A lot of people don't have linear careers anymore, which can be a challenge when you find yourself talking about what you do or what you've done.
Interests change, paths meander, unanticipated opportunities come up, and of course, life happens. Couple all that with the popularity of self-employment and the growth of the gig economy -- which includes approximately 162 million people in Europe and the United States, according to an estimate from McKinsey & Company -- and you get a lot of unique, individualized career paths.
It's good to have options because one size never fits all -- at least not perfectly. Options provide the opportunity to choose or create something that accommodate lifestyle preferences and needs -- whether that means more travel, time with family, a combination of the two, or something else entirely.
The non-traditional is becoming less unusual. But it's still not the norm, which means you have to connect the dots for your next employer. Whether it is for a full-time job, a consulting opportunity, or a freelance assignment -- people will want you on their team if you can make meaning of your professional story.
When a prospective employer asks you about what you've done, looks at your resume or portfolio of work, they should not be left wondering how one thing connects to the other. If they get too bogged down in those details, you've probably lost them.
While you're having a conversation with someone you'd like to work with, the only thing they should be thinking is: wow! This person has done some pretty awesome stuff.
To accomplish that, you have to clearly weave together the different strands of your professional story in a compelling and interesting way.
Enter the Professional Narrative
When I decided to go back into full-time freelancing earlier this year, I knew I'd need to get clear on the big picture to start landing clients.
I've worked in journalism, communications, and events in a variety of industries over the years -- global health, tech, media, advocacy, and more. I've spent time in a newsroom, at a large international nonprofit, in corporate environments, and with small businesses. I've had a lot of great experiences, but I have not followed an established path, and I didn't want it to look like a hodgepodge of randomness to others.
It unites my experiences and describes my "why" (thank you Simon Sinek) or what motivates me. Not only is it a helpful introduction for visitors to my website, but the act of creating it has been instrumental in helping me get clear on how to talk about my past experience and what I am doing now.
Below is the framework I used that can help you uncover connections and create your story:
At every job, you accumulate some wins. Sometimes, they're recognized externally by co-workers, a manager, or a client. In other cases, you might be the only one who notices. Did you like being recognized in this way? How would you like to build on these accomplishments in the future?
Pay attention to patterns. They provide clues about what you're good at and what motivates you. Sometimes, the stuff you're good at and the stuff that motivates you does not overlap.
All jobs will teach you more about what you like and what you don't like. But the learning in this case should go beyond that. What perspective did performing your job in this context show you about the industry? What are the global takeaways?
For example, I did event programming for a media publisher. I saw first-hand how competitive the landscape was -- lots of organizations host events hoping to draw an audience and deepen their engagement with followers. It's a crowded space and you really have to stand out and offer something unique. So you can bet I developed a lot of ideas about how to do that and how that can be applied in other contexts. The fact that I liked thinking through these challenges and had more ideas than I had time to test is an insight I could later use.
Additionally, you should think about what first attracted you to each job. I'm not talking about the benefits or the fact that there might have been daily happy hours (although if there were, why did you leave?!). Presumably, the job provided an opportunity to do something that excited you. What was that? And how did it stretch you?
The tough stuff can teach you a lot. Were the challenging aspects of the job stuff you anticipated or did they come as a surprise? Forget about any coworker issues you might have had -- this is more about the challenges that arose directly from the tasks you performed and your responsibilities (but if people problems keep popping up for you, that's something to note and address). As you evaluate challenges for different jobs, notice whether what you think lines up with the reality. Contradictions are a good place to dig for insight.
Understanding what the challenges reveal about you and how they shaped you will clue you in to the links between what didn't go well, which can inform how you edit your story.
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