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Own Your Story: Three Ideas to Help You Unleash Your Own Story

My friend Jay Delaney knows a lot about storytelling.  I think of Jay as a mentor in some respects, as another thing he does very well is to take a big concept and make it operational; this is something I work hard at doing.  Jay is really good at it.  He asks great questions, like “How do you  see that actually working?”  Which can be a very important question, as you might imagine.

Choosing to own and tell your story is a big step forward for you.  Many people spend more time trying to fit themselves into the story they think others want to hear than crafting their personal story–the one that explains who they are and how they got here, and why it matters..  But Jay has written this amazing post that illustrates how your story fits into your career, and he is permitting me to share it, for which I am grateful.  And here it is:


So the truth is this: we need you. You may not realize it yet, but we do. Yes, you. Just as you are, with all of your scars, war stories, failures, street smarts, lessons, victories, and heart. Nobody has walked the same paths you have walked. Nobody has experienced the same heartaches, the same successes, the same loneliness, or the same connectedness as you.

And while you have been spending so much of your time trying to blend in, trying to be like everybody else, trying to conform to the norm, trying to follow the paths of others, we’ve been here waiting on you. As patiently as possible. But it is time. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month. Not after you’ve read those books. Not after you’ve landed that dream job. Not after you’ve developed expertise in some new field. Not after you’ve achieved all you want to achieve. It’s time now. There where you are. Today. In this moment. It’s time for you to stand up and own your story. We’re counting on you.

What does it take to own your story?

It takes a lot of courage.

It takes a lot of faith.

It takes a lot of love.

But your story is what we are interested in, so why hide it from us? Why keep it from the people you come into contact with each day? Why lose sight of who you are? Why not step into it and embrace who you are and the unique story you have already crafted through your decisions and your actions?

Here are three ideas to help kickstart the process of owning your story:

1. Embrace your role as the hero of your own story. When it comes to your life and your story, you are the hero. Heroes rarely have it easy; just think of all the good stories that involve heroes who overcome the obstacles in their path by learning to unleash the power within themselves. To unleash your full potential and achieve the kind of success you desire, you have to take pride in your own story, know who you are, and know how to communicate your story to others. Your story is not just about the successes you have experienced. Your story is about who you are, where you came from, what you value, what motivates you, what you care about, and what failures you have faced. Remember, it’s both the good and the bad that make for an interesting story. And it is often the most painful and darkest moments that provide the greatest lessons and the greatest source of encouragement to others. Embracing your role as the hero of your own story also means taking full ownership of your story. If there is something you don’t like about where you currently are in your life story, then it’s up to you to take responsibility to figure out what to actions you need to take to create the story you want to create with your life. Your greatest artistic creation will be the life that you lead and the legacy that you leave. (And yes, this applies to you, even if you do not consider yourself to be an artist.)

2. Remember that stories are not always linear. When I was in college, nearly 15 years ago now, I developed a list of potential careers. While on one hand, I felt this pressure to choose one and focus on it, the other part of me wanted to be all of these things. That list included things like: filmmaker, chamber of commerce executive, career development coach, city council member, and ambassador. As I reflect back on the past several years of my life, I can see that I have been working my way through this list. In 2008, I premiered a documentary I produced and directed at the SXSW Film Festival. From 2008-2012, I served as the CEO of a neighborhood chamber of commerce in Chicago. And since 2012, I have been working in career development for a law school. I haven’t yet been a city council member or an ambassador, but I still have a lot of life left to live. These experiences certainly did not happen in a linear way, but they are all manifestations of my desire to connect people with each other, with ideas, and with stories that will help us tap into our own creative potential to lead lives of significance. If your path doesn’t follow what others may consider to be a traditional path, don’t let that get you down; realize it’s a strength that you can use to your advantage. You will likely be able to see connections others will not see, and you will likely have valuable insight and perspective from your own mashup of experiences.

3. Know the lessons from your story, and learn from them. This is sometimes easier said than done because we try to do this work in our heads instead of through the written word. How many of us repeat the same patterns again and again? Many of us at times compare ourselves to others, but we forget that everyone is on her own timeframe and his own journey. You have rich experiences in your past that serve as valuable lessons. Do you take time to mine those experiences? Do you take time to reflect on where you have come from, what you have already overcome, and how you have failed along the way? Your secret weapon is to get all of this out of your head and onto paper. There’s a spiritual power in writing things down on paper. One way to learn from your experiences is to sit down and develop a list of 5-10 stories from your past that stand out to you as meaningful or significant. Failures, successes, and transitions are often good places to start the search for these stories. Once you have developed a written list of stories, then write at the top of a new sheet of paper, “What did I learn from experience X?” Fill up at least one page with freewriting for each story and see what lessons emerge. Then, it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting of altering your actions based on the insights you discover from this process. Commit to making one small change at a time instead of getting overwhelmed by making big, massive changes in one fell swoop.

