professional success

When Your Career Doesn't Fit

Being in a career that you hate is the absolute worst. I get it--I've been there. On top of my personal experience, I find that many of my clients feel stuck in careers that just don't fit their unique skillsets and personalities. They are 100% sure that they don't like what they're doing, but they also don't know what career would be better to move into, so they feel even more stuck.

Feeling trapped--with no light at the end of the tunnel--is a serious downer, and a pervasive problem that is worth solving.

While there are obviously lots of contributing factors to discontentment in the workplace including office culture, management styles, working conditions, and much more, career choice itself can certainly be the problem. In this case, I'm talking to those of you who might like your boss, but don't like your job. You like your coworkers, but have no interest in the work itself.

A lot of us got pushed into making a career decision during our undergrad, long before we blossomed into fully-functioning adults, and we find ourselves stuck on that trajectory, years later.  When clients bring up this topic in our conversations, I generally say something like this: "I'm not a licensed career counselor, but I am passionate about professional identity, individual gifts, and career transition. I geek out over personality assessments. If you're up for it, let's chat and see what we can come up with."

I enter into this conversation with others--formally and informally, personally and professionally--because I know the discomfort of being in the wrong profession. It took me years to figure out that I was wired to work at home and run my own business, and now that I'm finally in a career that aligns with who I am as a person, I'm blown away by the positive impact on my life! It's been radically life-changing, and I never dreamed I could be this satisfied with my career. I never thought I would want to work, but I almost always feel energized and ready to go! Why wouldn't I want to share that experience with others, and see if we can unearth a career that will provide the same freedom and peace in their unique professional journeys? 

In light of all this, I decided to create this post as a practical guide for the career-haters out there. For those of you who feel stuck in your career (not job--career!), let's dive right in. I'll cover two truths to keep in mind, as well as three steps to take in order to make that big career change. 

2 Important Truths to Keep in Mind

1. You're Not Alone

If you found yourself reading the intro to this post and nodding (or crying) along, the first thing I want you to know is that it's not just you. You are absolutely not alone in hating your job.

Believe it or not, you're actually in the majority! 

A recent Gallup poll suggests that 70% of Americans are disengaged and discontent at work. 7 out of 10, people! That's a whole lot of unhappy employees. While I theoretically knew that a lot of people didn't like their jobs, I never felt like I was part of any sort of majority. I looked around and saw people who could be content in the same office, who were much more professionally satisfied than I was. I felt like I was missing something that everyone else seemed to innately understand, and it was overwhelmingly isolating.

Whether they're sitting next to you or not, however, it's clear that a lot of people out there are looking for something better, too. So don't believe the lie that it's just you!

2. You're Not Stuck

For the career-hater, it's tempting to feel hopeless, because there doesn't seem to be a way out. Family obligations, financial restraints, and the huge time investment associated with changing careers--not just jobs, but industries--feels like too great a distance to leap. There just doesn't seem to be a way to the other side without going bankrupt, or disappointing loved ones. Why bother?

While some career transitions are harder than others to make, this is simply not true. You're not stuck! There are a lot of options available to you, especially when you're not sure what you want to do next. And when you do find the career you want to move into, there are options available to you to make the change a reality. It's just a matter of how much you're willing to invest in the process, how patient you're willing to be, and what you're willing to sacrifice to land a position in a career that fits.  

So how exactly do you bridge that gap and make it happen? Where do you even begin? 

3 Steps to a Better Career Fit

1. Get to know yourself.

If you're feeling like your career isn't a good fit for you, the first step is to stop nitpicking the career you know you hate, and instead, look in the mirror. Get to know yourself. How are you wired? What realities about your personality, skill set, and values inform your career preferences? What makes you tick? 

There are several ways to go about this step of self exploration. I'll briefly hash out 3 of my favorite methods here. 

Assessments

I am a self-declared assessment nerd. While they certainly don't tell the whole picture of who you are as a person, assessments can provide some valuable insight into the overarching trends of what makes you, well, you. There are a bunch of assessments out there, varying wildly in terms of quality and accuracy, but the big buckets that you want to assess and explore are personality, values, and behavioral style. 

If you don't feel like sifting through the massive pile of web-based assessments on your own, here is a solid sampling of the five assessments I recommend taking. The first three assessments are free, and the last two are paid tests:

If you can swing it, take all five assessments. Spread the assessments out over a period of a couple of weeks. Take your time, read the directions carefully, and answer honestly.

When you have all of your results in hand, comb through the results carefully. Highlight the descriptions that are spot-on as they apply to you, ignore the stuff that isn't accurate at all, and notice trends that are repeated across multiple sections in a test report, and especially across multiple assessments.

What have you learned about yourself? How do these concepts apply in the workplace? Start to put together the pieces, and see what you come up with. 

