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Careers Café

Positively True

Liz Koblyk wants you to figure out what the dominant theme is in the stories you tell about yourself.


The power of positive thinking is just about as widely lauded as regular exercise and vitamin D supplementation. Personally, I have mixed feelings about it (the power of mixed thinking?) that I’ll likely explore more in my next blog post. For now, though, I want to look a little more closely at where positive thinking is indeed useful.

One of my most memorable clients was awesome – a truly delightful human being, who had undergone significant losses in their personal life. (Please forgive my use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.) These losses contributed to a long period of unemployment. The stories the client told themselves about their unemployment were pretty brutal – that they were too weak to deal well with the losses, that they were wasting their potential, and that they should feel ashamed of not having a job by now.

Not all clients have stories that are as emotionally charged, but many have versions of them: that they look foolish if they explore certain career paths, that they don’t have skills, that they have passed a point of no return and have, through their own decisions, become permanently stuck where they don’t want to be.

Stories sure as heck are compelling – especially the ones we tell ourselves. There may be several stories you’re telling yourself right now. The odd thing about stories, though, is that the story about ourselves that we find the most emotionally compelling may not be the only one that’s true – and it may not be true at all.

In the case of the client I mentioned, several stories were true. They had nothing to do with spin. The client had been incredibly strong for the people in their life and had deliberately made sacrifices in order to devote energy to where it was most needed. They had gotten through that rough time and were ready and eager to return to work. These stories were, initially, less emotionally compelling to the client than the narratives of failure, but they did resonate to some small degree.

When it came to interpreting key plot points in the stories the client told themselves (leaving work, grieving losses, starting an arduous job search), in order to see the other versions of the truth, the client thought about what else each “plot point” could express. Consider your own most emotionally compelling story about your career. If it’s already positive, fantastic. That gives you time to re-read Adam Chapnick’s excellent article on requesting reference letters.

If it’s not positive and it bothers you, figure out what the dominant theme is in your current version of the story (Doomed to unemployment? Hopelessly unskilled?). Then do the challenging work, as my client did, of asking what else that story could prove. What other plot points need to be introduced that you left out of your original story to give a fuller picture? Maybe the story will still be negative to some degree – maybe a certain type of work really does not fit you and you need to move on, or maybe you face real barriers to your career goal and need to evaluate the effort it will take to break in against alternate career paths. But do evaluate your story, rather than leaving it to evaluate you.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. AFM / November 18, 2014 at 08:48

    Do you have any resources to help with this, or the flow exercise you mention in another post? I don’t have access to a professional adviser but I could sit down with a friend perhaps to try these things. (We are post-docs looking to move upwards/onwards.) Since we are feeling somewhat disheartened, some sense of outside support, even in the form of paperwork(!) would encourage us along.

    • Liz / June 29, 2015 at 09:31

      My apologies! I thought I’d responded to this earlier. Kathleen Mitchell’s work is great for identifying plot points (and assumptions that might make some plot points come to the forefront or recede to the background). Her book, The Unplanned Career, remains one of my favourite books for that very reason. You might also find William Bridges’ Creating You & Co useful, particularly the last chapter on his “DATA” approach. That chapter helps identify assets that you may have seen as liabilities.

      Good luck!

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