We’re ready for you to step into your story and own it. What are you waiting for?

Odds and Ends: Ten Things Not on Your Radar

These things have come up lately. . . .

1.  Wash your car and keep the interior neat and clean.  If someone walks you to your car after the event, asks you to drive them to the meeting, or just sees the diet cola cans spilling out when you open the door, you will wish you had.  Fill your gas tank at the halfway mark.

2.  When you reference current events, reporting that you heard it on NPR, Fox News, or The Daily Show kind of gives away your political orientation, or so others will think.  Whether that leap to a conclusion or stereotype is fair, accurate, or neither, or you don’t care, just keep it in mind.

3.  You do not have to participate in Social Media at all.  However, if you do, you should keep any account you have up to date.  Especially LinkedIn.  Sketchy profiles make you look administratively kind of careless and unkempt.  As my friend and valued advisor Rick Fernandez would say, you need to think about what you want, hatch a plan, and then you need to follow it.  That’s all.

4.  Curate your social media postings to conform to your brand.  I am amazed at how many cat lovers populate my FB Friends.  I’m also surprised (and delighted) at how few of my friends post stuff that gets others all riled up in the comments section.  Having said that, I now remember that I actually curated my list of friends.  You can do that too.

5.  Think ahead to when you might someday be contacted by a reporter to answer some questions.  What is your personal policy, and have you thought of a plan for collecting your thoughts?  Of course, you know never to spontaneously answer anything in front of a camera or anyone holding a microphone.  And if you choose to speak at all, on the record, do so by appointment.

6.  Keep an emergency kit in your automobile, in the event that you need deodorant, a change of shoes, a wear-anywhere outfit (for women, a black top and black pants with black shoes and a string of pearls, for men a navy sports jacket and grey slacks), breath mints, money. . . you get the idea.  If you are a train or bus commuter, keep these things in your office.  Especially the change of shoes.

7.  Know your tells.  If you turn pink when irritated or confused, know that you do.  If your throat closes when you are upset, if your eyes narrow when you are skeptical of the news you are hearing, if you sneeze or cough when you are nervous:  acknowledge to yourself that you do these things.   If you get animated after copious amounts of caffeine, if you yawn a lot when bored or restless, if you talk too much, too loud, too shrilly when under pressure, you need to be aware that these things are controllable.  But first you have to know you do them, and want to get them under your control.

8.  Learn to gauge how much information is too much for the occasion.  Sometimes it’s better to not say everything that’s on your mind or even in your notes, because the occasion calls for strategic restraint.

9.  Keep your office or cubicle clean and fairly tidy, but not immaculate or spotless.  But limit the amount of personal junk and memorabilia you display.  It isn’t your home.  Also, think about what you want to display, as it tells your story; edit.

10.  Think about who can hear you,  whenever you are talking on your phone or with another person or group in conversation.  Ask yourself if you would be so open, vocal, or loud if you knew your future employer’s chief executive was in the vicinity.

The point of most of these has to do with advance planning or just thinking ahead.  Having choices is important; knowing that you are flexible can give you both confidence and allow you to take advantage of opportunities when opportunities come your way.



The Basics

I have been whispering about jobs and careers for a very long time, and publishing this little blog for almost five years. This month, it’s Back to Basics.  Here are ten fundamental principles that are worth repeating every once in a while:

1.  One size does not fit all; that is, career advice is not universal. It differs depending on markets, professions, individual competency, life strategy, and so many other things. It isn’t a good idea to automatically accept a Truth you read about on the Internet or in your morning paper.

2.  Make a plan, and write it down.  It isn’t real if it isn’t written down.  Plans need action items, goals, timelines, and key players, among other things, to create energy and make them real. One reason it’s hard to document your intentions is that you have to face reality; you are probably missing some connections, logic, clarity, or courage and when you write out the plan, you can see what isn’t there as well as what is.  Realization is a good thing.  Part of the process is affirming what you are going to do about that.

3.  Know yourself and trust yourself; you are who you are.  You should try to be the best you, and you may want to change what you can change for the better, but you should not try to be, or pretend to be, anyone else in order to qualify for a job.  First, it is more apparent than you think it is, and makes people uncomfortable and distrustful of you.  Second, if by some chance you are temporarily successful, you will be miserable faking your enthusiasm and comfort in what will probably be a very awkward fit.

4.  Pace yourself.  The point of a process is to do things in a logical order, making sure that each step is correctly undertaken and puts you in a favorable light with assorted stakeholders and decision-makers.  For example, a connection to a possible opportunity begins with an inquiry, not a request for a job, a cover letter seeks a meeting, not a job, and an interview inherently is a conversation, in which each party is trying to determine if further discussion is warranted.   And, if you don’t pace yourself, you will feel rejected, when in fact your timing is simply off. They are two very different things.