Job History Exercise

This is one of my favorite exercises for career direction, and has been one of the most fruitful in my personal experience. My dad actually suggested this activity years ago, when I was feeling especially lost in terms of my career. The exercise was a game changer for me, and I hope it is helpful for you as well.

Write down every job you've ever had, all the way back to your high school days or first part-time gig. Depending on your situation, it might be good to include volunteer experiences as well, or involvement in extracurricular activities.

For every job or activity on the list, answer the following questions:

  • What was your favorite thing about the job? What did you enjoy the most? What energized you?
  • What were you most proud of in that role? What project, result, or client interaction makes you smile the most?
  • What do you miss doing? What do you wish you could do all over again?

After you've answered these questions for every job, look at your complete list of highlights. What trends do you see? Are there obvious themes or careers that are closely related to the tasks and projects you've highlighted? See where this path leads you, and take some time to explore the new opportunities that you identify along the way.

Survey Friends and Family

Sometimes we can't see ourselves as clearly as the people who love us most. Asking friends and family for feedback might provide some helpful insight as you study yourself. This suggestion comes with a big caution flag, however, because some of your family and friends might not be helpful in speaking into your strengths. In fact, in some cases the 'advice' from loved ones might be downright harmful. To mitigate against any unhelpful responses, I recommend coming up with a list of 5-7 people you trust the most and feel safest with. Include people from different seasons of your life, in different roles. Make sure every person on that list is really 'for' you. Do they celebrate with you when you win? Do they grieve with you when you're dealing with a loss? 

When you have your list, ask those individuals if they'd be willing to speak into your professional identity and unique personal characteristics. If they're willing to help, provide them with a list of questions, and ask them to consider them carefully. Here are a few ideas to get you going, but feel free to add your own based on what you want to pinpoint or understand about yourself:

  • When have we been talking, and the conversation caused me to lean in, talk faster, become increasingly animated? What topic(s) seemed to draw me out?
  • What dreams have I mentioned in passing to you, that I (or others) may have brushed off as silly or impossible?
  • When have you seen me be really proud or satisfied with my own work or achievements? 
  • Where do you think I thrive? Excel?
  • From what you've observed, what do you think I'm uniquely wired to achieve? Where do I naturally perform well?

Collect this feedback from your friends or family, and see what stands out. Trust your gut--take what is helpful, leave what is not. What surprises you? What sparks your interest?

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By the end of your self-reflection period, the goal is to arrive at a list of possible careers that incorporate the elements of self that you've unearthed. You've taken the time to explore who you are, and now you have some ideas about what might be a good career move for you. How do you choose from the short list? How do you even know you're on the right track? 

2. Test the Waters

"The grass is always greener on the other side" is a nugget of wisdom brimming with relevance for your career journey. Don't leap into something new on a whim, just because it theoretically sounds better; of course it sounds better! You don't know anything about the industry yet, and only see the shiny fun stuff. But career changes are a big deal. Slow down, and safely explore your options before you decide to make a full transition.

There are several ways to explore a career without actually changing careers. Perhaps you can identify a volunteer opportunity inside of the new industry. Get your feet wet in work relevant to the jobs you're considering, and get a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. See what surprises you, what interests you, what concerns you.

Another option is to set up some informational interviews or job shadowing with people in your target industry. If you have a friend or colleague who can make a networking introduction for you, that is certainly best, but cold calls aren't out of the picture, necessarily. As long as your motivation is truly to learn and get a feel for the career (NOT sniff around for job openings), it's likely that the professionals in that industry will be open to helping you out in some capacity. Ask challenging questions, like, "What is the worst part about working in this industry? What challenges do you meet in this job consistently? What trends do you see in your field? Where do you expect this field to be in 10 years? 20 years? What do you think it takes to enjoy this work, and succeed in the field?"

If the industry you're considering is really different from everything you've done historically, consider taking some courses in the subject area. For example, if you've worked a 9 to 5 your whole life and are thinking about being a full-time gardener instead, find a free online class in botany or horticulture. Does the subject matter interest you, or are you bored out of your mind? Does the class inspire you to dive deeper and learn more? 

The point of this 'trial period' is to confirm your interest, and narrow down your short list. Admit you're wrong when an industry isn't actually good for you, and move on to the next career on your list. When you find something that stands out above the rest, it's time to move on to the final step.  

3. Invest in the transition.

Career transitions aren't going to happen overnight. You have to be patient, and be willing to make the change at an appropriate pace. That doesn't mean you're just sitting around passively, though! There's a lot to do as you invest in the process of changing careers. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition happen:

Network.

Okay, so you shuddered at the mention of the word 'network.' That's fair! Most people despise the concept with a passion. But it is still a beneficial practice, and one that doesn't have to make you beat your head against a wall. Try to have a positive perspective on this one, for your own sake.

