Your narrative isn’t some natural story waiting to be discovered — it’s something you develop.
The start of summer is the best-worst time of the year: the annual return of Big Brother, the trashy real-time reality-competition show that locks a dozen or so strangers in a house/soundstage for an entire summer to fight, make out, and vote each other out. This season, I’ll be watching with an eye toward my next job interview.
See, I’m concerned by the question that traditionally starts the interview: “tell me about yourself.” It’s classically frustrating: seemingly freeform and inviting, yet in reality vague and confounding. How do I give you the highlights of my 20-odd years of life in a couple minutes? Can’t you ask me something more specific?
Sometimes it feels as if there is a right answer just out of reach. The question invites us to share our professional narrative in some concise and neatly packaged form. Answering it can feel as if we’re trying to gaze into the future towards the Wikipedia page that someone will hopefully write about us someday, screenshot the opening paragraph, and paste it neatly into the interview.
When I’m asked the question, I talk about how I fell in love with public policy in college through student government and my summer internship at my county Board of Supervisors. In my career I’ve worked for two State of California departments where I’ve developed expertise in project management and legislative affairs. I approach every policy problem like a jigsaw puzzle that I’m thrilled to solve, and I am grateful every day to work as a public servant.
The story I tell is neat, linear, and confident. It can produce the illusion that I purposefully set and followed a plan for myself.
But in reality, it is carefully assembled from a history that more closely resembles a jumbled mess of crayon drawings.
What you don’t hear in my narrative is all the things I left out. The primary motivation behind my first student government campaign was that I thought it would be really exciting to design campaign posters. For two years of college, I inexplicably thought I wanted to go into marketing.
As I grew less interested in marketing and more interested in government, I focused less on poster design and more on my successful track record of policy implementation. When I grew passionate about retirement programs, I emphasized my experience working with budgets and the tax code.
This is where we return to Big Brother.
Big Brother airs in real time, producing three episodes per week based on its contestants’ contemporaneous activities. Unlike peer shows such as Survivor, the show doesn’t have the liberty of crafting the season’s story after all the footage is recorded. Instead, the editors might build up one player as a summer-long villain only to see them voted out halfway through the season, forcing them to pivot and focus on other characters.
This is how our careers work too. You can think one thing is absolutely the path you’ll go down, only to realize it’s something else entirely. You may begin telling a certain story about yourself, but realize after a few years that you don’t want that to be your story any more.
It can be tempting to think of our careers as something more like Westworld or The Good Place, following a master narrative carefully planned out from the first episode. But like Big Brother, our narratives are how we reconstruct a cohesive story from inconsistent plot development. The show adapts the story it’s been telling to match the real-time conditions in the game, and disregards the previous stories that don’t align with its current narrative.
When you see a job that interests you, even if it doesn’t align fully with the story you’ve been telling yourself so far, you should ask yourself: how do I craft the narrative that will get me there? For me, it was empowering to realize that a narrative is not an objective and natural thing, but rather a selective recounting of my experience. It’s not that there’s one correct version of my story out there just waiting to be discovered. Instead, it’s a tool that I can shape to meet my needs.
Please don’t watch Big Brother this summer — it’s a terrible show and you should resist falling into its clutches — but as you ponder next steps in your career, take a moment to learn from its lessons.