5.  Choose confidantes and advisors carefully, and do not share your feelings and fears outside your innermost inside circle.  If you take advice from someone who does not have your own interest as motivation to help you, know why they want to help.  Validate specific advice.  Don’t share secrets.

6.  Try new things in order to gain new skills and acquire new competencies, but don’t try things out for the first time on the biggest or best opportunities.  Practice is important; you have to get your stupid out—that means being clumsy once or twice in order to learn what clumsy feels like, why it feels that way, and what it would look and feel like if you did it better.

7.   Manage your behavior well.  Lose the drama. Keep your temper.  Thank people often. Return favors. Pay it forward. Be nice. Watch your tone.  Don’t fuss. Stay calm, even when no one else is calm.  But don’t overdo, oversell, overcompensate, or overwork.  Balance is really important.

8.  Get good at administration.  That means keep your life and affairs in very good order.  If I asked you when was the last time you changed the oil in your car, would you know the answer?  The amount of the last check you wrote?  Do you know the balance in your savings account?  The date of your next dentist appointment?  Resources are finite, you have to replace what you use up, and it’s really important to know what you have and what you need.

9.  Give priority to relationships; people and their values matter. Some people value your respect, others value your kindness.  Know who is who in your life, and what matters to them. Remember birthdays, or write them down. You build relationships by being accessible, taking some risk when you reach out, and trusting that your intentions are worthy.

10.  Build and carefully and deliberately maintain a reputation for something that others value.  That’s not just doing a thing well, or making a bold mark, but ensuring that you are very consistent: if you are in your groove, there is an outcome or a feature to what you are doing that will benefit the greater good.  You want others to remember you, to think of your name when the subject of your specialty arises.

That’s how careers happen and how careers are made.

It doesn’t take that much discipline, but it does take a dedication of your time and it does require conscious decision-making to turn toward production and away from dreaming.



When It Doesn’t Go According to Plan

My friend Jay Delaney and I worked together when he lived and worked here in Florida, not that long ago.  He always has the best way of looking at plans, one of my favorite subjects.  Jay points out that improvisation, and the ability to creatively deploy whatever you have at hand, whatever is right in front of you, is key to creating your map.  And that is the name of Jay’s blog:  Create the Map.  Here is a Guest Post by Jay, generously loaned from the wonderful Create the Map:

What do you do when you’ve spent all that time crafting the perfect plan, and it just doesn’t go according to plan? It rains.  You run out of money.  You get fired from a job.  People are unenthused about your brilliant idea.  Do you give up?  Abort the mission?

No.  You adjust, and you keep moving forward.

I’ve learned that one of the greatest skills in any creative endeavor or in any job is this: the ability to improvise. I once took an improv class, and the fundamental rule I learned is that you must always say yes to whatever scenario, line, or cue you’re given.  If your improv partner asks if you want to hitchhike your way to Albuquerque, you better get that thumb up in the air.  Each yes propels the scene onward; a no would bring it to an abrupt halt.  And I’ll admit, I’m not so sure that kind of improv was my forte, but I’ve definitely developed an ability to improvise in my work and in my creative life.

The beauty of improvising is that it’s empowering. It invites you to use your creative energy to troubleshoot whatever comes along.  And it’s a powerful tool to tame the perfectionist within.  When you map out a path expecting that it won’t go quite according to plan and expecting that you’ll have to improvise at some point, it makes it less catastrophic when challenges arise.  You begin to realize you don’t have to have every single contingency accounted for.  I’m not suggesting you become pessimistic and assume that the worst will always happen. I’m just suggesting that you expect to rock your improv skills. And I’m suggesting that you be open to the surprises that await you and see them as opportunities instead of burdens.

There is such a thing as too much planning. I’m an advocate for planning and goal-setting, but too much of it can be a bad thing.  Preparation can become an excuse to keep you in the safe zone.  To keep you in the purely conceptual realm.  To keep you from taking action.  Sometimes you have to accept that it’s time to stop planning and start doing.  Sometimes you have to just take the plunge and learn as you go. The best advice I ever got for making a movie was to pick a date to start shooting and just do it.  That’s what I did when I made my documentary.  I knew I’d never feel completely ready to start shooting, but I picked a date and I got started.  Stop just dreaming about what you want and start doing the hard work and heavy lifting needed to make it actually happen.

You don’t have to have everything figured out from the get-go. You can adjust.  You can edit.  You can revise.  You can learn as you go.  Sometimes I have a hard time with this.  I’ve also learned that a certain amount of naiveté in any endeavor can be a true advantage.  You don’t know what you don’t know, and that can save you from analysis paralysis.  If something is new to you, use the naiveté to your advantage.  If something is not new for you, then by all means don’t sit back and analyze it to death.  You won’t ever be able to anticipate all the twists and turns that will come your way until you dive in and get started.

