A year or two ago, I am walking with my brother beneath towering redwoods somewhere outside Portland, Oregon. He is maybe halfway through his MBA program at PSU, and starting to look for internship opportunities.
At some point he laments that in job interviews, he has no idea how to talk about an experience we both share, which is having (separately) hiked 2,200 consecutive miles on the Appalachian Trail.
“It just looks like this huge 6-month gap in my resume,” he says. “I got so much value out of it, but I don't know how to communicate that value in an interview.”
Ah! And therein lies the rub:
It’s not that the experience wasn’t valuable; it’s just unclear how to ARTICULATE the value.
Each of us could talk for days about what our respective experiences on the trail taught us: life-changing lessons about commitment; presence; adaptability; stamina; grit; priorities; leadership; the stories people tell themselves that aren’t necessarily true; and what it really takes to execute a goal so big, that at first it seems "impossible."
And yet! Because it is not the kind of experience that fits neatly on a resume (or into any of the other archaic story forms we’ve inherited for doing business), it gets relegated to the back of the bus, skimmed over with a raised eyebrow, or left out all together.
We do ourselves a huge disservice when we allow our “experience” to be so narrowly defined.
But we routinely allow just that. It's the reason why every recent college graduate, while holding the proof in her hands that she has done all the things she was told she had to do before she could enter the workforce, still feels UNDER-QUALIFIED.
Because we've been taught to believe that only certain types of experience "count," so what do we do? We subconsciously DIS-count everything else that made us who we are and showed us what we're capable of. And then we wonder why we feel icky and small, when we know, deep down, that we are larger than life.
In reality, you already have a deep well of diverse experiences to draw from.
What's more, each experience has taught you something of value; about who you are, how the world works, and what you want to DO with your one wild and precious life.
Here are just a few examples of formative experiences I've heard from clients recently:
- Quitting a cushy job at Google with no backup plan
- Beating cancer at 20 years old while your parents were an ocean away
- Spending the day with a legendary basketball coach as a 19 year old kid
- Moving to a foreign country without speaking the language
- Growing up in "the shadows of America" as an undocumented immigrant
- Setting off a car alarm with only your voice
- Having your car stolen by a trusted student
- Learning how to build a fire as an adult after growing up in Manhattan
- Being the health advocate for your elderly diabetic mother
- Having a mentor hold up a mirror and say: “What are you waiting for?”
These kinds of experiences – the ones that surprise, challenge, and educate us – are at least as powerful as the ones that come from whatever roles we've played in building our careers and businesses.
What's more, they are the source of your NATURAL AUTHORITY as the primary meaning-maker of your life. They are the things about which you get to tell stories with unshakeable conviction and credibility - which is the KEY to inspiring trust in others.
Just try saying this out loud: "I speak from experience."
Can you hear the tone of authority ringing in that statement? Can you see that secretly, implicitly, what you are really saying is "trust me on this"?
It doesn't matter how small or commonplace a given corner of human experience is - you've explored it firsthand, and you've fashioned your own meaning from it, and this is what makes it fundamentally YOURS.
This is the kind of energetic authority you get to embody every time you tell a meaningful story from your broader human experience:
"There's a lot I don't know... but I do know this: I am the master of my own experience."
So please, don’t be suckered into the trap of defining your experience so narrowly. Don't agree to whittle your whole self down to stick-figure proportions just because that's what's expected.
Instead, summon the courage to take ownership of your “miscellaneous” pockets of personal experience and authority. Do the work of looking at and making meaning from them. If you don't do it yourself, others will happily to do it for you, and by then it will be out of your control.
Be fearless. Be vulnerable. Be sorry-not-sorry. Be WILLING to share the things that shaped you, so that others can see your true shape.
And if you ever need help with that articulation piece - I am only an email away!
PS. If you're in the Bay Area, join me and my esteemed colleague Lauri Smith of Voice Matters on 6/21 for our Inspired Networking Playshop: an evening of fun games and activities designed to help you become a more authentic and masterful networker.