Every fall, I need a new babysitter. Since my babysitters tend to be busy and hard-working, I usually need a couple. I find them by posting a request on my expat Facebook group. My post gets anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen responses every time. After I’ve eliminated anyone who doesn’t meet my basic requirements about availability and language, I have to choose who to invite to meet.
How do I make that choice if their qualifications are more or less the same? I check their Facebook profiles and each tells me a story about the person. From there, I pick two or three and invite them to my home where they meet me, they meet my children, and we talk. I want to know who they are, what they’re like and to watch their interactions with the children.
Of course, I asked them whether they have worked with kids before and about themselves in general. One babysitter told me about her summer job at an ice cream shop. She worked there for years during high school and also college. She spoke affectionately about an older couple who came by every summer and ordered the same thing and about the fact that they came by during her last week to say goodbye to her. Her story showed me that she was a wonderful, caring person. Three years later, I’m certain she is.
In the end, answers to questions like “why” and “what do you like about it” are meaningful because that’s when the stories come out. Like most employers, I’m hiring a person who will fit our little family organization and their stories tell me more about them than their qualifications.
When you apply for a job or a grant, you’re probably applying for something you’re qualified for. Everyone else who applies is probably also qualified. If that’s the starting point, the idea that everyone is 100% qualified, then how do you differentiate yourself? You do it for your stories.
What do I mean by stories? Not your ability to transfix the group around the campfire.
You differentiate yourself by using stories that show the audience how you do things and why you make the choices you make. You show how you respond to situations and can talk about how you felt during and after an event. The way you tell a story about a success or a failure is also telling about yourself.
You can tell a story of success and describe how you did it all and how great you are. You can also talk about success and explain how important an individual or a group was in helping you achieve your success. You can tell a story of failure and blame all sorts of individuals and circumstances. You can also tell a story of failure that demonstrates your ability to reflect and learn. These stories and the way you tell them will give your future employer or granting organization more information about who you are than reams of CV information.
These stories can be about professional contexts, but they can also be personal experiences.
This approach is especially helpful if you are new on the job market, changing careers, trying to return to the job market after taking a break. These are moments when we are painfully aware of gaps that might be on our CV. We can feel inadequate because we only meet the minimum requirements. Just then, it can be especially helpful to realize that our experiences, the ones that don’t fit neatly into the categories of education or employment history or even hobbies and interests, might be the things that best show how well-qualified we are.
This approach can really help us re-frame our own experiences and qualifications. I was a stay-at-home mom for years. Most people get a particular glaze over their eyes when you tell them you’re home with kids. Just imagine how they might have responded if I’d told them that what I did was spend every waking moment preparing the two most precious things on earth to survive on their own in a harsh and sometimes beautiful world? Or, more importantly, if I thought of my own life that way.
Here’s my challenge for you. Think about an opportunity you want and why you’re qualified for it. Now, write down why you’re qualified using a story.
See how that works? You’ve got plenty of stories to tell and we are going to find them and get them ready for the world!