Don’t wait for the perfect plan or the perfect time to get started. It won’t ever come.  And if you sit around and wait too long, the inspiration may vanish.  If you’re inspired to do something, to create something, to make something, then take action.  Now.  Right now.  (You have permission stop reading now and start doing.)

Action breeds inspiration, not the other way around. I’m a firm believer in this.  I’ve learned it from experience.  I know some people sit around waiting until inspiration strikes or until motivation hits them like some thunderbolt.  It’s when we take action and have our wheels in motion that we open ourselves to new opportunities, new adventures, new lessons, and new insights.

Create the Map is not about planning each and every step of the journey before you’re even out of the gate. It’s about creating your own unique path each step of the way, as you’re traveling.  It’s about learning as you go.  Creating the map each day of your life as you live it.  Learning by doing.  Learning by listening.  Learning by taking action on what matters to you.  Now.


Fitting In: Going Out of Market

I am originally from Pittsburgh, though it’s harder for new friends to detect that than it used to be.  I left Pittsburgh many years ago to take a great job in . . . Kansas.   The job was headquartered in Topeka, but involved so much travel that I don’t think I noticed anything but the weather when I landed at KCI from time to time. But when I moved to Atlanta and subsequently found myself job hunting again, I truly began to understand the impact of regional customs and cultural differences on a career and a job search. 

Some places are easier to access than others.  Some places are harder to understand; they look friendly and open but aren’t, in the end.  For what it’s worth, not even the natives realize the nuances that define the day to day functioning of community networks and relationships as they affect newcomers or those who want to be newcomers to that job market. 

If you want to move your job search to a city or town where you haven’t lived and worked, your first and best bet is to try to focus on a place where you have family, friends, or any kind of network or foothold.  These are significant advantages, and you will be competing with people who have them.  Referrals, support, answers to questions, ideas, and opinions are all genuinely helpful.  If you don’t have that network, this will be a climb, but it may be worth it.  So try.

1.  Be ready with answers to “why and how” questions; your first test for an out of town job will very likely be a sudden and unexpected phone screen (mainly because you are going to send a lot of resumes in response to postings, even if I tell you that is not the best way to do this.).  When I make those calls, I get this a lot: “I’ve always wanted to live in Florida, and when I saw your job listing, I knew it was my chance.” In less than a minute, I know this applicant has no idea where in Florida the job is, how much it costs to live there, what characterizes this community, or how they would make the move.  You can’t fake research, or the answer to “How much time have you spent here?”  “Why Birmingham?” or “What is it about Cleveland that appeals to you?” 

2.  Plan your detailed adjustment to this new community ahead of time and based on the assumption you will get the job you want, because doing so will make you look well-prepared.  You will get questions about things like that.

There are places that are harder to adjust to than others, and talent managers and recruiters know that.  I flunked an in-person interview for a great job in Manhattan when I couldn’t answer basic questions about public transportation or plans for housing.  In my head, job first, worry about the rest later, but a talent manager in New York knows that newbies to that lifestyle have a very high failure rate.  No one wants to be your first NY employer.  

3.  Read the local papers, blogs, gossip columns, sports chatter, and learn about the neighborhoods, prices, traffic problems, cultural icons, political challenges, and other important stuff about the community.  Know the name of the mayor, for heaven’s sake.  If there are sports franchises, how are they doing this year?  What are the hot buttons in this city or town?  What are the big charitable causes?  Where will you volunteer, and what do you bring that makes you a good prospect? 

You want to look and sound like you really want to be a part of the bigger picture, not just the latest incumbent passing through this job.  If you get the job, you get to be a part of the lives of the folks you will be working with—so what do people who live here do?  Do that . . . 

4.  Spend actual time where you want to live.  Go there; endure the worst and enjoy the best. Talk to the locals and find out how they speak—and what they talk about.  At least in your interview you will be able to say that you did that, and that you connected with folks.  When I interview, there is a vast gulf between someone who is sitting in front of me asking good questions, and someone who is describing to me the great conversations they had in order to get a variety of viewpoints and answers they wanted.  Vast.  

5.  Interviews are not the same in Miami as they are in Arkansas.  Even though you may be asked a few of the same-ish questions, people experience and interpret word choice, language, cadence, emphasis, volume, and facial expressions differently based on what they are used to.  

I speak more softly and slowly than I used to when I lived and worked up North, but I haven’t been able to lose my animation.  I think I have learned to simplify my vocabulary and say fewer words.  And I think this is because once I left Pennsylvania, I experienced myself as too loud, fast, and wordy for the room—I looked at the other people I was with and they were more measured in all things, and I thought they seemed a lot less impulsive.   When I go back, it’s a little jarring to interact; I’m not used to the culture. 

In some parts of the country, fluency is a second language is a huge advantage, often a preferred qualification.  If it is your advantage, be sure you can back up the claim that you are fluent.  Your interviewer may decide to conduct the interview in your second language, her first.

