Please, Never Tell This Story at a Job Interview
I’m an editor, so I help people tell their stories in better ways on a daily basis. Over the years the mechanics of that process have become ingrained in my advice to people in all kinds of situations. “Are you sure this is the story you want to tell to audience x to get result y? Is audience x even going to understand what you’re trying to say if you say it this way instead of that way?” And that instinctive approach absolutely applies to job applications when friends, former interns, or mentees ask me for advice on their cover letters and preparation for job interviews.
This is one of the scenarios I see most frequently: Friend x is applying to job y, and the person is jumping fishbowls from one type of role to another — or maybe from one industry to another. And behind that person is a trail of utterly unfulfilling experiences and gigs that they are more than happy to leave behind. And you know what? That’s fine. That’s life. One time at one of my old jobs I got a cover letter from someone who worked in a prison and wanted to become a writer (and that really warranted additional advice, which is to become a writer and the apply for a the job, but that’s a Medium post for another day). Anyhow, that was the beginning and the end of their story: The applicant just wanted to do something new.
Much of life involves doing things that you would rather not do, often for no other reason than necessity and paying bills. But that story is a terrible one to tell when you’re looking for someone to pay you to do work. I’m not saying it’s not a real story in many cases, but hiring managers and potential bosses are rarely looking to make rescue-mission hires. (And if they are it’s likely because they want to play to that desperation and lowball you on salary, which is a terrible recipe for everyone involved.)
So what do you do when this is the story of your career? Maybe you consulted a bit; maybe you freelanced while doing some warehouse work; maybe you even tried a sales job on for size until you went off the rails because you whiffed on a quota. And now you’re interviewing for the golden entry-level editor opening that you’ve been dreaming about for five years. That’s great news. But don’t waste your new employer’s time by describing yourself as a previously unappreciated wunderkind who repeatedly got ignored until you found your way to your current interview. The one exception to this might be if you were working a day job while being entrepreneurial in your off hours doing freelance work — and in that case you probably don’t want to emphasize your day job anyway. Stick to the interesting stuff (and believe me, there’s always a spectrum of least-to-most interesting stuff).
Regardless of your situation’s specifics, you always want to tell a story of growth, learning, successes (with portfolio examples to show where appropriate), and lessons from mistakes. It’s hard to go wrong with those priorities, and if you have a more successful recipe for job interviews, I’d love to hear about it.
Start with crafting a narrative about growth — and by crafting a narrative I don’t mean make stuff up; I mean figure out how to talk about yourself in a way that explains your professional growth story. If you didn’t like where you were working before, then congratulations; you have a simple formula to work with: “I wanted to move in a new direction career-wise, so I did x, y, and z to get there. Now, I’m looking to take the next step, and [insert hiring manager’s company name here] looks like a place where I could do this.”
A deeper piece of advice I often give is to approach ambitions and execution at work with these kinds of storyarcs in mind from the beginning. Whether you have a boss driving your terms of success or not, set short-term missions for yourself over six-month, 12-month, or 18-month periods. The length is insignificant, but the end result is that you bake stories about growth, learning, successes and mistakes to take with you to your next job interview. Moreover — surprise! — you also get skills and learning experiences that help you to get better in your chosen career path. If you do these things with intention from the start, the stories are often easier to tell down the road; nevertheless, even if you didn’t plan out your day-to-day grinds at your string of odd jobs, you can often still find transferable scenarios. Initiatives, projects, and product cycles all have beginnings, middles, and ends, but the same arc can have different key details worth emphasizing in front of different audiences.
Bottom line, though: You can take a story about a situation where you were unhappy and turn it into a growth story. There are internalized benefits to this process, too, because it can help you to crystalize your own goals and figure out what you’re prepared to do next. You might just surprise yourself.
As an editor, I’ve been lucky. Throughout pretty much every stage of my career I’ve had daily article deadlines, as well as daily, weekly, or monthly issues to assemble or quarterly and annual projects based around products, audience metrics, or talent development. Those projects have translated into stories that are fun to talk about and built around discovery, research, and publication with terms of success that were either met or missed. Both can be useful to discuss, especially in the latter case when those learnings informed choices that were made in successful ventures later on.
I credit my early work as a magazine journalist for programming me to think this way. When you wake up every day searching for angles to describe trends and newsworthy events, you find yourself hunting for the key takeaways and story ledes that will hook your readers, and cover letters and interviews can benefit from that same mental toolkit.
Ultimately, the stories you learn to tell about yourself professionally are often going to be the ones that open up the most doors for you (along with all the cover stories, breaking news exclusives, and prize-winning features, of course, if you happen to work in media). My point is, however, that you don’t need to work in the media world to benefit from some writing workshops or storytelling exercises that help you to find the beginnings, middles, and ends of compelling narratives in your own life; once you identify those points, it’s a lot easier to slide into an interview chair and start growing relationships with your future colleagues and clients.