Rewriting Your Career Narratives

By Susan David

Most of us are used to updating our résumés. As we grow up, we stop listing our summer jobs and high school trophies. We learn to foreground the achievements and experiences that are most relevant to the position at hand. One hiring manager might be impressed by a rigorous certification, whereas another will be more interested in our experience in the field. In this stage of our career development, we generally know what to highlight and what to downplay.

However, my experience in organizations has taught me that even smart, capable people tend to be less adept at updating their career narratives. The stories that we tell ourselves can propel us forward or hold us back. The key is in being able to tell the difference and learning to dispense with the ones that impede our progress. 

In my book Emotional Agility, I write about a woman named Livia who worked for one of my corporate clients. Unbeknownst to her, Livia was in line for a life-changing promotion. (A confidentiality agreement kept me from sharing the good news.) What she did know was that something was up. Senior managers were treating her differently. A couple times, they stopped talking when she entered a room. Hooked by her own insecurity—by the story that change must be bad and that she is destined for failure—Livia came to the conclusion she was getting fired. She became withdrawn at the office, failing to contribute and turning negative. I returned from maternity leave to find that Livia’s prophecy was self-fulfilling. Frustrated by her new attitude, her supervisors had indeed shown her the door. 

This anecdote illustrates the power of unhealthy and outdated narratives to sabotage us. Livia’s bosses were initially wowed by her talent and work ethic, but in the story she told herself, she wasn’t worthy of climbing to the next rung of the professional ladder. When that narrative bubbled to the surface, it had real repercussions. It inspired her to act like someone unworthy of a promotion. If Livia had believed herself to be as capable as she actually was, had the confidence to meet with her boss and ask what was going on, or chose to keep contributing—one of her key values—the new job would’ve been hers for the taking. 

Many of us have been in similar predicaments. We are hooked by what feels comfortable. Part of this is biology. Our brains are hardwired to see change as inherently unsafe. In fact, studies show that people with low self-esteem are apt to leave companies when they are offered a promotion. It feels incongruous with the stories they tell themselves. 

So today, I encourage you to take a moment to consider which of your own narratives could do with an update. Is your insecurity keeping you from putting up your hand for new projects? Might your self-image as a good parent make you inclined to reserve all warmth for your family and act abrasively at the office? Does the idea that you’re a “behind-the-scenes” type prevent you from getting the credit you’re due? This examination will help you put your values ahead of the inbuilt desire for comfort. By rebooting your stories, you can begin to live at the edge of your abilities. 

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