How much of your story should you tell?

Career advice: Tell Your Story

I wrote a blog post a few months ago that received positive feedback on social media, called "What's Your Story?" I encouraged jobseekers to "tell a story about how you overcame the most daunting challenge in your life and came out the other side." I believe that sharing your unique history is the best way to stand out in a job search.

Then this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education blew up #highered Twitter. Well, it blew up my feed at least, which includes terrific professionals who are devoted to their work in higher education. The article was intended to be a fictional piece of satire, focusing on a student who lied about a death in the family in order to finagle a deadline extension. The author's attempt at sarcasm struck a raw nerve, and the stories of pain and grief and mistreatment came pouring out of the Twitterverse into my heart. 

An eloquent post in response by @Acclimatrix summed up what several of us felt. Sometimes we have to hide the truth about what we're going through when we are speaking to those in positions of authority. Some times a "death in the family" is a socially acceptable excuse for missing class or work when we're dealing with abuse, grief, or trauma.

Many of us have experienced times when the world comes crashing down around us. The external causes may be as seemingly minor as a breakup or as earth-shattering as the death of a loved one. Once you begin circling the drain that is anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior, the proximal cause doesn't matter. The effect is the same: you're a complete mess inside (and you very likely can't keep it together on the outside, either).

When to talk about obstacles you've faced.

Here's where I circle back to "What's your story," where I encouraged folks to share the obstacles they have overcome in a cover letter or interview. Would I still give that advice to a client? It depends on the story, and on how it changed you. There is no handy flow chart telling you when it IS or is NOT appropriate to disclose personal information to a prospective employer.

I want to acknowledge that aside from federally protected classes such as religion, disability, and gender, employers generally have a legal right to choose NOT to hire you in light of personal declarations you make in an interview. (They can also decide not to hire you because they didn't like your shoes, but sharing personal struggles is a more likely factor.)

So here's the bottom line, new and improved with 50% more awareness of the often unfair world we live in:  Share your story in a way that relates the challenge to your character, integrity, or conviction.

Share how your story made you stronger.

If you are a survivor, don't dwell on the details of what you survived. Instead, talk about what you learned from the experience, and how that difficult time made you a better person and a more valuable asset. If the experience feels too personal to share, you can still say that you've been through tough times and come out stronger for having overcome them.

So to everyone who "came out" with stories of what they went through in college, thank you for your honesty. Take a look back at your experience. Are you wiser because of it? More empathetic, kinder, more compassionate? Maybe you're just tougher, you have a thick skin now and can roll with the punches. Perhaps you have a greater capacity to love.

The part of you that is wise beyond your years, the old soul that can sometimes be seen in your eyes, the gentleness you show to those who are vulnerable... that's what you have to offer. Don't cover it up! That's your story.

Share it.


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