Telling Compelling Stories about our Experiences and Achievements

One of the hardest things for people to talk or write about is themselves, and why they are uniquely well suited for a particular opportunity or honor. I have been noting this challenge at the University as I work with some of our most outstanding students. Despite the fact that they have so much to offer- travel, research, academics, the whole package- they often blank when asked to write a personal statement or to be interviewed about their experiences. Invariably, they insist that they’re not good at talking about themselves or bragging about their achievements. And yet ironically, they have spent so much of their time and effort collecting these very accomplishments.

Perhaps part of the issue is that we’re all in such a hurry. Students rush through high school trying to get into college, and then once in college we hurry them through as quickly as possible in an effort to save them money and get them into the work force. In our haste, perhaps we are failing to support their critical reflection- namely, helping them understand and articulate what it is that they’ve experienced and accomplished, what they can offer that is uniquely theirs. And yet, these are the very skills that will move them to the next level, allowing them to create and secure opportunities for growth, advancement and expansion. And perhaps most importantly, these are the skills that will help them self-correct when they find themselves in positions and situations that no longer connect with their cores values, interests or goals.

How can we help students get better at talking about themselves and their experiences? (Although intended for students, these techniques can be used by anyone for virtually any opportunity or goal.)

  1. Begin by listing the categories of skills and competencies that are of critical importance to your intended audience. You can usually find these in the specific posting but I encourage you to dig deeper. Look at reports, press pieces, or profiles of individuals who have held the position/opportunity (or similar position/opportunity) in the past. Allow yourself to imagine the perfect recipient/employee or candidate. What types of categories of skills and competencies would they possess and why are these important given the demands/honors of the opportunity of interest?
  2. Once you have a good list, allow yourself to reflect on your own positions, experiences and achievements and begin to note these under the specific categories with which they correspond. While you can start with specific responsibilities or activities, also note actual experiences that connect with these- both good and bad. Allow yourself to reflect around these experiences and note any big lessons, developments or growth. Ask yourself, “why was it important, what did I learn, and how did it impact me or those around me?” Keep going with this exercise until you have an extensive outline of key skills, experiences and competencies that you can reference and expand upon. Hopefully, at this point you can take some satisfaction in noting the abundance of experiences upon which you can draw.
  3. Now it’s time to look for patterns. Everyone has unique patterns that help describe the ways they approach choices in life and work. Patterns often reveal themselves over time and diversity of experiences. Once you can recognize and articulate these, they can be extremely helpful in telling compelling stories about you and what you will bring to any particular opportunity, along with how you will respond to challenging situations or contexts. Consider using critical questions to help reveal your defining patterns. What drives you? How do you define growth or success? How do you add value to challenging contexts? Consider how these patterns have propelled you on your path and have led to your current interest in this particular opportunity.
  4. The fourth step is perhaps the most important. It involves flipping your lens and focusing not on yourself and your accomplishments, but instead on what you can uniquely contribute to the potential employer, organization, opportunity, or broader community via your efforts. Through succinctly articulating how your unique skill set and experiences can complement and benefit the recipient, you can assure the decision makers that you have strong potential and are worthy of their investment.

Once you have worked through these exercises, allow yourself to practice talking about your experiences in relation to your signature patterns and sense of broader impacts/contributions. You can move between these levels of reflection, making connections, bringing up specific examples/evidence, but always tying it back to the specific opportunity and what you have to offer.

The most exciting aspect of helping students master these skills, is seeing them discover and internalize their signature patterns for the first time. There is something quite powerful in recognizing the unique ways in which we approach our lives and work. When these patterns resonate strongly with employers and the needs of the world around us, we feel empowered and more confident, and begin to seek out opportunities and choices that further strengthen our potential contributions. It is when these internal and external narratives strongly align that we can be our most impactful.

Go Ahead and Frame It

frame

As I sift through seven years of accumulated stuff, readying my office for an impending move, I can’t help but reflect on the two distinct piles that sit before me.

The first is contained within a massive recycling bin and consists of endless reports, proposals, articles, and documents of various lengths and content. Despite the care with which they were once prepared and filed, they have become entirely disposable, not even worth shredding let alone transporting to my new office.

The second pile, however, is proportionately precious. It contains mementos of people and projects that have permanently infiltrated my identity and how I work and live. Not only will these treasures enjoy a place of honor in my new office, but they have recently been framed, and will hang proudly on freshly painted walls, helping to guide the next phase of my ever-evolving career.