6.  Dress like the locals do, but for an interview, take one step up the dressiness scale.  Now, that is not to say that your heels should be higher or your necktie silkier—more like suit instead of sport jacket, for the interview, and pearls with that blouse and suit.  

In some parts of the country, a dress is more the norm than a skirt suit, and colors matter.  Find someone to ask about the company you are interviewing with and the right clothes for the level of job.  Pants for women are still a question, especially in certain cities and professions.  And shirt collar tabs for men, type of tie, and actually even type of shirt have regional connections.  It is very much worth it to dress according to the norms in the place you want to work.

On that note too, if you are from Florida and you are interviewing in Washington D.C. in January, you may need weather boots and a winter coat.  Make sure yours are reasonably in fashion.  Similarly, if you are flying in from Connecticut in March for an interview in Florida, for the most part lighter tropical wools in dark colors are worn until summer.  And you won’t need that coat, so leave it at the hotel or in the suitcase.  these are examples, there are other big differences in seasonal weather that can affect your wardrobe and gear preparation.  If you look wet, cold, sweaty, or just out of place, your hosts may be sympathetic–but that’s not the reaction you really want.  

Stay ahead of things like this; that’s the point.  You want to look, sound, act, and kind of feel like you are local and already there.  

It is harder for an out of town candidate to get the job, almost always.  Organizations know there will be delays in getting you there, hiccups in leases and home sales, admin matters, adjustment issues, and generally, the productivity delay while you acclimate to new surroundings.  Your job is to minimize that perception, and sound like you are very low maintenance, highly planful, and determined to participate in and enrich the community. 

Making the Most of the Holidays–for Introverts

I am reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Although I maintain that I’m not an Introvert–my Myers-Briggs has me almost down the middle with a point or two over the line to Extraversion–I find crowds, longish social events, noisy parties, and the need for chatter in groups to be challenging.  I’m not shy.  I think I can hold my own in a crowd and I’ve never seen a podium I didn’t like.  But given a choice, I’d pick quiet conversation, one or two people at a time.

Career or job search wise, the holidays are terrific for making and renewing connections.  Wherever you are, folks are probably out and about, shopping, eating, drinking, or cheering one or more teams to victory.  My favorite choices for seeing people: shopping or walking the dog.  Either way, I have a built in excuse to hustle onward in the journey (my goodness, look at the time), I have either a leash or a prospective gift in my hand for discussion purposes, and I enjoy the activity, a lot.  I meet a lot of new people in stores, not so much with the dog.

But you can’t shop and saunter your way through December, though you may have weathered late November.  Here are Eight Tips for the Introvert who wants to participate, struggles to feel good about all those gatherings, and needs effective tactical maneuvers for the seasons.

1.  Volunteer to be a worker bee.  “Can I come early and help you greet?”  “Let me pick clear the table; you keep talking.”  “I’ll drive; I don’t mind dropping you and parking the car; I can catch up.”  The structure provides you with purpose and distraction from your own discomfort; and, bonus, you give the gift of genuine help.

2.  Make plans for short visits with friends or acquaintances.  Buy a coffee and doughnut in a special place–catch up, but not in major decibels over the karaoke.

3.  Drop off thoughtful notes, things you baked or bought from someone who does that well.  You are just dropping off; you have other stops to make and were not expected.  I think this is brilliant; the Christmas I met my husband, he ordered 20 of something called a Racine Kringle, and showed up at my door with one.  The other 19 went to different friends and clients; I got to help deliver.  They were not expensive, but they were absolutely divine, unexpected, thoughtful, and sweet both as a gesture and in the fact that there is nothing like them in the universe.  That bakery is no longer in business here in Florida, to my everlasting sorrow.

4.  Write yourself some talking points, and write yourself some sweet little questions that get other folks talking about adventures, new babies in their lives, or favorite foods.  For talking points, this year I am prepared to mention our dog Spike, newly well behaved after two years of managed crazy, and newly discovered homemade doughnuts at the St. Pete Bagel Company (which are exceptional, funny, and for us, can go the direction of a Seinfeld episode in a heartbeat).  We also bring up our adorable and interesting grandchildren who live on a farm, raise and show chickens, and who have llamas named Tina and Poppy.  And I ask about others’ plans and resolutions for 2014.

5.  Keep moving.  Don’t sit down if you can avoid it; if you sit, you will either a.) end up sitting quietly by yourself for what will feel like a very long time, or b.) end up listening to or talking to one person who you don’t know well enough to sit and chat with for that long. Interesting conversation groups don’t gather around the seated; remember this.  Full disclosure: I sit down often; I am highly confident and generally like whomever else shows up on my island, if anyone does.  I can talk to anyone and am perfectly happy doing so, or not doing so, either way.

6.  Unless you are very practiced and well-behaved at all times (do not kid yourself on this one) do not drink alcohol.  If you are not a talker, you will end up drinking a lot more than you intended, whether out of nervousness or because there isn’t that much else for you to do.  Bad behavior is harder to live down than quiet behavior.