LinkedIn is your friend here -- figure out what connections you have to your new industry/potential employers, and ask your existing friends or colleagues to make an introduction on your behalf. Have coffee with strangers. Go to industry-specific events. Put yourself out there a little bit! A future blog post on networking will dig into this more deeply, but for a full-blown career change, you're probably going to need an internal referral for someone to take a chance on you. In order to find a solid internal referral, you have to network. Period. 

Pursue training as-needed, but don't make assumptions.

A lot of my clients say things like, "I guess I need an MBA now," or "But I really don't want to go back to school!" In some cases, yes--they really do have to go back to school. You can't be a doctor without the degree. But in a lot of other cases, a traditional degree might not be necessary. Is the degree you assume you need preferred, or actually required? Can you supplement your existing education with something other than a traditional degree? 

Maybe you need some specific skills for your new career--let's say you want to get into mobile app design, but have no coding experience. Your first inclination might be to go back to school for a Computer Science degree. BUT instead, if you did a search for any free or reduced-cost bridge programs in your new industry, you'd find LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization providing FREE classes and job-transition support for careers in technology. They have classes in St. Louis, my friends! They actually put people in jobs. Good jobs. It's a no-brainer! And this is not the only bridge program out there. Explore the possibility before you shell out the cash for a full university degree.

Maybe your desired career utilizes a specific type of software, and a lot of companies consistently use the same program across the board. Take Salesforce, for example, a popular CRM platform in sales and marketing. Did you know that Salesforce offers free online certification? Why not amp up your relevant skills by pursuing your Salesforce certification, while you apply for new jobs in your field? If nothing else, it's a great resume and interview talking point that demonstrates your commitment to making the career change. 

The opportunities here are tremendous. Look for professional associations certifications, apprenticeship programs, bridge programs, training courses, etc. before you commit to a more traditional college degree. Think of the time, money, and sanity you could save in the process! 

Update your resume.

Your resume might be perfect for your current industry, but you have to look at it from a totally new perspective if you're planning to switch careers. Each position in your job history needs to be re-examined, and re-framed according to the context of new job opportunities. 

If you're moving out of sales into social work, nobody is going to care (as much) about your sales results data. They want to see a commitment to people, an emphasis on relationship, and a willingness to work hard. You might find that your resume bullet points need to be "flip-flopped," or re-written altogether. This will help people reviewing your resume as they look over your application--if you don't do this work in advance, you're bound to get tossed aside after a resume screener ponders aloud, "Why is this person applying for this job, anyway?"

Make your intentions clear. Tailor your resume to speak the language of your desired industry, not the career you're leaving behind. 

Consider 'stepping stone' roles. 

If you're making a really big change, you might want to consider doing it in stages. This is especially true if you're looking to move into a competitive company, the ones on the "Best Places to Work" list. Let's say you're a contract manager at Purina, and you're looking to make a transition. You've done your homework, you've narrowed down your list, and you know you really want to land a training and orientation job at World Wide Technology. That's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you won't settle for less. It's great that you know what you want--but unfortunately, you have no direct training experience, and everybody on the planet wants to work at World Wide Technology. 

Instead, you could consider applying for a management role within your current department at Purina. Get some training experience. Ask your supervisor for some training responsibilities within your existing role--whatever you can swing, make it happen. Put yourself in a position to be more qualified when your dream jobs opens up. You could also apply for a contract management role inside World Wide Technology, with some management responsibility. Then, it's much easier to make an internal transfer to a different department for that 'dream' training role. 

"But that will take forever!" you say. Yep. Like I said, it isn't going to happen overnight! But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Are you willing to work for a new career, even if it might take some time to get there?

That brings me to the interim. The waiting period when you're still sitting in the career you hate, while you're dreaming of the job you think you'll love.

End well. 

Your current work matters. Your current job performance matters. You're still working for your most recent referring supervisor, my friends. You do not want to give them a reason to discredit you in the referral process. Instead, harness your existing workplace relationships (secretly, of course!) to improve your experience as you wait. Ask for new opportunities that relate to the new field. Request a schedule shift so you can attend a class. Do whatever you can to maximize your opportunities within the bounds of your current work environment. 

It's not necessarily going to be easy, but a career that suits you is still possible. Wait actively. Look forward purposefully. Engage in the process, knowing that it is an imperfect journey.

If you ever doubt that it's worth it, or forget exactly what it is you're aiming for, come back here, and I'll remind you. It is a fantastic experience to be in a job that suits me as a person. The results are life-changing, and every day, I know the journey was worth it

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

I debated about whether or not I should write this post. The title and content inherently scream 'rant,' and that's truly not my jam. I don't want to eat up blog space with that sort of negative content, whining about whatever is bugging me the most in any given moment. There's plenty of that to go around already. 

But feelings aside, it is objectively true that I run into a lot of professional obstacles because people simply don't understand what it's like to be self-employed, especially as a creative. In an effort to educate, be vulnerable, and explain some of my most frequent professional and personal decisions, I created the list that follows.

