Cultivating Your Career Story

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you now it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path. – Joseph Campbell

Culturally, we are storytellers. We move through our lives listening to and narrating stories pertaining to our childhood, stories of how we met friends and spouses, and most of us hold certain books, movies, and television shows, whose stories have impacted our lives, close to our heart. In the last decade, social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, and LinkedIn have made social story telling accessible for all of us. Storytelling is how we come to navigate the world, and find our place in it.  It is how we relate to one another, and why most people love to meet up with friends in their downtime: to share stories.

When it comes to careers, our stories are just as important. They enable us to connect the dots of our various roles, examine the twists and turns of our paths, and begin to see the bigger picture. If you have had the opportunity to work with a career coach or mentor, you are likely aware of your career trajectory and have spent time reviewing where you have been as a tool to determine where you wish to go in the future. But even if you haven’t worked with a coach or mentor, it’s never too late to review and refine your career story.

How to get started?

Writing out your career history in prose is a great exercise to help you to examine your various roles, determine where you felt on course and where you did not, and assist you in gaining clarity. Write your career narrative in first person and don’t filter your thoughts for your initial draft. Keep it real, keep it honest. Consider it a journaling exercise.

First, reflect on your college career, no matter how many years back or how recent it is. What did you want to study and master when you entered college? What made you choose your major? Did you know what you were passionate and purposeful about or did a specific professor, subject, class, or internship spark something in you? If so, where did you go with that? Was it the path you took in terms of your career? Or, did you take a left turn and take another career route? If so, what propelled it?

Next, consider your first job. Did you know you were on the right path? Did you feel off course? Was there something about the role, company, or your boss that stood out in a positive manner or turned you off? I had been lucky as an intern to work with some incredible bosses and companies. My first full-time role taught me how a bad boss could make a great role in a great company a challenging experience. Let’s just say that beyond micromanaging my life on the job, my first full-time boss was convinced that micromanaging my life away from the office –which consisted of graduate school and relationships –fell under her control. I was lucky to have some great friends and mentors at the company which made my daily life better, and eventually, my boss was let go. The adversity I faced taught me early on in my career how critical it was not only to choose the right role in the right company, but the right boss, too. Did you face any situations that either empowered you or made you feel stuck? It’s all part of your path, and worth noting as you jot down your story.

As you move through your career history and begin to see the fuller story, consider how your academic background, your job moves to date, and what you seek next all connect, and if they do not connect, seek clarity in why.

  • Consider why you made the choices that you did. How did those choices impact your career?
  • Which roles clicked for you and which ones didn’t?
  • Is there a consistent theme for the roles in which you excelled and the roles in which you did not?
  • How long did you stay in each role/career?
  • What propelled each of your job/career moves: a better role or company? Salary? A life transition such as marriage, children, a move, or a health issue?
  • Are you where you want to be in this here and now of your life?

Once you have gathered all of your career story details, read them through. Reflect and consider if where you have been is indicative of where you wish to go. Get comfortable with your story; adapt it as necessary so that you can articulate it with authority, honesty, and poise. It defines your brand.

If you are interviewing, your career story will come in handy. Take the time before an interview, or even before you consider a new opportunity, to examine what occurred in each of your career roles. Be able to articulate why you took each role, how it helped you, what you gained from it, your impact on the organization, and where you went next and why. Seek clarity on what you learned along the way professionally and personally. There is no wasted time in a career path, just choices you made at various points in your career.

Think of your career story as an elevator pitch in which you narrate why all that you have accomplished thus far has led you to this next chapter in your career. Keep it specific. Keep it clear. And make it personal. When you are asked during an interview to tell the interviewer about yourself, it helps to ask where they would like you to start. It’s unlikely they want to hear about your kindergarten days. Do they want you to share about your last role or your career history for the last ten-plus years? Be prepared with a ten-minute version and a three-minute one, too. Sometimes by visiting where we have been, we connect the dots and gain clarity on where we wish to go. Our career stories inform our past and they often enable us to find our way into our future.

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