7.  And there are don’ts:  don’t tell jokes as a substitute for conversation, don’t tease or flirt with people to conceal your discomfort, or make up stories, don’t bring up religion, politics, your job search or career problems or plans (unless you are asked, and then only briefly; the right way to handle this is to say about three pleasant, positive sentences and then change the subject), your health, any gossip of any kind, or the caterer’s failure to meet your expectations.

8.  Big changes in your life have their own rhythm and their own timing.  Parties, dinners, gatherings are not necessarily a good time to announce your impending divorce, job loss, foreclosure, or other downer.  Uplifting news, delivered discreetly to people who know you, yes.  Crises shared at a party, no.  Never.  If, however, you are accustomed to being in a place with one who is no longer with you, have a good, short, acceptable response to inquiries about that individual.  Leave people speechless or teary at your peril, seriously.

Connections are merely connections–the opportunity is to share an experience so that you can simply get to know others better, and perhaps make new friends or renew old friendships.  Holidays bring people together in some of the same places, and before we re even aware, we have a little crowd or community of shared friends around us.  Know who you are and what you can and can’t do–holidays are negotiated, no matter who we are.  Before you embark, think about and plan for whatever will make you feel peaceful, loved, and loving when January cranks up and 2014 is on the doorstep.

Talking Points and Listening Points

Everyone has heard of an elevator speech.  That’s the imagined scenario where you get on an elevator with your prospective employer (or if you are an entrepreneur, your prospective angel investor or lender) and make your powerful and concise case for what you hope will be a brighter future for you or your fledgling enterprise.

Whether you call what you say your elevator speech or your talking points, remember that conversations often lead to relationships, though speeches may lead to applause.  I’d rather have a friendship than a standing ovation anytime.

I am a fan of talking points; if I don’t have them, I quickly go off the script and into the weeds.  I tend to get excited when I get an idea in my head and I tend to be forceful and enthusiastic when I hear my excellent case.  There is only one big problem:

If you are doing the talking (or in my case, if I am), you/I can’t hear the questions, comments, ideas, or feedback—or even the request for clarification—offered by another.  The questions signal interest, conditions, engagement, or acknowledgment, and almost always are important to building a relationship, even in the apocryphal elevator.

If I recognized my future on a ground floor elevator headed upward with me, I’d start by asking a question. 

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?  Are you headed up to the Industry Conference also, by any chance?”  Because a conversation usually begins with a question, not a statement.

“Aren’t you Jane Smith?  I read the article you wrote in Career Development Digest. Brilliant point you made, about elevator speeches being oddly out of place in elevators.”  Because you know this person’s work, admire it, and it makes sense to confirm your suspicions that this is actually who you think it is.  Otherwise you might be arguably presumptuous, or thought to be a stalker. 

“I have some questions about my career direction and the advice I’ve been getting.  I wonder if I could get your thoughts on some of my ideas.”  It’s a good idea to ask permission to approach anyone, even if you have been introduced by a mutual friend, or especially if you have been introduced by a friend. 

Listen for interest, or the opposite, dismissal.

Whenever you wander or venture into a conversation, there is some risk that you will not be accepted exactly the way you want to be.  If you manage your risk, you will find that a slower pace, casual manner, and more curiosity than determination will ultimately get you closer to what you want—a relationship with a new friend or acquaintance. 

If you are speechifying about yourself, you will not hear opportunity when another offers it.  It sounds like this:

“I am so busy right now.  Could I introduce you to someone else in my company, or could I call you when things slow down a bit?”  The answer is yes, of course.  And then you follow up.  This is not rejection. . . . that is, it isn’t rejection until you try to argue that you only need a half an hour. 

“Have you tested your theory?  I am concerned that you may not have considered the other possibility.”  This is when you stop talking and listen for as long as the other person keeps talking.  Then you ask another question.

“Who are you again?  How do I know you?  Why are you calling me?”  Scary, yes, but questions in need of answers, to an opportunist.  You should definitely have good answers, and then some important questions of your own.

Listen for clues, understanding, and warmth.  Listen for understanding.  Listen for clues to next steps. 

Come to each opportunity with both talking points and listening points.  If you only consider what you will tell, you may never get to the right question.



Moving from the Past to the Future

There isn’t much point in trying to bring your old comfort zone with you as you head for your future.  It doesn’t travel well; it acts like an anchor tied to your bumper clunking along for the ride and occasionally digging in and stopping you cold. 

