Tell Your Story


Let me tell you a story.


I love to browse in bookstores. When I have the time, I will study the books on display, picking out those that catch my eye -- perhaps because of the title, or because I am familiar with the author, or even because the cover image is striking. Then I will take this pile of books and find a good place to sit (all the best bookstores have comfortable seating) and read the first few pages of each book. If those pages catch my interest, the book goes in the “buy” pile; otherwise it goes back on the shelves.


A few years ago, during one of my bookstore expeditions, I came across a book called “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar. I don’t remember now exactly why I picked it up -- it may have been the title, or the striking cover with a painting of an apple and an orange. For whatever reason, I added it to my pile, and when I read the prologue, I was hooked. Not only did the prologue convince me to purchase and read the book, but just from the prologue alone I gained an important insight that has stuck with me every since.


Ok, it’s not much of a story. It’s just one example of the many stories, big and small, that we share with others and ourselves. From the many stories we read, hear, and see, we are trained to think in terms of stories; it’s how we figure out who we are, and make sense of our lives.


And the prologue of Iyengar’s book is about these stories we tell ourselves. In her prologue, she tells her story of growing up as a blind Sheik with immigrant parents. But instead of telling her story once, she tells it three times. Once, as if what had happened was predetermined; once, as if the events were just a matter of chance; and once, emphasizing the choices she had made. Her insight was that by deciding which narrative to use, she could change the story and her sense of self:


"I could have thought of my life as already written…or I could have thought of it as a series of accidents beyond my control, … however it seemed much more promising to think of it in terms of choice, in terms of what was still possible and what I could make happen."


I loved this idea of us having the ability to tell our story however we liked.  She goes on to look at the American tendency to tell our story as one of choice.  In next month’s newsletter I’ll reference her TED talk, where she describes her study of how we make choices — and how we feel about the choices we make. She talks about both trivial choices (Coke v. Pepsi) and profound ones, and shares her groundbreaking research that has uncovered some surprising attitudes about our decisions.


There’s more than one way to tell a story.


I was reminded by this story of coming across Iyengar’s book by a recent article in the New York Times: “Writing Your Way to Happiness” by Tara Parker-Pope ( The article describes research showing that by writing their own stories, and in some cases rewriting the stories, people from college students struggling academically to married couples dealing with marital problems could improve their chance of a better outcome.


So start writing. As you do, notice your critical voices.  Do you still beat yourself up and feel bad about what has happened?  Write your story again. How else can you write it? Write it another way. And another way. Write it so many ways you can pick the one that serves you best.


Too Much

My husband was carrying our two-year-old daughter up the stairs at the end of a long Thanksgiving Day, which had started with watching the Macy’s parade, continued with learning the game of hide-and-seek from her older cousins, and finished with a delicious feast.  Our daughter was exhausted, and when my husband commented that it had been a busy day, she sleepily replied “Too much!”

She probably meant that there had been too many activities crammed into one day, but her comment started me thinking about having a special day for giving thanks.  One day a year isn’t really enough; most of us have so many things we should be thankful about that if we really tried to give thanks for all of them in a single day it would indeed be too much.

I’m not talking here about giving thanks in a religious or spiritual sense, though that can also be important.  I mean giving thanks to people who have helped you with your job or your life, and made you the person you are.  Of course, common politeness prompts you to say “thank you” many times a day – when you receive your change at the grocery store, a co-worker holds an elevator door for you, or your spouse passes the salt at the dinner table.  But while such daily thanks are an important social lubricant, generally only the most trivial services get thanked in this manner, and sheer repetition robs the phrase of much of its meaning.

Make a regular practice of thanking people who help you

Pick some regular time – once a week, once a month – to thank someone.  It could be your boss for giving you some good advice, or a co-worker who got you the information you needed to complete your report.  It could be your neighbor, who always plows your sidewalk with his snow blower when he is plowing his own.  Or it could be your eighth grade English teacher who introduced you to Jane Austen – though you may have to do some searching on the internet to track her down.

