I was watching a movie, The Proposal, last weekend — it was entertaining enough, certainly not one that will make my top 50 list. But mid-movie, the leading actor delivered a line that really struck me: “the only thing you really own is your story, make it a good one.” I’m not ready to philosophize on my life and my story yet, but as I work with so many young MBA students, I began to think about how that quote applies in two ways: one, you have a story to tell right now that will determine if you get that job you are gunning for; and two, you are at a moment in your life to significantly shape your story — make it a good one.
Your story in the networking/interviewing/job candidacy process is, in my opinion, the difference between breaking through, or not. If you have a compelling story, the entire interview hangs together and compels the interviewer to see the “fit” between you and the opportunity. This week I was working with a second-year Darden student — she had a successful internship which resulted in an offer and she is a Second-Year Career Coach (a select group of students chosen to “coach” first-year students in the job search process). As a coach, she has received positive feedback from students on her ability to help them with their stories, yet this week she came to see me because she didn’t feel her story was as compelling as it should be. I admire her introspection and willingness to both be a coach and be coached. One of my true passions is helping students develop this skill (see my blog on Daniel Pink’s chapter on “Story Telling” in his book, A Whole New Mind, or go to the source). What I believe we uncovered in our discussion about her story was the need for her to be direct and upfront about how what she has done in the past weaves together nicely to perfectly prepare her to interview for this job at this time. While she was communicating her transferable skills and the brief history of her accomplishments, she was missing the compelling, believable story. In the process of our 45 minutes together, I think she got much closer. At least, I was convinced.
What makes a story compelling? It really is hard to put a finger on it. It’s certainly not a history lesson in what you have done. It’s also not a recitation of skills that you know the job requires. A good story is not groveling and just saying what the interviewer wants to hear. The trouble with these three approaches is that anyone’s story could be the same as yours. Instead, a good story is uniquely yours — it celebrates your accomplishments, highlights your skills, and yet demonstrates your vulnerabilities and moral fiber. The hero in the story is YOU. It shows what you have discovered about yourself and where those discoveries are leading you. It begs more detail and questions. It sets up the remainder of the interview. It creates a bond from the beginning of the interview. The story is what makes you, you.
Now to my second point: your career will be punctuated with a few seminal events. Choosing to attend Darden is certainly one of them. You had a story up to this point, and many of you want to make a significant change in your story at this point in your life. You had dreams and hopes when you applied to business school. Are you still pursuing those dreams, or bigger ones? I encourage you to let go of the herd mentality of MBA students — go after what you are dreaming about. I’ve met with students in the past few months who want to make significant career changes into passions not normally pursued by MBAs. Are you still chasing those dreams? Equally importantly, do you have a compelling story of why that dream makes sense both for you and for the target of your dreams? If not, keep working at it. It’s those that have a dream that develop and deliver the most compelling stories. Those trying to fake it usually have trouble making it believable.
So, your story…in the end it’s the only thing you really own. Make it a good one.