Bestselling author William Bridges has studied and written about life’s transitions extensively, and if you have specific concerns or difficulty coping with the confusion of change, we recommend Transitions for its ease of reading and positive, accessible ideas.  Bridges writes: 

“Every transition begins with an ending.  We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new—not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to the people and places that act as definitions of who we are. . . No wonder that those tribal rites of passage in which the group facilitates a person’s transition from one life-phase to the next often contain rituals for clearing the mind of old memories and information.”[1]

It’s really important to say good-bye to your past. Once you have come to a decision to move on, move forward, make whatever changes you choose to make, you enter what Bridges calls “the neutral zone,” which he describes in Transitions:

“For many people the experience of the neutral zone is essentially one of emptiness in which the old reality looks transparent and nothing feels solid any more.”

I believe that the neutral zone comes about—whether you enter it or it enters your consciousness—when you don’t have a current or useful plan for your future and your past and present aren’t working for you anymore.  And you know it.  You are, as they say, “over it.”  All that there is left to do is to find your way forward to a place where there is some hope, spontaneity, excitement. 

If you aren’t over it, if you are still clinging to a belief that the past is the present, I’m not sure why you are reading this—who are you kidding? Hanging on to a dead end job or career is a lot like hanging on to an old relationship—you don’t really want it, but you don’t want a big nothing in its place either.  And you can’t see that the old relationship is somewhat worse than none at all—believing it will change is an obstacle that will keep you from getting something that will make you happy.  The only thing you can really change is yourself.

And, saying goodbye to the past doesn’t mean you have to go anywhere—you can stay right where you are, and go into planning mode for your next adventure, gig, or job—or promotion if you plan to keep your career in the same organization. 

Plans generate energy.  Possibilities come alive and potential is revealed that can spark enough excitement to keep the present interesting, something that you have to do in order to perform well enough to deserve and earn the future you want.  So in saying goodbye to your past, you aren’t leaving anything but your identification with your old comfort zone and some of the beliefs you had about how things were going to work out—maybe your old plans, for example, or old realities that don’t work anymore.

Once you are aware of the incongruity between what you want to be doing and what you are doing, it becomes very hard to sustain the balance.  Acknowledge that the fit is no longer there and create agreement between the old you and the new you that something has to change.  All that you are changing is the way you look at where you are right now.  

Here are the rules for achieving that state of placid maturity and motivation while staying in your job until you find the blissful perfect one you want: 

Drop the drama.  It will not do you a bit of good and it obscures your purpose.  Workplaces are about the work, not about you, your needs, or your expectations.  I once worked with a client who was very charismatic, animated, and funny.  She had a knack for drawing attention, and when she was in a good mood, it was a good thing.  But when she was not happy, no one was happy; she could cloak a room in black despair in a heartbeat.  The point is to be leaderly.  Righteous indignation and stomping of feet only have a place when the organization—not you—has been wronged.

Play it straight.  Self-indulgent politicking will cost you opportunity.  Go figure.  The first time someone realizes that you withheld information, recruited a follower to your unhappy point of view, stole a client, sneaked out to lunch with a competitor, or played a dirty trick, your future has changed, whatever it might have been.  Power players are high stakes risk manipulators with a different game plan than the one they let you see.  

Don’t discuss your emotions.  Telling people how you feel is kind of manipulative, since there is nothing they can do about it and it isn’t their job to do anything about it anyway.  No one but your parents will forgive for going through a phase at your age.  Everyone is a potential ally; none will be favorably impressed by your anger or confusion.  No exceptions. 

Control your behavior.  Fake it until you make it.  Even if it takes every ounce of your being, assume the behaviors of a calm and motivated person.  Do not start calling people to tell them how wrong the company, board, boss, or HR Department are, and what terrible things are about to befall them. 

If you follow these five rules, you will have accomplished something important.  You will feel good, not bad, because you will have supervised yourself through a difficult time and taken control of the one thing you can always control—yourself.  Achieving self discipline is mastery of an important tool in your career toolkit, a subtle achievement, but an achievement, make no mistake.

[1] Bridges, William, Transitions, Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1980, p.13,14; citing Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, trans. Willard Trask, (New York, Harper and Row, 1965), p. 31.

Ten Questions for Career Services at Your School

It’s Back to School time, whatever stage of formal education you are in.  Even though the fall semester is just beginning, it’s important to orient yourself to your personal career calendar, not just your classes.  It takes longer than you think to launch yourself, and it’s easier when you have useful career tools and some good advice.  Here are ten questions to ask those wonderful folks in the Career Development Office, or whatever they call it at your school.

1.  Do I have access to any kind of assessment tools, like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator or Strong Inventory?  Tools and Assessments like these help you get comfortable with your strengths and weaknesses, help you talk about yourself honestly and positively, and help you build confidence in your unique characteristics.  All of those things help you shine when you meet new people or interview for jobs.

2.  Can you help me develop a plan for transitioning from school to work and launching my intended career?  A plan is not just a to-do list; a plan is a document in which you set forth and organize information, including your preferred job market and industry, and how you plan to access the right opportunities for yourself.  It organizes and details your assets and obstacles you might face, and how you plan to compete in the market.  It always includes goals and timelines.

