Say this, not that.

It’s happened a few too many times in the last few weeks.   Someone tells me they are thinking of making a job change, or a student or grad mentions the future, and I ask, “What are your plans?” or “What do you want to do?”in response.

No matter what, no matter how confused you may be, never say “I don’t know” to the person who asks you that question.  It stops the conversation, it renders your potential helper or ally helpless, and it isn’t quite as honest as you think.

It just looks a little like you may be lost and waiting to be found instead of doing the finding, and that’s not going to inspire anyone to mention the opportunities they might know about.

Expect to be asked this, if you are a student or graduate, and prepare.  If you aren’t a student or grad, but you give someone a reason to ask, you too can be prepared with a good, motivating answer.  The holidays are a great time to meet the very people who might lead to the right opportunity.  Aim for a personal brand that inspires others to get behind you, find a way to help, and enlist in your challenge.  To be effective, you have to say what you do know, not that you don’t know.  “I don’t know” is an affirmation; here are alternative responses, also affirmations. to the question “What are you considering doing next?”:

  1.  I haven’t settled on one thing yet–I’m good at X, Y, and Z (general talents, like planning, analysis, operations, project management, or building relationships).  So I’m exploring ideas that use those competencies.
  2. (Said while nodding affirmatively) That’s my big question–I like so many things.  I find myself drawn to jobs that really test my math skills/persuasive ability/tenacity/fun-loving nature/commitment to animal welfare.  What do you think I should consider?
  3. I’m so glad you asked.  What do you know about XYZ Company (or firm)?  I’d love to work for them and I haven’t met anyone who knows the inside story of their success.  Or how about ABC Company?  Do you think its true that they provide really great training?
  4. I just love work; I’m the one who will try anything and stick to it until I get it done.  If you know of anyone looking for a great utility player, I’m the one they should talk to.  [Here’s what we know about those of you who don’t know: you do know WHO you like to work with and WHERE you’d like the work to be, geographically.  What you actually do probably matters less to you than the organization’s culture and community. You’re the ones who want the fit with the people.]
  5. Tell me what you think are the strongest needs in the market right now with someone who has my skills (name them) and experience (briefly).  I’ve been doing some research on A,B,and C, and I’m curious about your thoughts.

All of these are more digestible than “I don’t know.”  You think the question was “What do you want,” but really, it was “How can I help?” in disguise.  It is the relationship with the person who asked–an interested helper–that you are looking for.  The right job emerges from that relationship.

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