Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in the “Generation Resilient” series. Nancy Darling is a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Adolescence and founder of 1step2life, ltd, an app providing support for adolescents in chronic pain and their caregivers. Her blog, Thinking About Kids, is published by Psychology Today. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I can relate. I graduated during the recession of 1981 and landed my first job in a Boston architectural firm through sheer persistence and willingness to take any starting position. When the company that finally hired me said they were worried an Ivy Leaguer wouldn’t want to do the low-level work they had available, I told them I was really good at sharpening pencils.
A year later I was on the market again after moving to New Hampshire. Unemployment was at close to 11%, and within one week of moving I had talked to every firm who might hire me. Companies recruiting for minimum wage secretarial jobs were looking for fluency in multiple languages on top of crazy good typing skills. Once fall foliage season was over, even my waitressing job dried up.
So, I reassessed. I wrote down my skills. I looked around and found every company in the area that might potentially use the talents I had. I wrote a story to each of them, talking about my skills and what I could bring to their company. It wasn’t a story about how an Ivy League designer wound up unemployed and broke in rural New England.
It was a story that told about the experiences, training, and qualities I had – and how those qualities would be useful to their company. And one of the stories I told – about how my background as a designer could help a Fortune 500 company better plan its next headquarters – succeeded in helping me land my next job.
For the many recent graduates, or recently unemployed people, hunting around for new opportunities, here is an exercise that may help you find your story and chart the next phase of your career.
Step 1: Finding your invisible strengths
Let’s start by listing your hard skills, soft skills and any special talents or skills you’ve picked up along the way. You’ll need Post-Its, as you begin to identify those skills. (Don’t worry about editing right now. Later, we’ll pick and choose the ones we need to build a really strong narrative for.)
First identify your hard skills. Hard skills are the kind of things that you’ve learned in class, performed on a job or done as a volunteer. My students immediately identify their statistical skills. To an employer hoping to hire a lab tech, however, their skills entering, cleaning and coding data are probably even more important. What do you know how to do?
- Technical skills: Go through your resume or transcript. Have you worked in a lab, restaurant or library? What did you have to learn to do that job? What software can you use? Do you have special licenses? Can you use specialized equipment?
- Communication: Are you good at communicating with clients, customers or employees? Can you write, give presentations or teach? Are you skilled at using social media? Can you draw, do computer graphics or develop memes?
- Language skills: A working knowledge – reading or spoken – of a language is valuable in many jobs and provides evidence of your cultural literacy.
- Quantitative skills: Can you work with data and numbers? Many people who have these skills don’t list them because they lack confidence. How are your spreadsheet skills? Have you done balance sheets or accounting?
- Problem solving and logistics: How are you at finding the right person or company to get something done and keeping track of complex projects? Can you systematically track down a computer glitch or engine problem? Are you good at making things work better or saving money?
Soft skills: I donate blood platelets every month. The woman who calls to remind me to come, greets me at the door and schedules my appointments makes me feel like the most important person in the world. In fact, she makes everyone feel like the most important person in the world. She is invaluable to that Red Cross center. Those are “soft skills” – qualities that make her stand out and be great at her job. Time to list yours.
- Individual strengths: Are you organized? Detail oriented? Thorough? Great at multi-tasking? Do you see the big picture? Punctual?
- Leading a team: Are you a leader? Are you good at finding other people’s strengths? Do other people ask to work with you? Are you great at schmoozing, remembering people’s names and networking?
- Handling criticism: Can you give and take constructive feedback?
- Working in a diversified workforce: Many studies have shown that workplaces that are ethnically and culturally diverse and represent different genders and viewpoints are more productive. Can you demonstrate that you can work well in those settings? But it doesn’t stop there. Have you worked with children? Older adults? Have you worked with people with physical or emotional disabilities? People with different backgrounds or spiritual beliefs or levels of education?
Unusual talents: One of my students got a job working with emotionally disturbed children because she could juggle, another a research fellowship because she had trained dogs and a third a counseling gig because he modified bicycles. What skills and hobbies do you have that people find interesting? Have you acted? Are you a musician? Do you sing in the choir? Write those things down, too.
Step 2: Picture your audience
You are going to be telling a story explaining why you are an incredible asset to an organization. Who are you going to tell that story to?
Picture your reader. When looking for a job, it’s not all about you, it’s about them – the people who you think absolutely need you to work for them. In marketing, they call these people “personas” – the people they think need their product or service. That’s who you’re going to tell your story to.