3.  I wrote this resume and cover letter; what do you think?  Most of us need more than one version (just arranged or highlighted differently), but we all need a good editor or two.  This is also the place to ask about writing samples, references, and and any other documents you are not sure you understand.  Don’t get this information from the internet, your significant other, or anyone who sells services on a website or at a job fair.

4.  This is what I think I want to do; where is the best market for this and do we have any alumni or connections there that I might contact for research or ideas?  You should not expect to be helped by a stranger who has never met you, so it’s important to find ways to meet and engage people and make new friends.  I think  it’s a good idea to connect with the Career Development staff;  once they know you they can introduce you, recommend you, and speak from experiences with you when they see a good opportunity for which you are qualified.  That said, I’m sure you realize they do not have a secret drawer where they hide all the good jobs and the heavily guarded perfect resume.

5.  Would someone be able to help me with practice interviews?  I don’t have a lot of experience in interviewing and I need someone to ask me some difficult questions and test my confidence and capability before I undertake the real thing.  This is a perfectly reasonable request and a very very good idea.  Even if you are a natural born friend-maker and a good talker, you can benefit from an organized practice session.

6.  What do you think of my hairstyle, beard, nose ring, skirt length, suit fit, blouse color, heel height, jewelry choice, eyeglasses, hair color, briefcase, necktie, shirt color, and so on and so on.  Just get a second opinion from someone who knows why this and not that and is willing to tell you that you can’t sit down in that skirt, or more importantly, stand up.

7.  What seminars, workshops, panels or other events should I plan to attend in the coming semester or year?  You can get a lot of info and build the heck out of your network of friends and acquaintances if you take advantage of what happens on your own campus right under your nose.  Convenient and they usually buy the food!

8.  Where can I get decent information on compensation, and what should I be looking for other than cash compensation information?  Even if your Career Office can’t help you with specifics, they should be able to help you quantify and consider the value of benefits, lifestyle, contingent pay (forms of bonus pay), holidays, vacation, professional education credits, dues, training and development, and other important considerations.  And, they should be able to direct you to sources–even general information–about practices in your region.  Pay is usually a local or regional practice, as well as a function of an employer’s policies and many other factors.

9.  I have no idea what I want to do; can you help me get a job?  Well, not so fast.  I’m not sure what you think the Career Office can do for you if you don’t know what you want.  Other than to discuss your preferences, your likes and dislikes, and help you figure out where you might start, it’s going to be difficult to advise you from scratch.  Often, individuals who are good at operational matters but not theoretical matters have trouble plugging into a profession.  They like operational details–opening, closing, adding, subtracting, lining things up, breaking them down.  Think about whether or not that is you, and begin to see yourself in work mode.  You can get help from folks on your campus, but you have to move to a place where you can truthfully articulate what you might want, even in very simple terms.

10.  What special services and opportunities do you offer students or graduates like me, after graduation and during my career?  Find out now how you can continue to access your school’s services beyond graduation day, because these are valuables you will want to ensure you preserve.  In work and career relationships are the most important thing.  Whatever you do, you will want to keep your bridges and connections intact, and Alma Mater is a good place to start..

Before You Hit the Send Button. . . .

The Before You Send Checklist

  1. I know quite a lot about the hiring organization, having researched it via the internet or friends or acquaintances.  I believe my values are in keeping with the organization’s values, and I could represent this employer comfortably.
  2. I am not just testing the waters; I am sincerely interested in some aspect of this opportunity.
  3. I know enough about this job to know that I meet the core requirements.  That includes, but is not limited to, any specific requirements like unusual hours, travel, physical demands, software skills, or language skills.
  4. The job is right for my experience level and education.  I am not overqualified, in my opinion, nor am I under-qualified to a great extent.  I could learn a lot in this position, and I could make a good contribution.  I am curious, and I have a good many questions in mind.
  5. I know who the job reports to, and have researched this individual, and I think I have a sense of her point of view and voice.  I’ve incorporated what I’ve learned into a well-crafted cover letter.  I want to meet her.
  6. My cover letter is no more than three paragraphs, and its content shows that I understand the mission of the job I want (because I have done a good bit of research).  Through my cover letter, you can see that I get it; I’m not taking random stabs at generalities.
  7. My resume includes only black font, the background is white, and I have focused on content and somewhat less on unique design elements.  I have not bordered the page, used 16 point font for my name, or otherwise obscured my simple and straightforward content.
  8. I have exhaustively proofread my cover letter and resume, and printed out a copy of each to make sure that they look as good on paper as they look on the screen.  Then I proofread again.
  9. I know where the job is located and I am prepared to work in that geography.  I have researched the area and can speak confidently about the place, the housing and transportation available, expenses, schools (if that is relevant) and the like.
  10. My spouse or significant other is on board with my plans, and I know why I am applying for this opportunity and how it fits with our plans.

In other words, I’m sincere, and it shows in the way I have approached this opportunity.