The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


January 8, 2014

Writing your work narrative

It’s important to start each year with a carefully thought out list of pragmatic resolutions. My list includes:

-Start a dynasty of ducks.

-Ride a narwhal (preferably while nude).

-Watch more TV.

-Learn how to write a newspaper column.

I’m sure you all have resolutions of your own, narwhal-related or otherwise, but I suggest workers and job seekers consider one additional item: Figure out the story of your career.

I’ve touched on this issue before, but it’s an ideal moment to revisit it: What better time to start considering your narrative than during the opening chapter of a new year?

The idea is that the work you do, the degrees you earn, the blog posts you write all weave into a narrative that tells the world your professional story. Our careers are no longer contained on a one-page resume.

As Pamela Slim writes in her new book, “Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together“:

“Like it or not, Google is telling a story about you right now. Go ahead, Google your name. Hopefully you have narrated part of your story and are happy about what people have written or shared about you. If you aren’t, the good news is that you can change it. Words, images and videos make up a multicolored tapestry of your life on the Web. . As you create your body of work, you need to package it, to illustrate it, and to tie it together in a cohesive story.“

Now take a deep breath, because this is not as complex as it sounds, and not everyone’s career story will be an elaborate multimedia tale.

The core point is to examine what you have done in and around your professional life. Treat those experiences like chapters. Then ask, “How do I put those chapters together in a way that makes sense?“

Slim wrote about a friend who was laid off and struggling to find a new job. The friend had been a manager at a consulting firm and a project manager for IBM who had “interest in research and thirst for learning.“ She also had previous experience in the nonprofit arena, overseeing children’s camps.

Her resume wasn’t connecting any of these experiences or highlighting specific stories from those experiences that might appeal to employers. The friend looked back and identified examples of times she had solved significant problems, then “built strong stories around those examples.“

With a common theme identified and the stories woven into resumes and cover letters, the friend had three job offers within a month.

Step back for a moment, and think about how we communicate with friends and family. We tell stories and relay anecdotes of our successes and failures.

But our work lives tend to be one-dimensional side notes.

I asked Slim why she thinks people fail to discuss their careers in a narrative way.

“I think it’s the way that we are socialized and the way we think about career tracks,“ she said. “We think of work as something that’s there to support us so we have a strong, secure foundation. This is your job and your vocation and not so much your craft or a part of who you are.“

To think that way now, she said, is to risk losing control of your story: “If you choose to say that (telling your career story) isn’t important, that’s making a choice that your narrative will be controlled by other people or by a lack of information, which in today’s job market is actually a detriment.“

A few of the key steps Slim offers for establishing what she calls your “body of work“ include:

-Define your root. (Figure out whom you want to help, what kind of changes you’d like to make in the world and what ideas drive you emotionally.)

-Name your ingredients. (These are your skills, life experiences and ideas - the things that make you unique.)

-Choose your work mode. (Think about the work you’ve done and when you’ve been at your best, and then consider what you want to be doing in the next phase of your career.)

These are important things to think about, whether you’re job-searching or happily employed. If you don’t examine where you’ve been, you’ll struggle to chart a sensible path toward where you’d like to go.

We no longer live in a working world where careers unfold at one company.

People job hop, suffer layoffs and other setbacks, find new and unexpected paths to follow.

Careers, more than ever, are journeys, and it’s incumbent on each of us to monitor and faithfully keep up on our work travelogues.

In Slim’s book, she wrote: “No one is looking out for your career any more. You must find meaning, locate opportunities, sell yourself, and plan for failure, calamity and unexpected disasters.“

That sounds a bit foreboding, but it’s accurate.

Use the start of a new year to figure out your work story. It may take time, but it will help. And I’m willing to bet it will be easier than riding a narwhal, nude or otherwise.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter RexWorksHere.


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