From my experience as a self-employed writer and career communication coach, these are the 5 most important and misunderstood realities of self-employment. These are the the most abused characteristics of my professional life, the things I so wish I could get you to grasp in our daily interactions as friends, family members, acquaintances, or strangers. I hope that the items listed will challenge your existing perspective on self-employed professionals, and help to improve your relationships with others who share my professional status.  

5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment

Photo by  Laura Ockel  on  Unsplash

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

 

1. Routine is vital, especially for creative work. 

Being self-employed requires a great deal of self-discipline. I am CEO and worker bee, Marketing Director and Writer, HR Director and Finance Director. I am personally responsible for balancing every single aspect of my work, and as a result, I wear a bunch of different--and competing--hats on a daily basis.

On top of that, creative work has its own set of rules, and there are unique challenges that come along with it. The capacity for creative work comes from a different internal space than more straightforward tasks like running data in a spreadsheet, or drafting emails. The effort to produce creative work requires a crap-ton of intellectual and emotional fuel, especially at the beginning of a writing session. This was earth-shattering for me at the beginning of my writing journey. I was totally caught off-guard by the fact that creative work takes so much fuel. 

Both of these issues--multiple hats and the nature of creative energy--are most easily managed by a consistent daily routine. I work from home, and am surrounded by my personal to-do list every time I get up to use the restroom or get a snack from the kitchen. I see errands that need to be run, and laundry that needs to be washed. Routine keeps me focused, productive, and more empowered to separate my professional and personal responsibilities. 

When I wake up, I put on my CEO hat and tackle strategy for big-bucket priorities. For the next couple of hours, I put on my Consultant hat, making sure my clients' needs are met with excellence. If client work is slow, I put on my Marketing Director hat to develop communication plans, blog about my services, and share success stories. I do what I can to identify new clients, and reach out to new people whom I believe I can provide a meaningful service for.

After lunch, every single day, I put on my Writer hat. As much as I want to fight it because the work is challenging and vulnerable, I sit my butt in my office chair and make myself write. And at that time, every day, by body recognizes that it's time to write. The creative mind 'wakes up' and responds naturally. When I start writing at the same time every day, the hardest part is over, and the words flow freely. Some days are better than others, but the consistency of sitting down to write at the same time every day is huge. 

Disruptions that seem minor--like a doctor's appointment at 1:30 PM--are anything but minor. Trying to write at a different time of day is like trying to push a semi truck uphill, by myself. The next day, when I have no disruptions, my body is not in its usual rhythm. It requires a great deal more effort to get the creative wheels turning, to 'reset the machine,' so to speak. 

That effect is multiplied for larger routine disruptions like vacations. Being away for several days creates an avalanche of mental clutter that I have to clear out upon my return. On top of the time spent away from my desk, I lose a significant percentage of my returning productive time because it takes so much effort to reset the clock. It's true that commitments like doctor's appointments and vacations are inherently good things--of course they are! But that doesn't change the impact that these appointments have, so it is absolutely fair to name them as disruptions for my professional routine. 

2. Professional self-worth is a constant challenge.

The world sends me constant messages that my work is invalid because I haven't sold a book yet, or don't make a certain amount of money each year. We'll explore that more in Item #4. But on top of that, there are little voices in my head while I serve my clients or work on my novel, whispering lies about my professional identity:

You have nothing important to say.
You aren't really helping anyone.

You will never finish this book.
You have no idea what you're doing.
Nobody will ever buy this.
You are a terrible writer.
You are wasting your time. 

This is daily, people. Independent of anything you might say or do, I am already doubting my own professional self-worth. I have to fight the lies every day, and remind myself that the work I'm doing has a significant impact on the people I serve. I have to remind myself that writing touches lives in a way that is beautiful, and profoundly mysterious. It is a constant, uphill battle.  

As hard as it is to admit, your requests for me to ditch work for a few hours, or hop on an airplane and leave for a few days aren't helping. These requests imply, however unintentionally, that my job isn't a real job, and that it isn't as valid or valuable as someone else's. I can pick up and leave whenever I want. Yes, it is technically true that there is flexibility in my situation. But is it right to stop working whenever I want, just because I technically can? Isn't it good to pursue work that matters, to commit myself professionally, to hold myself to a certain number of work days each year like everyone else? 

This leads me right into my third point. 

3. I am at the top of everyone's daytime help list.

This is absolutely the hardest point for me to share with you, because I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I WANT TO HELP! I hope you'll keep that in mind as I explain.

I get a constant stream of completely legitimate requests for my time, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. I am at the top of everyone's list, because I am flexible, technically available most of the time, and I don't have young children at home.