Of course, giving thanks shouldn’t be limited to this regular schedule – any time you encounter exceptional service or assistance is a time for thanks.  We’ve all had the experience of poor, inattentive service at a retail store or an airline check-in counter, and may have grumbled something about writing a letter of complaint to the management.  But it’s when you receive great service, and the salesperson or check-in clerk goes above and beyond to find the shoes you need or get you on the right flight, that you should be writing a letter, to let the person and their manager know how much you appreciated the help.

At this point in the newsletter I would usually give a client story, a concrete example of how one of my clients followed my advice and it helped his or her career.  But I’m going to break from tradition here because career advancement is not the reason for this suggestion.  Sure, thanking people is a great networking tool, allowing you to keep in touch with people and making them feel positive towards you, but that’s not why you should do it. 

Instead, you should thank people because it makes you feel good – it forces you to remember how many people have helped you and continue to help you every day, and showing gratitude can take you out of yourself and give you greater enjoyment of life.  And you should thank people because it’s the right thing to do; too many people do a great job of helping people and never receive a word of thanks.

So I’d like to end this holiday edition of the newsletter by thanking all of you, my faithful readers, for allowing me to share my views with you over the years, and for the many encouraging comments you have sent me.  Thanks, and happy holidays!


Try before you buy

Can’t stand your boss?  Tired of all the hoops you have to go through to get anything done at work – the office politics, the bureaucracy, and the endless meetings?  Then you, like many other dissatisfied workers, may be considering quitting and striking out on your own as a consultant, selling your skills directly to the clients who need them and cutting out the middleman:  your employer, who is holding you back rather than helping you move forward.

And you may very well be right – for some people, becoming a self-employed consultant does allow them to create a more satisfying career.  But if you think consulting may be right for you, rather than trying to make the change all at once by quitting your job and becoming a full-time consultant, you may be better of if you ease into it gradually by consulting part-time on nights and weekends while keeping your current job.

This gradual approach to becoming a consultant has several advantages.  It allows you to find out if you actually enjoy consulting as much as you had hoped (see Newsletter #2: Is Consulting for You?), before you have invested too much in the change.  It allows you to find out if you are willing and able to do the work involved in finding new clients.  And it allows you to start building up your contacts and client base while you still have a steady income – it usually takes even successful consultants a minimum of 3 years to build their business to the point where they match their previous income as an employee.

Try before you buy:  if possible, start a new consulting business part-time while staying at your current job.

Of course, not everyone can follow this advice, for a variety of reasons.  You will need to review any non-competition or other contract you signed with your employer to make sure there is no limitation on your outside work, and if you feel comfortable doing so, you should discuss your plans with your employer.  Some people just don’t have any free time to take on an additional part-time job, and some types of consulting just aren’t compatible with a regular job.

But if you can take the gradual approach, it can have great benefits.  One of my clients was tired of his job working at a non-profit organization, and decided to transfer his skills into a new field as a professional organizer.  He started doing the organizing on weekends, and at first business was slow, so he was really glad he still had a paycheck coming in from his regular job.  But gradually, as he impressed clients with his work and word-of-mouth about him spread, he found it easier and easier to find new clients, and eventually he was in a position to quit his old job, and he is now entirely self-employed, and much happier in his work.

Another client had lots of experience working as a general manager and CEO at companies, finding funding and creating and implementing business plans.  She was attracted to the idea of selling her skills as a consultant, but on my advice started slowly with a few part-time contracts.  She soon found that she was dissatisfied as a consultant – after she helped a company come up with a business plan and find funding, she couldn’t bear to turn over the implementation to others; she much preferred to be in charge of the entire process from first to last.  Though she failed to find satisfaction as a consultant, at least she made the discovery before she was relying on it for her entire income.


The Upside of Being Googled

Back in January, I wrote about how potential employers now routinely Google job applicants, and the importance of being aware of what they will learn about you.  In response, one of my readers sent me an e-mail that illustrates the upside of being Googled. 

