The other day I spoke with a friend who is fired up about reinventing her career. After months of spinning her wheels and thinking deeply about a change, moving to a new city, then completing Pilates training, she is ready to build the career of her dreams.
She’s even excited about interviewing.
“I have been trying to share all of my theoretical knowledge in my interviews,” she said, “when what I realize now is that I need to tell stories.”
I completely agree. Your skills got you a foot in the door. Your skills are what everyone reads on your resume. What you have the opportunity to demonstrate in an interview is character, mindset, motivation, and shared values. Your interview is about demonstrating your humanity.
Stories communicate our humanity best. Plus, they’re captivating. They are what we remember.
As a person who has conducted and participated in many, many interviews over the course of my career, when I think back on the candidates, I only remember the good stories. That’s it. Not dates, not degrees, not past employment, and barely even names.
I have a story about the first time I led a team in program design and growth. I was a new executive director of a nonprofit that worked with youth (I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go into detail here.)
My team was a smart, smart bunch, including a Ph.D. in history, a Ph.D. in rhetoric, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, a musician-slash-bartender from New York City, and me. Everyone was not only smart but also creative, passionate, articulate, and dedicated to justice and equity.
To complicate matters, we were in the midst of trying to solve an impossible problem. Our funders were asking us to grow and to scale our programs. We even wanted growth. But we couldn’t figure out how without sacrificing genuine impact on the youth we served.
I remember thinking about how to leverage our strengths to tackle this problem. “Ok,” I thought. “This crew needs to be involved in finding the solution, and we need to think critically and thoroughly. We need time for discussion, debate, and we need to push pause each week and let the ideas simmer.”
We set aside every Tuesday afternoon for an intense strategy meeting, and we never missed, even though it could be exhausting work.
We started with an organic plan. Together, we made a list of all of our questions. It was a Word doc of at least two pages. Then, we simply went down the list, question at a time, in open discussion.
What we eventually learned is that we were faced with an impossible puzzle. You cannot scale a program and demand the same level of quality and results. It’s like the difference between dining at a family-owned restaurant versus eating at a fast-food chain: Both can be great experiences, but they are fundamentally different.
Today I would say to the grantors and philanthropists who expressed concern that our program was too expensive: Too expensive to whom. It certainly wasn’t for the youth who benefitted.
We accomplished something else in those meetings, something equally valuable. We learned how to think together, to trust each other, and to stretch our potential. We learned the limits of our abilities, too. And those are important lessons.
The other day, my mom and I were speaking about the concept of a life’s purpose, and I said, “My life’s purpose is about transformation of organizations and people.” She said that reminded her of a story that she will never forget.
My car died when I was fresh out of college and working for the newspaper as a receptionist. I didn’t have money to fix it right away, so I took the bus to work, an hour each way, for several weeks.
I barely remember anything about the experience except for the friendship I struck up with a high school kid who rode each morning to school. We made small talk about school, my new job, relationships, and life.
Eventually, he told me that his mom had cancer. He shared with me some pretty gruesome details of what was happening to her physically.
I will never forget the details, but they don’t seem appropriate to write about here. It was so over-the-top that I just didn’t know . . . was he telling the truth? Wouldn’t a kid in this circumstance have more support and structure in his life? He seemed to be going through it alone, and his mom was slipping away.
Then, on my last day as a bus rider, he told me that he wished he could die, too. I gently leaned in.
“Tell me your last name again?”
He told me. I don’t remember it now.
“I forget . . . where do you go to school?”
I didn’t want to be sneaky, but it seemed I’d earned his trust because I was an outsider, too. I was young and broke and riding the bus, too. I worried, maybe unnecessarily, that if I confronted him too aggressively with adult-like concern, he would shut down and I would be violating our unspoken outsider contract.
That morning at work, I called his school and asked to speak to a counselor. I explained who I was, how I had met this young person, and that he was struggling. The counselor knew his mom was sick. He thanked me and said he would reach out.
In telling this story now, I want to be clear about one thing: Coaches are not experts in treating depression. There are professionals trained in this. But all of us are called to lean in, to risk vulnerability, and to take care of each other when we can.
Here’s what else I know. We all have stories of pain but also resilience, of who we are, and why we are called to a life of meaning and purpose.
What are your origin stories? What are the stories you tell yourself about yourself?
They might shift and expand if you are in a time of growth or evolution. The old ones could feel too small, or you might draw different conclusions from them. Other stories that only played a bit part could now emerge to take a starring role.
Whether you are interviewing for a job or not, your stories have the potential to propel you forward and honor your competencies and life experiences. Or they have the potential to limit and hold you back. It is your choice.
I’m Stephanie. I’m a writer, coach, and facilitator. I work with individuals, teams and leaders in creative, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit fields to improve communication, find a true purpose, and deepen connection and meaning. If you enjoyed this post, share it with a friend! And I’d love it if you would subscribe to my email list, below.