These requests span a variety of needs:

  • Babysitting
  • Rides to the airport
  • Hanging out at your house to meet contractors or deliveries
  • Dropping you off at the auto shop, then taking you home, then bringing you back later
  • Providing emotional support on a hard day

Well-meaning friends often ask me for my time during the day, frequently for a commitment spanning half a day of work including travel time. As I mentioned above, the hardest part is that I WANT TO HELP! The requests are coming from you, after all--a friend, a loved one, someone I desire to support and serve. But I also have a job, and these requests do--however unintentionally--imply that my work is less important than your current need. Where do I draw the line? At what point do I say 'no' to protect my professional self-worth, and when do I set my work aside to serve others? 

This is a balancing act that I have yet to master. I have no idea how to get it down to a system without feeling like a selfish jerk most of the time. But for now, until I figure it out, I practice saying 'no' a lot. I say 'no' because I get too many of these requests, and I just can't manage them all. I say 'no' because routine is vital, and professional self-worth is a daily challenge. You may see a massive blank-spot in my schedule because I'm not accountable to a traditional supervisor, but that isn't the case. I'm accountable to myself, and to my work, just as much as anyone else is. My husband goes to an office every day and works his tail off so that I can stay home and do what I love. I have a responsibility to him, too, to honor his sacrifice and not waste the opportunity he gives me every day.

The best advice I can give you is to be specific--give me all of the details when you ask for my help, including the specific time range, why you need help, and what you expect of me. In the case of an emergency or extenuating circumstance, I'm more likely to say yes. But you have to tell me that's the case in order for me to know. I am not a mind reader, and I cannot meet every need that comes my way. 

Don't stop asking for help because you've read this, but don't assume I'll say yes because I work from home, either. Identify some other people to rotate through when you have a daytime, weekday need. Maybe acknowledge that my work matters, and that you realize you're asking me to give up something more than just time.

Above all, know that I care about you and your families, even when I say 'no.'

4. Success isn't measured by annual salary.

On occasion, people literally laugh when I tell them what I do. Others are more subtle in their disapproval and skepticism. I've had people follow up with, "Are you successful?" This is code for "But do you make money, and if so, how much?" I mean, think about that for a second! Imagine meeting someone at a cocktail party. You ask what she does, and she says she's an accountant. Is your follow-up going to be "Okay, but how much money do you make?" How do you think that would feel, on her end? Would you consider that approach to be polite, or respectful of her as a professional?

I know that many people don't understand the reality of creative work, or the value of it at all. I understand that many people are accustomed to working a 9-5, getting a regular paycheck with benefits, and having a certain number of PTO days. Everything is neat, orderly, and data-centric. My work is admittedly different, but that does not make it less valuable. There is no valid reason to be suspicious or disapproving of my profession as a creative. 

It all comes down to how we, as a culture, define and measure success. If you measure success by your paycheck, I'm so, so sorry. That is a narrow, shallow definition of success that leaves your professional self-worth and success dependent on the economic success of your employer. Instead, I try to define success more broadly--by the impact that I have on individual lives with my clients, and the future impact of the stories I write. I measure hours, effort, client satisfaction, and words on the page. 

You may not believe me to be successful--fair enough. But I would ask that you consider why you feel that way. What is it that makes you so determined to measure someone's professional value in dollar signs? What truths do you believe about yourself, about the people around you? I invite you to explore your own perception of identity, and at the very least, to assume the best when you do not understand someone else's job. Ask questions, and be curious. 

5. My work is just as challenging as yours, every day. 

Though the schedule and individual components are radically different, self-employment is just as challenging as a 9-5. These challenges are consistently present, and they are 100% real. 

Here's a quick summary of my greatest professional challenges, with some reiterations of the points above:

Self-Discipline
Doing my job every day, even though nobody is making me do it. When I'm tired, getting up early with no external accountability or appointments. Putting words on the page every day, even though I might never sell a book. 

Boundaries
Saying 'no' to laundry and errands, and 'yes' to my work. Sticking to a schedule, because my work is valuable. Saying 'no' to friends during the day, because eventually I have to get something done. Working a full day, even if my husband comes home early from work.

Isolation
Being alone most of the time, especially during the winter. Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder with the realities of working from home. Finding ways to be social and counter loneliness, without dramatically sacrificing my work time. 

Creative Energy
Understanding the realities of creative work, and how that energy is best fostered. Giving my creative mind what it needs in order to succeed. Being satisfied with 3 hours of creative work, because it takes a lot of fuel to make it happen. Balancing the reality of creativity with my desire to get a project done. Being patient as I learn to understand my creative self.

Self-Worth
Refusing to believe that I am defined by dollar signs. Daily affirming that my work is valuable, no matter what the world says. Charging a fair rate for my coaching services, and having the guts to charge friends or family members. 

Inconsistent Work Flow
Managing busy seasons of multiple clients, and adjusting to slower seasons. Identifying new clients, and maintaining a routine despite seasonal fluctuations. Setting goals when I can't predict how many clients I'll actually have. Budgeting for an unknown amount of work. 