The reader has a friend who studied computer science at college, and as part of her studies the friend did some research on a somewhat obscure topic in the field and wrote a paper about it, which she posted on her personal web site.  Some time later, a major software company called her out of the blue asking if she was looking for a job and would be willing to come in for an interview, and she eventually ended up working for them.  It seems that the company was doing some research on the same obscure topic, and when they did a web search they came across her paper and were so impressed by it they wanted to hire her.

Being spontaneously approached by potential employer is obviously unusual, but this example does show that while there can be a danger to having your information out on the internet, it can also be a great opportunity when you are looking for a job or clients.

Put your best work on the web where potential employers and clients can see it.

This work can be just about anything you create professionally or as a student.  White papers, business plans, marketing campaigns, student projects—anything that shows off your abilities and knowledge.  In some case, your work will already be on the web, such as white papers posted on a company’s site.  But in other cases it will be up to you to make sure the material is up there, using any of the many free or low-cost hosting services.  And when you can, make sure that your work has your name on it, so that it will show up when you are Googled.  (Of course, for business reasons your current employer or client may not want you to publish some of the work you created for them; always make sure you have permission before posting anything created as part of your job.)

Once you have your work on the web, you can’t rely on a potential employer stumbling across it—not everyone will be as lucky as the friend with the computer science paper—and you can’t even be sure that a potential employer will find it with a web search.  So to make sure that people know about your work, tell them about it. 

For example, my husband, who recently changed careers and became a librarian, is currently engaged in a job search as he attempts to move from a part-time to a full-time library job.  In his current position he has been creating a number of online tutorials and guides to library resources, so the task of putting his work on the web has already been done.  But to tell potential employers about it, he has created a simple web page containing links to his best work, and includes the address on his resume.  That way, they don’t even have to Google him to see what he has been up to.


Be Memorable

Last month, I talked about the importance of always having an “I Wish” or elevator speech prepared so you can turn any social or business interaction into a potential networking opportunity.  But what makes a good “I Wish” speech?  Over the course of the next few newsletters, I will be giving some tips on how to create an effective speech.  Some of the tips will only apply to certain types of “I Wish” speeches—searching for a new job requires a different kind of speech than searching for a new plumber—but I’ll start with a tip that applies to just about any situation.

Consider these two “I Wish” speeches you might use at a party when someone asks what you do:

“Me?  I run a personal organizer business and help disorganized people get rid of their clutter.  You know, filing things and creating lists and such.”

“I make executives more efficient by streamlining their procedures.  I just spent the morning with a CEO who could never find anything in the heaps of papers on his desk, a complete mess.  Now everything has a place and it’s going to stay that way, and he’s getting a lot more work done.”

These examples are the kind of thing you might say if you are trying to drum up business as a professional organizer.  And if the person you are talking with is a potential client, either speech would do – if they are interested in such a service, they’ll probably tell you and you can go into more detail about how you can help them, or at least give them your card and follow-up at another time.

But much of the value of networking lies in letting others do your work for you.  If you can deliver an effective “I wish” speech, then anyone who hears it can become your proxy, thinking of you whenever they encounter a match for your wish.  With this consideration, the second of the two speeches is clearly superior.  By telling exactly who needs you (business executives who want to be more efficient) and by painting a mental image that will stick in people’s minds (the messy desk being cleared away), you make it much more likely that your listeners will make the connection the next time they encounter a disorganized executive who could use your services.

Make your “I Wish” speech memorable by being specific and creating vivid images.

Including specific details in your “I Wish” speech can bring to life what you are seeking, just as telling details can bring good writing to life.  “I want a job in the software industry” is ho-hum; “I want to be the lead programmer on the next YouTube” grabs people’s attention.

Similarly, an “I Wish” speech that creates a picture in the hearer’s mind is more likely to be remembered.  Don’t just say you’re a structural engineer; talk about making sure that bridges stay up in all kinds of weather, and make people see that bridge expanding and contracting with the heat and swaying with the wind.  When you tell what you do (or would like to do), tell it in a way that lets people picture you doing it.