The way you talk about yourself is very powerful. Whether or not you are conscious of it, the way you tell stories of your life frames how people see you, and how you see yourself. So you may as well do this consciously, and also be conscious that people get the most tripped up in their storytelling when they are talking about uncertain moments in their career.
“The stories we tell make an enormous difference in how we cope with change,” writes Herminia Ibarra in the Harvard Business Review (paid). Crafting good story is essential for making a successful transition to your next point. Yet most of us do it badly — we can’t figure out a story arc, so we just start listing the facts of our career. But if you can’t tell people why your prior path and your new path are part of one story, then you probably can’t see it yourself, and that leads to feelings of being confused, lost and insecure — all the feelings that are typical of an uncertain life but do not have to be.
“Creating a story that resonates helps us believe in ourselves. We need a good story to reassure us that our plans make sense — that, in [making our next step], we are not discarding everything we have worked so hard to accomplish. A story gives us motivation to help us endure frustration, suffering and hard work,” says Ibarra.
For example, when someone bugs you about how can I trust you to stay at this company when you’ve changed your mind before, you can come at that person with a story. Don’t hide things because coherence is important. When you’re telling a story about yourself, coherence is the key to making the listener trust you. If you can make your story of change and self-discovery “seem coherent,” writes Ibrarra, “you will have gone far in convincing the listener that the change makes sense for you and is likely to bring success — and that you’re a stable, trustworthy person.”
Most importantly, coherence goes a long way in convincing yourself. “Think of the cartoon character who’s run off the edge of a cliff, legs still churning like crazy, he doesn’t realize he’s over the abyss until he looks down. Each of us in transition feels like that character. Coherence is the solid ground under our feet.”
The first way to envision yourself in a new phase of your life is to tell people about it. But there is another benefit to meeting new people: You can see yourself in a different light. Ibarra writes, ” Strangers can best help you see who you’re becoming, providing fresh ideas uncolored by your previous identity.”
The best reasons for wanting to change what you’re doing are grounded in character — they talk about who you are, what you are good at, what you like. Bad reasons are external, like getting fired. Giving external reasons for making change make you look like someone who is a fatalist. You need to show that you are taking charge of your life, not just reacting to what comes along.
More is good, though: The more detailed and more varied your reasons are, the more acceptable your next steps will seem to other people.
You feel comfortable telling it and the other person gives you positive feedback in the nonverbal cues department. When you are practicing, the best people to try it on are people who don’t know you. They don’t bring any preconceived notions of who you are to the conversation, so you can tell them whatever you want. In the conversation with a stranger you can try out being your new self, and you can tell if you ruin your clean slate with a terrible story.
Storytelling takes practice, but everyone who is making a big change in their life has everything a good story needs. You are the protagonist, and there is intrinsic conflict in that something changed in your world to make you want to change jobs. The journey of your story is your search for your next job.
If you’re feeling lost on this read John Gardner’s book, the Art of Fiction. Maybe you think it’s totally over the top to read 200 pages about story telling so that you can tell a one-minute story. But this is your life. And you are going to get through all the tough parts of your life by telling stories, intentionally or not. So why not take control of things and get good at talking to yourself about yourself?