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are challenges I'm not even aware of, or items I've forgotten to mention. The point isn't the specifics of each challenge, even--it's the fact that these challenges exist, and that they are significant. I'm not lazy, and I'm not sitting at home every day watching Netflix, even though I'm regularly tempted and able to do so. 

My work is not a playground. Yes, my work is fun, and I love what I do! But it's still work, and it's still broken, just like more traditional jobs. 

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I hope these points are illuminating for you. I hope you learned something, and that you came away with an understanding of self-employment that you didn't have previously. That said, this is absolutely not universally applicable to every self-employed person in the world! Don't assume that my perspective is the same as someone's else's. Instead, ask questions, get to know your self-employed friends, and challenge your own assumptions about their work.

Above all, let your self-employed friends--especially the creatives--know how much you value their work. Remind them know that their work matters, and that it's freaking awesome that they get to pursue something like fiction, photography, or dance. We need to hear it. We need to know that there are people out there who don't think we're foolish dreamers, wasting time and wasting space. 

We need people who are willing to read this blog post all the way through, who care enough to ask questions. Thanks for making it this far, my friend! If you have any follow-up thoughts or concerns, let me know in the comments below, or reach out directly

The #1 Most Important Fix for Your Resume

Between my work as a Career Communication Coach and previous roles in executive recruiting and HR, I've seen a whole lot of resumes.

Today, I'm going to let you in on a little secret and share the #1 resume problem that I regularly encounter with clients, along with a few easy steps you can follow in order to address the problem in your own resume.

The Problem: Emphasis on Responsibilities

Most people that I work with for resume writing don't demonstrate a lot of confidence in their work experience. In fact, a lot of the comments that they make are downright apologetic:

"Oh, I know I haven't done a lot in that area. I should've done more." 

"Yeah, I guess I did that, but it wasn't a big deal."

"I don't really think I'm good enough for the positions I'm interested in."

I've mentioned before that one of the best parts of my job is the client reaction--that moment when a client sees his or her professional identity written out accurately, clearly, and confidently for the very first time, whether it be on a resume, a new website, or a grant proposal. Most clients are startled, and they read over the content a few times before saying, "Wow, did I really do all of this?" 

I generally laugh a little, and say, "You tell me. Is anything inaccurate, or even exaggerated?"

They hungrily pore over the details, and are confused when the answer is "No! I actually did all of that, didn't I?"

The resume issue in this scenario is almost always an overemphasis on responsibilities, duties, or tasks. Many people approach their resume as if it were a job description -- they try to capture all of the check-list items they're responsible for, and list those as resume bullet points. 

The problem with this approach is that every single person with a similar role and/or job title has exactly the same list of responsibilities. There's nothing in that list of tasks that sets a candidate apart from other applicants, or leaves any sort of impression on the reader.

Quite frankly, this approach is 100% ineffective. The recruiter or hiring manager reviewing your resume is going to be bored out of his or her mind, and will likely move on to another candidate immediately. On average, recruiters will only spend 6 seconds looking at your resume. While other factors like formatting are definitely part of the solution, responsibility-heavy content is definitely not helping you stand out from the crowd. 

The Solution: Emphasis on Results

The fix for responsibility-focused resumes is a perspective shift toward results.

When I'm chatting with clients about their job history and achievements, a lot of them groan when I ask about results, or just look at me with desperation and shrug. Many people aren't accustomed to thinking about their professional achievements as results, so at first glance, it's hard to come up with anything to share.

But that doesn't mean there's an absence of results.

Many clients shy away from the results question because they're not in a traditional, numbers-driven role like sales. The word 'results' carries with it an expectation of hard numerical data: percentages, dollar signs, you name it. Some of those figures are obvious, as they can be in sales, but they don't have to be. If you're not consistently thinking about measurable definitions of success, then you're bound to be caught of guard by the request for proof of your success.

So how do we solve the problem?

Step 1: Define Measurable Success

Let's say you're considering a role where you're responsible for managing volunteers. Great--you manage volunteers, but so do a lot of other people. How can you measure and demonstrate that you managed those volunteers successfully?

Think about all of the potential measurable components that are involved with managing volunteers. Here are the ones that come to mind right away:

  • Number of volunteers you work with on a regular basis
  • Volunteer retention over time 
  • Volunteer engagement, or the rate at which volunteers choose to donate their time
  • Average monthly hours of volunteer time from the beginning of your tenure, versus the present
  • Increase in the number of volunteers over time
  • Increase in engagement over time
  • Volunteer satisfaction data collected from feedback surveys

As you can see, an area of responsibility that doesn't inherently lend itself to measurable results can definitely be measured. That said, if you're not actively measuring these areas, then there's no way to demonstrate that you've succeeded. 

This leads us right into Step 2.

Step 2: Start Measuring with Intention, and Do it Now!