This notion of framing our proudest accomplishments and integrating them into our work is in many ways a big idea- especially when our achievements are only tangentially related to our official job descriptions or titles. As women seek more fulfillment and challenge from our work, we often find ourselves supplementing our jobs with community involvement and outside initiatives, knitting together a patchwork career (see my blog post of the same name). While holistically, such activities can mitigate the discontent and restlessness that can come with feeling underutilized, they are ultimately inadequate as long-term solutions for growth.

And yet these supplemental activities often become the most satisfying aspects of our work, significantly contributing to our overall effectiveness and stability as professionals, while at the same time remaining outside the scope of discussion or compensation. How does one negotiate this inherent dilemma?

Clearly, this is delicate business. Anytime one steps outside the boundaries that have been set for them, there is risk involved. However, it is absolutely possible to stretch the spaces around us, and often necessary if we wish to achieve the fulfillment that we crave. Within virtually any job there are opportunities to flex our skills, interests, and experiences in ways that add value without threatening those around us.

The secret is largely in the framing. By stepping away from our specific activities and interests, we can identify points of alignment and synergy with our jobs, supervisors, and the contexts that surround our work. Once we can identify the common themes and ideas, we can then begin to weave them together to expand our notion of what we do and have to offer as professionals.

But in addition to framing, we must also develop sensitivity to the boundaries and limits of how far we can go. What makes people uncomfortable, what are the hidden implications and threats at play? Or perhaps more importantly, what do the people around us need to feel successful, safe and supported? Once we understand these variables we can better frame and share our own experiences in ways that will enrich our respective work while supporting the collective efforts of our teams and organizations.

 

The State of Being Stuck

stuck

Like modern cars with interconnected systems and computers, our lives- and careers- have become increasingly complex. Although our sensors are robust when it comes to signaling feelings of dissatisfaction, many of us lack the specialized tools for diagnosing specific issues and making the necessary adjustments to get us back on track.

Serving simultaneously as drivers and technicians of our own lives can seem daunting. But if we accept the importance of this duality, we must begin to assemble the appropriate tools that are designed specifically to address the nuanced ways in which we find ourselves stuck or off-track, and can lead us toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment in our current and future roles.

Through my background in Cognitive Psychology and my professional experience in Higher Education, I have come to understand the various heuristics or short-cuts in reasoning that can undermine our growth and satisfaction. Regardless of the merits or constraints of your professional situation, these limitations can collectively undermine success and happiness. Luckily they can all be addressed through a deliberate “reprogramming” process, but they are critical to recognize and bring into awareness before such progress can be made.

While I usually try to keep my posts short and pithy, I will make an exception and provide more extensive details below. From my vantage point, the pervasiveness of “stuckness” in the workforce when coupled with the underwhelming job market makes these types of posts and strategies more important than ever, but I am curious to know whether readers are ready to embrace this type of assistance (see my request at the end of the post).

Too tight

Consider the importance of labels in our lives. We give them to people, objects, and places, almost anything that can be described or categorized. We even label ourselves, describing our jobs, lifestyles, philosophies and political views. Labels fulfill many purposes. Although each of us experiences the world in slightly different ways, labels provide a sense of consistency across variation, allowing us to communicate, connect, and operate on common terms. They also allow us to make inferences and guesses, helping us to process information quickly and efficiently. Clearly, without labels life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with limited opportunity for reflection or sharing.

In the workplace labels can be especially powerful. Even though individuals bring a wealth of experience, skills, and abilities to any position or role, they are often viewed through a narrow band of features and competencies most closely associated with their labels. They may only be invited to certain meetings or given assignments associated with these narrow bands, even though their talents and competencies extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeon-holing which in turn can feel constraining and tight, contributing to feeling stuck and underutilized.

While others tend to reinforce this narrowing of identity, we are largely responsible for doing it to ourselves. Many of us are eager to assume new roles and titles, wanting to be viewed as competent and successful, giving our employers exactly what they want. We may, especially in the beginning, stick with expected skills and activities, hesitant to offer insights or experiences outside the narrow band of expectations.   Although this pattern may be more pronounced in lower level roles that are more defined and constrained, we can see it across all levels and domains.

