How to Talk About the Arc of Your Career

Wrong turns, u-turns, downturns and all

Not everyone’s career moves up and to the right from beginning to end.

In fact, I don’t think that actually happens to anyone—but some people are just better at hiding the wrong turns, u-turns, and downturns than others. The key isn’t skipping over them—because a recruiter or potential employer can sniff out a story that doesn’t make sense from a mile away. The key is repositioning everything that doesn’t go perfectly as a learning experience—something that reaffirms that you are a better potential employee today than you have ever been.

Everyone leaves a job for a reason—and that reason is that something came up short of expectations. Either you did, or the job did, or both. If a job continuously surpassed your expectations everyday, and you did the same for the people you worked with, you’d never leave.

For some reason, people feel the need to fit their careers into some kind of neat little explainable timeline—and when there’s a bump along the road, they get all bent out of shape because it no longer sounds like a Disney story.

People are afraid that mistakes will reflect badly in a way that won’t make people want to work with you going forward, so they try to avoid talking about the past. No one should have to feel like that.

No matter what the situation there’s a way to share how you are better for having the experience—because you are.

Let’s take all the possible scenarios, based on this chart:

There are only two variables—whether the job itself was good and whether it was your choice to leave.

You either left a good job, left a bad job, got fired from a good job, or got fired from a bad job. Those are all the possible scenarios. Let’s examine all the negative versions of what those stories might look like.

Now, if you left an otherwise good job, it’s very easy to get hung up on regret. The arc of your career after that might make it seem like you screwed up by leaving.

If you left a bad job, you might worry about what it says to someone that you took it in the first place. What were you even thinking? Why did you stay so long?

What about if you got fired or pushed out in some way?

If you got fired from a good job, you’re probably thinking that you’ve failed.

If you got fired from a bad job, that might even be worse—because not only should you have never jumped into that dumpster fire, but you now you’ve got a dent in your untarnished record that wasn’t even worth it.

But do all of these stories need to be so negative?

It is estimated that 1 out of 3 people have been fired from at least one job over the course of their lifetime—but 91% of those people wind up getting something better down the line.

So, not only are you in plentiful company, but you’re all probably better off.

Let’s go over the better more positive, and I would suggest more honest conversations about who you are now because of your experience, not in spite of it.

Don’t shy away from the decision to leave what anyone else would consider a great job. For whatever reason, it wasn’t doing it for you. You were looking for something else. No matter what comes after that and how long it takes you to find, let it be a signal to figure employers that you’re not the type who settles. You want what you want and you’re going to keep a high bar for your own time and effort.

Let it be a way to clarify what you are seeking.

If something turns out to be less than what you had hoped for, let that be additional clarification—and perhaps a revelation to yourself as well. You took that job for a reason, and you left it for another reason. Let the reason why you left explain how you didn’t realize that there was something else that should have been important criteria for you as well. Maybe you didn’t realize how much connection to customers was important to you, or how much you liked smaller teams.

Whatever it may be, you learned something about what it is that will make you happy in your next position.

Plus, there’s really no need to go negative. There are some really difficult workplaces to work in. There are bad managers out there, too. If you get wrapped up in that negativity while trying to promote yourself, it’s going to make it look like you were part of the problem—that there was something wrong with you that you couldn’t make the best of it. People think there are two sides to every issue, so, by staying positive and just saying something wasn’t a fit, you don’t cause an employer to go looking into where you were at fault as well.

What about getting fired?

It’s not a bad thing to be honest about where in the past you may have come up short—especially if you can draw a contrast to that now. I think it reflects better on you to admit where criticism was fair and point out the work you’ve done to improve. It makes your potential next employer less suspicious that they’re missing some downside to you that they just haven’t found yet.

Getting fired from a good job could be a fantastic career motivator make sure that you’ll never let a particular shortcoming stand in the way of your success again.

If you get fired from something that was a bad job anyway, good for you. Sometimes, it’s hard to give up on something, especially early on, and you’re being done a favor.

Again, that doesn’t mean you need to go negative. Use it as an opportunity to talk about your values. Sure, the whole thing was a mess, and it obviously didn’t bring out the best in you if you got fired, but that doesn’t help a future employer. They want to know what does bring out the best in you—and what values are really important to you.

What’s my age again?

Let’s be honest. Age is a factor people consider when evaluating your career arc and narrative. Even beyond the stereotypes and pre-conceived notions people have about you in your youth or when you are older, people have certain expectations about how far you’ve progressed in your career given how long you’ve been working.

These expectations have a compounding effect. The longer you work, the more people expect you to have accomplished.

Your chart is expected to look like this:

Of course, no one’s timeline actually looks like that.

In reality, most people’s chart looks like some version of this:

Your career will be full of fits and starts, sometimes arching upwards, and sometimes feeling like your best days are behind you. You’ll try to build off each previous step and sometimes you’ll either tear it all down or have it torn down by outside forces—bad luck, a change in the industry, or any number of Murphy’s Law events.

Whatever the direction of your career over time, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you can offer right now.

And that chart, and how you present yourself, should look like this—because it is what most reflects reality:

You will bring more to your next role than you’ve ever been able to bring, at any other point in your career. The key is to show how you do that in a way that makes it easy to understand how, the background that went into that preparation, and to be convincing that you can reapply it to new situations.

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