Imagine looking at a resume that hasn't been touched in 15 years. As much as we wish we could, it often isn't possible to dig up the data retroactively. Think of all the achievements and professional highlights that could be lost over time!

Most of what you're able to measure in order to demonstrate success needs to be measured with intention, on purpose, while you're working on the given project. Take some time to define measurable success metrics at the beginning of each project, measure as you go, and record the results.

Your efforts will spare you a lot of professional regret down the road during your next job transition, and will also help you identify professional wins that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. 

Step 3: Look for Ripple-Effect Results

Sometimes the most significant results of your work aren't directly numerical. In some cases, they might be entirely anecdotal. On top of that, something great can happen in response to your work that you didn't intend to happen at all! Should we bury these situations or neglect them as professional achievements, simply because they aren't traditional, direct measurements? Absolutely not!

Perhaps you planned and oversaw an event for your non-profit organization. It wasn't a fundraising event specifically, but one of the attendees was so impressed that they decided to make a significant contribution to the organization. You didn't directly solicit the donation--you're not even on the development team, perhaps!--but your work still resulted in a major win for the organization.

Or, let's say you work for a youth development organization, and you've been investing a lot of time and effort in community outreach. Your main goal was to increase visibility, and make sure the community is aware of your programming. During your outreach efforts, you happened to develop community partnerships with a few local businesses. Those partnerships led to unexpected enrichment opportunities for the children in your programs, creating new, fun ways for them to learn and grow. 

I like to call these sorts of results ripple effects. Because of your actions, something unexpected or indirect happened, and there was a positive outcome. There might not be numbers involved, but that doesn't change the fact that something good happened! You should absolutely keep track of these ripple effect results, even if the result is purely anecdotal. Results are results, intentional or not! 

Responsibility vs. Results in Your Resume

In today's job market, it isn't enough to just write down what you do every day and call it a resume. As much as we don't like to do so, you have to take this opportunity to brag a little! Your resume is designed for this--it isn't arrogant to accurately and confidently convey your professional achievements.

It's a good and rewarding experience to be proud of your work, and to communicate your results effectively. I invite you to consider your own achievements today, and how you might better present those career highlights in your current resume. You never know--those examples will very likely come in handy some day!

Measuring Progress: Thoughts on Effective Goal-Setting

'Type A' is a little bit of an understatement for me.

My Passion Planner—a gift from my intuitive, thoughtful friend Rachel—is a goal-tracker’s playground. There is enough structure to get you focused and to encourage reflection, but there’s also enough blank space to make it your own and have some room to play. It's one of my go-to tools for goal-setting and progress-tracking, another being the Gleeo Time Tracker app. 

At the beginning of every month, I dedicate some time to reflect and project; I review my progress on goals from the previous month, and then set my goals for the next month, breaking the larger goals into weekly segments. I feel like I’m constantly re-evaluating these goals; at first, an approach seems like it will work, but in practice something about the goal is off, and I end up tweaking something for the following month. 

Honestly, it’s a little annoying. But I also believe this is a process worth digging into. 

Here’s why:

When setting and tracking goals, we get the most accurate picture of our progress when we’re measuring the correct goals with the appropriate units.

Let’s use my previous goals as an example. For July, I set the following targets:

  • Read 3 books
  • Write 20,000 words for my work-in-progress first draft
  • Write and share 1 blog post per week

At first glance, this is a perfectly reasonable list of goals. As a writer, I should definitely be reading and writing; these tasks are my bread and butter. Blog posts are also a logical step for developing my business while simultaneously getting some additional writing practice.

It all sounds good, right? But in practice, these goals were not working at all. Why? What got in the way? 

As I took a closer look, the major issues related to my goal-setting fell into the following categories: the motivation behind each goal, distinguishing action items from goals, and measuring success appropriately and accurately. Let’s break these down individually.

Goal Motivation

Why? Why is the tool with which we determine goal motivation. 

Reading is important to me; I want to be consistently absorbing the work of other writers, learning from their techniques and developing my vocabulary and writing toolbox. I chose the goal of at least 3 books per month because that would allow me to more-or-less reach my reading goal for the year: 40 books. 

Here’s the rub: establishing a reading goal measured by the number of books completely fails to support my motivation for reading! The goal that I set encourages me to read for speed over depth, to select shorter books, and to read without really dedicating much time to unearthing the nuggets of wisdom in the text. 

So how can I repair the issue? I go back to my original motivation for wanting to read regularly: to develop my own writing abilities, and improve my vocabulary.

When examined in this light, my truest, most motivation-aligned writing goals would be to 1) read the right books and 2) read them slowly, with space to take notes and absorb the information.

KABOOM. All of a sudden, my title-hungry reading goal has no business sticking around. With a clear purpose at the forefront of my planning, the goal becomes reading the right books, and reading them well. Is this goal still measurable? Sure! All I need is a list of books worth reading, and consistent time spent reading them with intention. 