The good news is that we can change these patterns, both for ourselves and those who view us. This tendency to label, and to do so restrictively, is only a default setting that allows us to make some assumptions and best guesses. We know that secretaries at minimum have administrative skills and expertise, so we can assume that they will be helpful with certain types of tasks. We also know that counselors tend to have good interpersonal skills and are trained to help people with problems, so we might seek them out if we are experiencing a personal crisis. But nowhere does it state that these are the only skills that people possess, or that we can only draw on specific activities or expectations associated with these narrow bands of features.

Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation.   At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. But be forewarned, doing so can upset the delicate balance of relationships and expectations, and should be implemented with caution.       

Too low

In addition to constricting our space with narrow labels, we also set our gaze too low, forcing ourselves to stoop, eventually stunting our growth. Think of your mind as a web of interconnected layers of labels, concepts, and ideas. At the lowest levels are your actual experiences, things that are happening or have just happened- individual conversations, images, or thoughts. These low level experiences are highly personal, charged with emotional details and content connected in turn to other personal experiences that are similarly charged. As you travel higher in your web, you find more general and abstract labels, ideas, and beliefs that have fewer personal details. While lacking in emotional content, these higher level labels can offer rich guidance, helping us to understand complex situations and make strong decisions through reflection, reasoning, and higher order thinking.

In the professional realm our highest levels might include strategic priorities, mission aspects, or general beliefs about our work and what we do. This level tends to be the most resistant to change, regardless of new leadership or contextual influences, our highest level ideas serve as anchors providing us with consistency and guidance through periods of change and uncertainty.   In the middle layers you might find strategic goals and objectives, or threats that are of immediate concern. And at the very bottom are our day to day meetings, activities, and interactions.

Of course each of your layers and networks combine and interconnect, making up a complex web of information, thoughts, ideas, and memories with various levels and sub-levels. As human problem solvers we have total access to this universe of connections. We can work from the top down or bottom up depending on our needs and situations. We can jump between layers and sub-layers, connecting disparate experiences, deepening our learning and understanding towards better decision making.

And yet despite this expansiveness, we tend to stay at the lower levels, focusing on immediate experiences that are emotionally charged while offering little insight. Just like junk food that gives us a quick fix but little else, these low levels perpetuate a hunger and craving for more stimulation. Just walk around a coffee shop, shopping mall, or other public venue and listen to the conversations of passers-by.   You will hear play-by-play accounts of conversations and experiences, emanating with emotion and interpersonal drama. Since low-level details are emotionally charged, they easily trigger other experiences and past dramas, creating patterns and priming reactive responses. Although staying at this level can provide immediate validation and temporary relief, it does little to create movement or open the way toward greater growth and fulfillment. Instead, it keeps us stuck.

In the workplace, this tendency plays out in different ways, causing employees to perseverate on low-level tasks and activities without seeing the larger picture or goals. They may focus on being busy, seeking validation, looking for respect and growing frustrated when they feel undervalued or appreciated. Others may fixate on interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors, complaining about how they are mistreated or about the toxic environment in which they work. Although people universally crave growth and respect, they often look to be given it through opportunities, titles, or responsibilities. And in doing so they may fail to access the universe of possibilities that surrounds virtually every choice and decision they make.

Too Close

As problem solvers we are notoriously lousy at seeing the world through others’ perspectives. Researchers have long studied the limitations that accompany human cognition. Many of the classic studies focus on young children, who, depending on their specific developmental stages can make some surprising errors, being fooled by the way things look. They tend to focus on the most obvious dimensions, believing that a taller and thinner vessel contains more liquid than one that is squatter, or a stretched out row of pennies contains more money than one that is close together. As adults it’s easy to smile at these errors, dismissing them as endearing examples of children’s naivete and innocence. But the truth is that even adults get fooled by appearances, trapped by our own perceptions and perspectives.

How we view the world and the decisions we make are largely influenced by our personalities, experiences, and cultural backgrounds.   What comes into our sensory systems in terms of images, sounds, or stimulation is interpreted by our minds which activate concepts and labels in our interconnected networks to give them meaning and context. Our languages help us make sense of the sounds through perceiving words and sentences; our religious and moral frameworks help us interpret right and wrong; and our individual cultures and families help us discriminate between opportunities and threats. Even though we understand at some level that others may have different views, we are quick to believe the veracity of our own interpretations and experiences, jumping to conclusions and diving back into the weeds.

Luckily there are some powerful ways to gain insight into others’ perspectives. They involve moving ourselves out of the lower layers to find more powerful frames and labels with which guide our insights and specific perceptions. We should recognize that is only through the understanding of others’ perspectives that we can adapt our own behavior and decision making to be maximally effective and impactful.

