There’s a lot we can learn from the stories of our professional life—if we tell them in a way that enables us to hear what they really have to say to us. Too often we are satisfied with forcing our career stories to fit the mold of a resume, which is a formal exercise with a fixed external purpose (i.e., getting a job).
A career autobiography, on the other hand, is a free-form narrative with an evolving internal purpose.
When we begin to tell our career stories as stories instead of trying to make them conform to some predetermined set of specifications, we make discoveries about ourselves and tap the springs of our internal wisdom.
Put down everything you can think of about the progression of your professional life. Then go back and highlight what stands out as most important and prepare an edited version to share with others.
There is no right or wrong way to write a career autobiography, but there are few things to keep in mind as you go about it.
SOME GUIDELINES FOR WRITING A CAREER AUTOBIOGRAPHY
The list of guidelines that follows is not meant to be exhaustive. Nor are these hard and fast rules—they are merely intended to provide a framework to work within as you explore your story.
- Begin at the beginning . A resume presents the most recent events first and moves backward in time from there. A career autobiography starts out with when and where and how you grew up and moves forward in time (though it may contain flashbacks, digressions, speculations about the future, etc.)
- Set the stage . Fill in the background, e.g., “I grew up in a middle-class family with two older sisters. My mom stayed home and my dad worked for the same company for 25 years—IBM was almost a member of the family.” Position yourself within the context of your family, your education, the cultures of the places where you have worked, etc.
- Speak it. This is not a master’s thesis or something that’s going to be published in The New Yorker! It’s for your eyes only so don’t be afraid to make it informal. Pretend you’re talking to a trusted friend over coffee or writing a letter to someone you’ve known for a long time.
- Pause to take stock. At major turning points in your story stop and ask yourself what influenced your decision at the time, what was going on inside you when you made the choice to take the path you did.
- Look for themes and patterns . If you write something like, “I took the job, despite the long commute, because it meant I would be able to build the program from scratch,” try to identify where the notion of “building something from scratch” comes from and where it shows up in other places in your life.
If writing comes easily, put down everything you can think of about the progression of your professional life. Then go back and highlight what stands out as most important and prepare an edited version to share with others.
If it doesn’t, record the most pertinent facts in outline form. Walk through your professional life as if you were leading a tour through a historical building, pointing out highlights such as parts of the structure which stand firm and others which are in need of a bit of restoration. Record key findings from your “tour”.
If even this seems too daunting have a friend “interview” you on tape, asking you a few simple questions such as: “Tell me a little about yourself.” “Why did you decide to major in-?” “What did you gain from that experience at-?” “What did you like the most about-?” Listen to the tape and make a note of what speaks to you in a new way .
STORIES COME TO LIFE IN THE TELLING
Once you have gotten yours down on paper using whatever approach works best for you, find someone to tell it to who will listen attentively and quietly .
Avoid well-meaning family members and friends who may feel called upon to comment or make suggestions. The purpose of telling your story is so that you can begin to hear it in a different way. For that to happen you need a listener who will not in any way distract your attention from what your story has to say to you.
A skilled counselor is an excellent resource, with the added advantage that you will be providing background information they will need to help you achieve your career goals.
If you are not ready to use a professional resource, telling your story to a friend or colleague will yield some of the same benefits and start you off in developing the essential skill of articulating who you are and what you have to offer.