Ask an Expert: How “Story Work” Can Help You Find the Right Career

Career Counselor Megan Haupt explains how to take ownership of your professional story to make a career change that's authentic to you.

portrait of Meg Embry
by Meg Embry

Published on March 19, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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Ask an Expert: How “Story Work” Can Help You Find the Right Career


Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people have walked away from their jobs to ask themselves, what do I really want from work?

This widespread identity crisis doesn't come as a surprise to long-time career counselor Megan Haupt.

"In the US, we spend most of our lives preparing to work or working. But more often than not, our career choices default to what we learned growing up," she said. "That includes how we define success, how we prioritize work-life balance, and what we believe about work."

When we aren't the authors of our own stories, we get frustrated. We burn out. We struggle to find meaning in what we do.

That's where story work comes in, says Haupt.

What is Story Work?

Story work is a guided introspection practice Haupt developed to help her clients make thoughtful assessments about what they really value.

"It's a reflective and exploratory process for looking at all of the factors that go into shaping who you are as a professional, how you perceive yourself, how you prefer to work, what management style serves you best, and how you define success," she said.

The goal is to understand your own story in a way that will help you write a more authentic future.

So How Do I Start?

To do that, start by journaling your responses to the following prompts.

Spread the project out over a few days, recommended Haupt. "Take your time and try to avoid overly critical assessments of yourself or your work history."

Prompt 1: Early Influences — Consider How Your Values Were Shaped

Who played a role in modeling work values in your life? How was success defined in your home? Did your parents, caregivers, or older family members have a positive or negative relationship to their work or profession? What kind of activities did you gravitate to as a child? How did you explore your world? What professions were you first interested in and why?

Our parents wield massive influence over our conceptions of work, said Haupt. Despite their best intentions, they often acted out their subconscious fears about money, success, and self-worth while raising us.

Kids tend to internalize what parents model, she pointed out.

"So if you saw that your caregiver hated work, you may have come to the conclusion that work is something you're supposed to hate. As a result, you're less likely to question your own dissatisfaction as a working adult or introspect about what might make you happier."

Prompt 2: Authentic Self — Consider Who You Are as a Worker

How would you describe the big picture of your professional journey? Was it a steady and linear climb? Did you change jobs and professions often? Why? What are the "aha" moments? Look into both your highs and your lows for examples. How did those moments shape you? What awareness did they provide for you? What stories about yourself did you take away from those experiences that may be serving you poorly now?

In this part of the process, explore yourself as a person and a worker outside the context of any specific profession or role.

"You can't always align your identity with specific roles because the market is constantly redefining what those roles look like," explained Haupt.

"If you're really focused on one role or one career that is phased out or isn't available to you for some reason, you've severely limited your openness to new opportunities that may provide room to grow."

Prompt 3: Strengths and Weaknesses — Look Deeper

What would you list as your strengths? What do you consider your weaknesses? When things are not going according to plan, do your strengths consistently work in your favor? Are there times when your strengths don't support you? When you are most yourself — feeling in your element, balanced, or in a flow state — what specific skills and strengths come alive for you?

"Most of us have default strengths that we rely on to push through or bootstrap our careers," said Haupt.

"But it's worth investigating those more vulnerable, quiet abilities that emerge when we feel relaxed, safe, and happy. How can you leverage them? What kind of environment is necessary for you to access those strengths?"

Put it All Together

When you're done, distill your personal narrative into a one-page story.

You should notice some patterns and themes emerging that capture the big picture of who you are, what skills you have to offer, and what you really want, said Haupt. "That's the good stuff."

How Does Story Work Help Me Change Careers?

That "good stuff" should help you navigate a career change with more clarity and confidence.

Job listings and titles can vary dramatically from company to company. But now you have a powerful reference document that allows you to match your story to what employers are looking for.

Applications

"It also helps reduce imposter syndrome by undercutting any beliefs that you might not have what it takes to land a certain position," said Haupt. "You've got the facts in front of you now."

She advises her clients to use the 60/40 rule for job applications.

"Look for jobs where you have 60% of the qualifications in the bag. Consider the remaining 40% your opportunity for growth and development. If you only apply to jobs you're 100% qualified for, you're going to be bored, under-challenged, and unhappy in no time."

Cover Letters

Story work can also help you write more compelling cover letters.

"It's essential to connect the dots for the reader to showcase specific skills and experiences while also indicating why the job excites you. This exercise provides you with raw, authentic material that is powerful, relevant, and deeply personalized."

Interviews

"Review your story before going into a job interview," said Haupt. "Remember what you really want; That will help shift the dynamic from a performance to a conversation. You'll be more relaxed, more curious, and more alert to possible red flags," said Haupt.

"You'll also be more confident asking for a specific salary or compensation package. Identifying your key strengths can help you assess your skills against the market ahead of time."

Throughout your Career

"It's a good practice to expand and revisit your story throughout your career," advised Haupt.

"It can be incredibly grounding before going into a performance review, accepting a stretch assignment, or pursuing a promotion. Doing this work will help you stay true to yourself."


Feature Image: ljubaphoto / E+ / Getty Images

While this guide includes information relevant to job seekers at all levels, its primary audience is recent graduates and young professionals in the early stages of their careers. More people are pursuing new career paths for better pay and personal fulfillment. Learn how to change careers successfully at any age. Explore our list of the top 12 jobs for career changers based on demand and earning potential. Learn about these jobs and their education requirements.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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