Look over your skills. Think about whose problem you are the perfect solution to. Write a short bio of that person. What do they need? What’s the problem they have that you are going to solve?
Learn the language. Now’s the time to do some research. Go to LinkedIn, Indeed, Idealist.org or other professional forums. Scan ads written by the kind of people you’ve just described, just focusing on the language. What words do they use to describe the qualities they’re looking for?
You’ll know you’ve read enough ads when they all start to look alike. Now, go back to your list of skills. Are you describing yourself using the same words that the advertisers use to describe their ideal candidates? This is not a time for creativity. As Steve Krug says in “Don’t Make Me Think,” the less someone needs to think to choose you, the more likely they are to choose you.
So, tell your story simply in the language the listener understands.
Step 3: Tell your story
Now comes the hard part: turning your skills and research into a story.
First, look at your skills.
Think about the person you just described and rearrange the Post-Its with the skills that are most important to them at the front of your storyline. These are things your audience absolutely need to know about you – the core skills that you would not be hired without.
Next, what other skills do you have that will make you stand out against other people with that same skill set? For example, my oldest son was applying to a prestigious teaching program, competing with other impressive candidates with strong academic backgrounds – some potentially stronger than his. He made it clear he had those skills. But what he highlighted was his work teaching classes of 40+ middle schoolers in deep rural South Africa.
Note that describing your experiences concretely allows you to communicate what you can do. In my son’s case, it highlighted his teaching skills, classroom control, ability to work in an ESL environment without him explicitly saying, “I’m innovative and can work with diverse populations.”
Next, what experiences do you have that tie together your skills? Tell a story that illustrates your hard skills and showcases your soft skills. For example, when I was applying to graduate school in psychology, I had none of the experiences you’d expect – I was an interior design major who had done a senior project designing teapots.
But I had a lot of the skills that I needed – problem solving, data gathering and organization. When I wrote my application letter, I didn’t say “I’m a smart creative person” – the qualities I thought they wanted. Instead I said, “Design is all about solving complex problems.” Then I described the process of moving a large corporation into a 72-floor office tower. Which departments should be next to each other? How many copiers and wastepaper baskets do I need? How did I go about getting that information out?
A couple of things about this example:
- First, telling a story about a major project I worked on ties together a number of skills into one memorable chunk labeled “problem solver.”
- Second, I could talk about the skills I applied to different components of the problem without beginning every sentence with the word “I.”
- More importantly, I could allow them to infer my skills by talking about the analyses I performed, how our team worked together and the presentations we gave. Steve Jobs talked about imputing the quality of the product from the way it is packaged: “if we present (the product) in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.”
By telling a story about how you did your best work – especially by putting yourself in a team context – your listener will impute your best qualities from the work you’ve described. Not only do they know, but, as Jobs said, people who infer positive qualities about others are much more likely to believe their own conclusions than they are to believe you when you say them about yourself.
Step 4: Repeat and review
Now that you’ve told one story, go back to your list of skills. Have you told your listener enough that they’ll want to interview you and learn more?
- Make sure you’ve covered the bases. Check off the skills that your story covered either explicitly (“I interviewed key members of each department”) or implicitly (“Working to meet tight deadlines, we … “).
- Missing something? Regroup the key skills that are still important to communicate. Now, add to your story. Is there a way of incorporating them into the story you told? Can you tell another story that brings together the remaining skills? Is it better to provide a quick summary of the remaining skills? Sometimes one good story is all you need if you can use a more conventional way to communicate other information.
- And, once again, make sure you tell your story in a language your listener understands.
Step 5: Communicate effectively
Now that you have your story, tell it consistently and effectively. Don’t tell the same person several different stories about yourself.
What does this mean?
- Your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile and web portfolio – every place a potential employer sees you – should all have a consistent narrative.
- You may have to build somewhat different narratives for different audiences. It’s easy to put together different cover letters or resumes or even websites, though it can be more challenging with something like LinkedIn. Presenting complimentary narratives can enhance each of them instead of sowing confusion.
Practice and polish your story. As you meet people – and especially if they are interviewing you – you want to be able to flesh out the key elements of your story to really bring them home.
A story for yourself and others
Job hunts are rough on the ego. It’s like browsing Instagram – you compare your real life with everyone else’s highlight reel. Recognizing your own unique strengths helps employers see why you’re the perfect person for the job. But it can also help you see who you are more clearly.
Sometimes it even helps you identify gaps in your skill set. Though dispiriting, spotting those gaps is the first step in filling them so you can build an even stronger story tomorrow.