D., Julia Richardson, Ph.D.
Jan. 25, 2017
Forest Gump was a master storyteller. Through a chance meeting at a bus stop we get to know not only his career story and the trials and tribulations he has encountered and overcome along the way, but also the story of the US. The real charm of the story, though, is less to do with what has happened to him than with how he tells it—without rancor or resentment but with an open mind and a refreshing sense of honesty. He keeps us close and yet gives us the freedom to make up our own minds. What about you, what would you say if invited to tell your career story, and how would you say it? Think carefully, it’s not as easy as it might sound. You have much to gain, but also much to lose.
Let’s backtrack a little—what exactly is a career story and why would you write one? According to the Harvard Business Review, a story “expresses how and why life changes.” Your career story, therefore, tells the listener or reader about how and why your career has changed over time. Don’t fall prey to the common mistake of simply describing what you have done—you need to put much more effort and imagination into it than that. You can use your career story not just to describe the past but rather as a platform for the future. You can show how what you have done is a springboard to what you want to do.
In our book “An Intelligent Career: Taking Ownership of your Work and Your Life,” we use examples of real life stories to suggest important lessons about how the protagonists’ careers have changed. Some of the stories have happy endings, like the story of Moses Zulu, who grew up tending cattle in a small Zambian farming village. Through his own tenacity and the support of an international network, he now runs the Luapula Foundation, the primary provider of HIV counseling and testing in his province. Other stories are less positive, describing unmet expectations, disappointment and frustration. The key to all these career stories, though, is that they provide opportunities to learn from others’ experiences—to step into their shoes, to admire their achievements and to empathize with their frustrations and disappointments.
Learning from other people’s stories is one thing. Telling your own story involves having people learn about you. According to Robert McKee, one of the world’s best-known screenwriters and directors “if you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.” However McKee cautions against feeling that your story has to be 100 percent positive. A good story, he says, includes elements of struggle, overcoming the odds and being honest about failures and unmet expectations. This means “knowing your part” in your career own story, what role you played and why or how you adopted that particular role.
Knowing your part allows you to tell your career story in a way that fully engages others, so that they too can appreciate what you have achieved in your career to date. If you have overcome difficulties, or been frustrated with not getting the outcomes you were looking for, it’s all part and parcel of life. Nobody expects your career story to be about smooth sailing. Indeed, a common question in many job interviews is about how you dealt with challenges and disappointment in your career. The key is knowing how to tell the story of your career in a way that engages your audience, and allows them to appreciate your strengths and potential to contribute.
While we often get opportunities to tell our stories to friends and families, the job interview provides a special opportunity to tell your career story. In this situation you may be especially concerned about telling the “right” story in order to convince the interviewers to give you the job. Yet, other opportunities to tell your career story may also arise unexpectedly, a chance encounter with someone on an airplane or train journey, a brief meeting at a conference or other professional event. Then there’s the infamous “elevator pitch” career story. What each of these situations have in common is the potential to provide you with a new career opportunity or future career contact.
Regardless of where or when you are asked to tell your career story, you need to be ready. This means knowing what you want to say and how to say it. Build your brand in a way that engages the listener. Show them what you have achieved and what you are capable of in the future. Make them want to become part of your career story, and to have you to become part of theirs.
1994 movie starring Tom Hanks, based on the 1986 book by Winston Groom.
Storytelling that Moves People, Harvard Business Review, June 2003, pp.52
Michael B. Arthur, Svetlana N. Khapova and Julia Richardson, ‘An Intelligent Career: Taking Ownership of Your Work and Your Life’, (2017), Oxford University Press.
Robert McKee, Robert. (2003) in an interview with Harvard Business Review, June, pp.52
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