One might even go so far as to argue in favor of the following effort: Spend as many hours reading a good book as possible. 

Goals vs. Action Items

Oh, reading...you sneaky little fiend.

Guess what? Reading isn't one of my goals at all -- it is an action item. By incorrectly viewing it as a goal, I lost on two fronts: 1) reading received more priority and weight than it deserved, and 2) the actual goal that reading is related to was distorted and did not receive an appropriate amount of attention and effort. 

Try this exercise that helped me get my goals and tasks in order. 

Make a chart with three columns, or whatever organization works for you. In one space, list all of the professional goals you want to achieve. Don't worry about being specific or giving a timeline for the goal just yet -- really dig deep and lean into the heart of what you want to do. 

To make sure that you're really listing goals, ask yourself WHY you want to do each item on your list. If there is an answer to that question, the answer is probably your goal. If your response is "Because that's what I want to do," you've probably arrived at an actual goal.

Here is my version:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
  • Practice and become a better writer.
  • Serve more people via career communication services.
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

Now, in the next space, translate these general goals into SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Bound versions of what you've listed on the left.

This is where things get interesting.

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.



 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.


     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Effectively prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network conversations, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

It was SUPER tempting to put action/task items into the SMART Goal column. For example: blog weekly. I had to add and delete "blog weekly" from the SMART Goal column next to "Serve new people" more than once during this exercise. Why? Because blogging weekly isn't my goal. Finding new people to serve via communication services is the goal--my goal is to identify new clients or referrals. People I can serve is the unit I'm measuring...not blog posts. Blog posts are just a task that I will schedule that will actually support 2 of my SMART Goals: becoming a better writer, and identifying new people to serve. 

Closely examine your lists, verifying the connection between Core Goals and SMART Goals, and ensure that no action items have snuck their way in.

Got it? Okay--now you actually get to translate goals into action items. Time for Column 3:

Core Goals

  • Serve my existing clients with excellence, meeting their needs efficiently and effectively.
     
  • Practice and become a better writer.






 

  • Serve more people via career communication services.






     
  • Complete my current work-in-progress trilogy.

SMART Goals

  • Daily prioritize any existing client to-do items over other tasks on my list. When client-related work arises, address it ASAP.
  • Average 3 daily hours of writing time, not including blogging. Read something of high-quality, daily. Spend at least 1/3 of my writing time "playing," writing outside of my work-in-progress.
  • Identify 3 referrals or new clients every month through network, web-based content, webinars/workshops, or other outreach efforts. 



     
  • Finish the first draft of Book One by the end of November. 

Action Items

  • Block client-specific time into the first two hours of my schedule, daily. Create daily to-do lists and ensure client priority.
  • Schedule 3 daily hours of writing time each afternoon. Identify writing prompts or "play" topics. Log writing time in Gleeo.


     
  • Make a list of people to speak to and get in touch. Blog weekly, cycling in career communications content. Plan, promote, and execute free webinars. Offer free workshop for job seekers.
  • Add to the draft daily, resisting the temptation to edit yesterday's work -- use comments in Scrivener instead to make notes for future edits. 

Neat, huh? Suddenly, we are left with a thorough breakdown of SMART goals with corresponding, ready-to-go action items. It's super tempting to drop this blog post right here and get all of this incorporated into my Google calendar and planner; in the name of productivity and follow-through, I will resist!

Measuring Success

The last hiccup that I identified in my goal-setting was that I wrote my goals in such a way that I was measuring the wrong thing, or at least measuring inaccurately. Let's look at writing as an example.

My July writing goal was 20,000 words for my work-in-progress draft. As I began writing and editing, I realized that I was being cheated in my progress tracking--often, I came in and started working from a mid-way point in the text I wrote the previous day. Because I'm human, I found sections or words that I didn't care for at all, deleted them, and re-wrote them. But because I was measuring the amount of words added to my draft that day, I didn't get any "credit" for the work that I did on top of existing text. 

Writing isn't easy, folks. Don't make it worse by minimizing what you've managed to achieve.

There are a couple of ways to solve this particular problem. One option would be to completely refuse to edit any of yesterday's work, and only move forward in the draft. For me, that just isn't feasible. For the sake of continuity and sanity, I have to be allowed to back up and overlap my efforts each day.

So in my case, the answer is to stop measuring words and start measuring time. After all, writing is not all about typing out words -- thinking, staring into space, visualizing a scene, having out-loud imaginary conversations with your characters, Googling facial expressions as visual aids, and various other insane strategies that we utilize as writers do not get included in your progress when you only measure word count. What is the one thing that all of these tasks have in common that is measurable?

The time that I spend working. Voila. If I measure time, I measure success.

Friends, I hope that this reflection is helpful for you today. If we know what our target is, we can identify what actions we need to take to aim appropriately; ready, aim, fire.

Now all that's left is to get moving!