Too Dark

We expend a great deal of energy trying to preserve ourselves in all of our facets. We are wired to see threats, both literal, in the coming to attack you sense, but also more subtle emotional kinds. Once we perceive someone or something as bad or somehow “against us”, we begin to interpret their behaviors and actions through this lens, which in turn becomes highly charged and primed for activation. 

Categories associated with dangers and threats are of a special kind. Even at the highest levels of our networks they elicit fear and strong emotional responses. Some have theorized that these labels are necessary for survival and are rooted in a fight or flight response.   But regardless of their origins, they seem to have a uniquely loaded nature, heightening our negative reactions once ideas or labels are associated or connected. Another way of looking at this is through the idea of thresholds which are levels of activation necessary for a label to be “fired.” Although many high level concepts require significant thought and reflection to be accessed and understood, categories like danger, fire, or enemy activate more quickly and easily, as soon as a threat is perceived.

Because we exert a great deal of energy to preserve and feel good about ourselves, and our tendency to see the world through our own perspectives, we are likely to assign others to enemy-related categories in the face of conflict. Especially when we are engaging at our lower levels where emotions run high and thresholds low, we are quick to trigger the danger response. Unfortunately, once these labels are triggered, our openness shuts down, in essence turning of the lights and missing out on the other information and details that could lead to other decisions and perspectives.

In addition to danger-based labels, we all have other categories and frames that are easily triggered and activated. Some of us are especially sensitive about our appearance, our families, or some other characteristics that make us feel threatened, vulnerable, or inadequate. We might also bring perceived threats from our childhoods or pasts, situations that made us feel weakened or small, that set up permanent triggers that remain ready to be fired. Once triggered they result in a shutting-down or darkening, mobilizing our resources for self-protection and defense. In this mode little growth and movement can occur. In the next chapter we will explore techniques for guiding ourselves through perceived threats and dangers in order to maximize learning and maintain our movement. But for now we should begin to consider the power of threats and triggers and how they can force us to shut down in the face of perceived danger.

 

Confronting our Fears

Take a moment to put these tendencies together- too tight; too low; too close; and too dark. It’s not surprising that collectively they elicit negative feelings. In fact these same words could easily be used to describe a torture chamber befitting a horror movie, the idea of being trapped in a tight and dark chamber without room to stretch or breathe. This scenario automatically triggers feelings of vulnerability and helplessness and makes us long to turn on the lights, and escape from danger.

The irony is that when it comes to stuckness, we are all trapped by our own doing. The same systems that allow us to be constrained- the network of interconnected levels, labels, and ideas- will also allow us to move and grow. It is completely our choice to override our pre-programmed tendencies and stretch beyond. I am happy to share some new tools that can help us more fully utilize our systems toward greater movement and growth, if there is an interest. Please reply if you find these types of posts and information useful…..-Mara

Flipping the Success Pipeline

Our society loves Super Stars, those select individuals who possess exceptional beauty, talent, and dispositions that propel them to places of privilege and honor. Their lives and successes serve as the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the massive industries that sell access to their worlds. With our collective adoration in mind it’s not surprising that we seek out early indications of stardom and compete for opportunities to nurture and support success, fast-tracking those with the most promise with elite education, scholarships, positions, and opportunities. This is the pipeline that is most direct and efficient, and the one that most artfully perpetuates the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, many who obtain positions of success and privilege do great things with their resources, serving on boards, establishing foundations, and subsidizing our most needed services. The undeniable fact is that without successful individuals who are philanthropically and civically minded, many of our communities would be stripped of the very assets and resources that we have come to rely on for our quality of life. Rightly so, we admire these individuals and appreciate their generosity, recognizing that they are special in going beyond the expectations that accompany the attainment of success.

But if we were to flip the pipeline and view stardom entirely through the lens of community development, would we select the same individuals to lavish with resources and support? While financial success would remain a viable pathway for making contributions, we would see it as at best indirect and inefficient. Simply waiting for and hoping that individuals will give back to their respective communities in ways that are significant and meaningful, and that these efforts in turn will translate into growth, is like waiting for Godot.

If we were serious about strengthening our communities our scouting for potential stars would look much different. We would seek out individuals who are closest to the challenges and problems, those who recognize the assets and capacities that could be leveraged and mobilized to make positive change. We would search for natural leaders from among our most challenged and underdeveloped communities and neighborhoods, those with a sense of urgency who spend their time and energies dreaming up solutions and developing their own capacity to catalyze change.

