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How to pull the narrative threads from your chaotic eclectic career

Recently I worked with an MLIS student whose resume prior to grad school was primarily retail, clerical, and a number of nanny jobs. She was stymied about how to weave her job experience – which ostensibly had nothing to do with LIS work – into a strong enough narrative to convince employers to take a chance on her.

Many of us have been there, done that.

In my early years, I did clerical work for a truck financing company, managed the circulation department for a city magazine, worked on a volunteer project creating a resource guide for women needing public services assistance, and did copy editing and copywriting for a publisher of LIS professional books. All of this felt like disparate, unconnected “one-offs,” and I had no clue how to create some sort of coherent description that might make sense to potential employers.

This is the issue author Pamela Slim addresses in Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (Portfolio Penguin, 2013). Her goal is to help you identify the common threads in each of the jobs you’ve had in order to better understand the themes you tend to return to when possible, almost regardless of you working environment.

4 ways narrative threads help shape your career

Pulling out these threads enables you to do a number of things that will help your career.

First, it helps you make sense for yourself of what relevant knowledge you may have gained from each one of those positions that strengthen the core skills you want to present to the world. Examine each one of those jobs – what did you learn that you can now apply to work that’s better aligned with your LIS career goals? Almost no experience is wasted if you learned something from it, and almost no job doesn’t offer some sort of learning experience.

Your challenge will be to shape and describe that learning in a way that supports a consistent narrative thread. (More on that in a second….)

Second, it helps you identify a “path” or passion of which you may have been unaware because it was buried in a bunch of seemingly unrelated jobs. It took me about 5 different jobs to finally realize that my “body of work,” to use author Slim’s term, was consistently developing around research and information, and that I had a drive to connect people to those resources that would help them improve their lives. Once I had that aha! moment, my career path became clearer and consequently, much more purposeful.

Third, part of what you’ll want to do in your resume and even more strongly in an interview is to paint a cohesive narrative that demonstrates increasing progress toward your optimal work contribution and value-add. (Yep, your goal is to present yourself as someone who has made thoughtful, purposeful choices about your career along the way, regardless of the reality….) If you have thought about your narrative thread, you’ll be in a much better position to confidently articulate it to others.

Fourth, understanding the narrative thread that starts to emerge throughout the body of work you’ve been developing will help you know what additional threads will complement and strengthen the career tapestry you’ve been creating through your conscious and (often) unconscious choices. Will that new job take you in the direction you now know you want to go? Will volunteering for that cool new project be a distraction that doesn’t get you closer to your passions or will it, in fact, open just the doors you’ve been looking for?

People come into LIS careers through myriad paths, many of which include stints in jobs seemingly totally unrelated to LIS work (for example, retail, waitressing, customer service, etc.). Yet every job can contribute to your story, if you look for the relevant threads and present them in a way that contributes to and supports your body-of-work narrative.


Further Reading

Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together / Pamela Slim, Portfolio Penguin, 2013. 240p. ISBN 978-1591846192.

How to Embrace the Most Embarrassing Parts of Your Resume / Neil Pasricha, Fast Company, October 13, 2016; accessed October 31, 2016