Sometimes the most basic forms of creativity are the most difficult to master. For many of us, this comes up when we attempt to tell the story of our career, whether aspirationally or in retrospect. In forms such as cover letters, personal statements, or research/teaching statements, we strive to mobilize our stories. We attempts to go beyond flat descriptions of our goals or accomplishments and toward a vivid sense of our commitments and abilities in action. This is usually much harder than it sounds.
Stories are about action. True stories from our own experiences require us to step outside of ourselves and focus on what these stories mean about us from the perspective of someone else. That someone else may be considering hiring us, evaluating us, or trying to assign us work that best fits with our abilities. In other words, they are taking action. We tell our stories to show how we are able to take action to gather data, solve problems, and advance the mission of our workplaces.
There are at least two major barriers to telling our own career stories. The first is emotional. We can be timid creatures, easily overwhelmed and frightened by the necessity to exhibit our abilities and expose ourselves to scrutiny. This barrier explains the deep fatigue that can accompany the work of writing documents that represent our career.
The second is practical. It can be difficult to discern which parts of the ongoing chronology of our lives are story worthy. While The Moth podcast always wishes its listeners "a story worthy week," that doesn’t mean their every week feels like a story. This is because stories are made from life only when the continuous chaos of life is distilled into episodes. Finding the right episode is difficult, and requires us to face barriers of memory and clarity. Sometimes, in the moment, we have an insight that this will make a great story. More often, we muddle along and then occasionally dig back into the past to try to unearth our best stories, polish them, and make them shine.
The cover letter is a variant on the romance genre. The story is that of you, me, and us. You start with acknowledging the job. Then you move to sharing about yourself, focusing on your actions rather than your attributes, and telling several mini-stories about how your experiences make you the perfect romantic heroine for the job. In the end, you give a brief sense of how you might join them to make an "us," how you might belong in that work or that workplace.
Romance and lego blocks are two of the metaphors I use to help remove emotional and practical barriers to effective career storytelling. Situating a cover letter as the start of a relationship helps explain and soothe application jitters. Visualizing a cover letter as a series of lego blocks that fit together helps to make the goal and the writing process concrete.
In my Storytelling Your Career workshops, I use storytelling strategies, narrative theories, and interactive story exercises to facilitate story sharing. Then, based on my decade of teaching, I offer real-time feedback on structure, content, and potential audience. At the same time, I invite the audience to give feedback, with one rule: if you think you have a criticism, ask a question instead. This leaves the teller in control of their own story and keeps the audience in the position of helping to refine the storytelling rather than tearing down the teller or taking over the story. I usually start feedback with my own questions, partly to model this behavior and partly to help the person who just took the risk of sharing their story to stay in power as the storyteller.
There is power in storytelling workshops because of the collective attention of an audience. We love to hear stories, and others’ stories often make us recall our own stories. As long as the group consists of about 10 or more people, I find that one person's story sharing will spark several others to share their stories. The mere fact of having a live audience for these stories encourages some people to take risks that they would not think to take while sitting alone with a piece of paper. Storytelling is the best way to learn storytelling, and there is no storytelling without an audience.
It's not every day that we reach major moments of change in our careers. When we do, it’s time to dig in, find our stories, and to polish them up with telling and retelling. Only then are we ready to draft our cover letter, or to prepare for an interview. Then, with these stories firmly in mind, it’s time to listen for the questions that the job ad or interviewer poses to you, and to answer them with your stories of work, learning, triumphs, and persistence. You put your stories to work by planning how they might connect to the questions we are asked, and to the overall work of the organization. Take action and tell your stories.