We would recognize that these are the people who are especially poised for success, and we would fall over ourselves for chances to cultivate and support their ideas, arming them with tools – leadership development, strategic planning, asset mapping, grant writing, mediation…. any strategies or paradigms that could aid their efforts and support our collective goal of making our communities stronger and our society healthier.  And once we prepared these individuals, organizations and systems would compete for them, offering signing bonuses and perks, recognizing their value in terms of furthering their respective missions and cultivating new and better opportunities associated with enhanced human capital and a more fully developed workforce.

What would happen then? Well, once these individuals achieved the success and notoriety that we have come to adore, they would start to become the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the industries that sell access to their worlds….

Success with a Purpose: (Re)defining the next phase of our work

purpose

We have a lot riding on success.

In addition to improving the lives of individuals and their families, and fostering broader economic health, we see financial success as the primary vehicle for addressing systemic inequities. By helping disenfranchised groups gain access to opportunities and resources, we seek to elevate their standard of living while creating more space for prosperity and growth.

The Women’s Movement has been the most successful large-scale effort to move a defined population into the opportunity continuum. Since women have gained access to virtually every level of the workforce, to some degree, many are now focusing on enhancing positions of authority, leadership, and influence, in hopes of elevating conditions while contributing to the broader systems-level and societal change that we so urgently need. When framed within the deepening challenges facing women and children around the world, and the recent stagnation of women’s progress with regard to key success metrics, it’s not surprising that some women are espousing a specific form of feminism that urges us to dig (or lean) in and fight for our places within the vast power hierarchy.

More than ever, we are invited through books, workshops, coaches and conferences to develop the necessary skills, networks, and dispositions to fight the fight and stay the course. Personally, I have found Women’s Leadership messages and programs to be both inspiring and well intentioned, but ultimately no match for the complexity of the work that stands before us. Through navigating my own circuitous career, observing the self-destruction of many talented and competent women around me, and offering my assistance wherever possible, I have come to the realization that we are desperately in need of more powerful tools and supports than are currently offered.

If we are open, three daunting truths can frame and provide guidance for the next stage of our efforts. First, the complex nature of the professional, economic and political landscape and the subtle and nuanced ways that women are blocked from the full equity we seek, call for more sophisticated tools, strategies, and metrics for navigating and moving. Second, many of our existing systems, leaders, and jobs are fundamentally limited and do not afford the opportunities for connections, creativity, and growth that are most conducive to women’s impact. This reality necessitates the creation of new opportunities beyond what already exist. And third, the existing infrastructure fails to map individual success and talent to societal or systems-level gains, so the success of women (individually or collectively) will not result in, by design, the broader impacts that we need.

This final point alone should warrant immediate attention. Once we acknowledge that our current approaches to success- even if fully realized- would not bring about the scope and depth of change that frames our very Movement, then we need to revisit our notion of success and determine where it falls short. Clearly, we needn’t search far. Virtually all aspects of success, down to our working definition, are based on notions of competing for limited opportunities and access within an inherently competitive playing field. Accordingly, our support and intervention models unpack this definition through the cultivation of strategy, networks, and motivation all with the goal of getting more women in and through the hierarchy, and ultimately to the top.

In addition to being exhausting, this model of fighting and competing is insensitive to many of the more subtle nuances and complexities that obstruct women from positions of influence and the ability to make change. If we want women to not only gain a better life for themselves and their families but also to contribute to stronger communities and a better world, we need to arm them with more sophisticated frameworks, models, knowledge, and tools that will allow them to gain access but also to effectively stretch and reshape the spaces in which they work and live, creating more room for themselves and others to move, grow, and more fully contribute.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop fighting for equitable compensation or opportunities. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin to fight and work for much more. This next phase of our evolution calls for more noble and ambitious goals that extend well beyond ourselves. If powerful and clear enough, these goals can serve as a shared vision, propelling us further while connecting us with one another along the way. We will need new paradigms for support and development, a deeper understanding of the complex contexts affecting ourselves and the world, and a comfort with process frameworks be they innovation, community development, or problem solving. We will need to provide our children and ourselves with new narratives and characters in literature and all the various media platforms, expanding the ideals to which we aspire and reference our own worth and progress.

Clearly there is a great deal of work to be done. But our investments will yield far reaching benefits well beyond what we can even know.

-Mara Huber