This post by Dorie Clark first appeared at Harvard Business Review.
Midway through the workshop I was teaching on professional reinvention, I gave participants an assignment: create a narrative citing your professional strengths. After the break, a woman named Alison raised her hand. “This one was difficult for me,” she said. “I thought about what was special about me: I’m a strategic thinker, and I can get things done. But other people can do that, too. I’m not sure how I can really stand out as I’m applying for jobs.” She isn’t alone. For many of us, it’s hard to identify exactly what about us — if anything — is valuable or unique.
As Phyllis Stein, the former head of Radcliffe College Career Services, told me when I was researching my book Reinventing You, many of her highest-achieving clients are also the most self-critical. They’re very aware of their weaknesses, she said, but find it much harder to see their strengths.
“What job are you applying for? And what did you do before?” I asked Alison.
“I used to sell medical equipment,” she said, “and now I want to do project management for medical equipment companies.” Her vision of herself was cloaked in deficiencies: she didn’t have any project management experience on her resume, and her competitors surely would.
But her background was actually perfect, if only she’d tweak her perspective. As most hiring managers know, it’s incredibly rare to find a candidate that meets all your desired criteria. While other applicants might have project management experience, they may not have worked in the medical equipment industry. It would be just as easy for Alison to argue that her familiarity with the industry – and what customers were saying on the ground — would be a far more valuable asset. The key is changing your frame to focus on your advantages, not your shortcomings.
When you’re trying to understand your unique abilities, it helps to think about scarcity. What background or skills do you have that might be rare in a given context? There are plenty of people with medical equipment sales experience in the world, but probably very few who were applying for this project management position. If you can make your case with confidence, you can use scarcity to your advantage and position yourself as a desired, limited resource.
That strategy succeeded for me a decade ago when I was hired as the executive director of MassBike, Massachusetts’ statewide bicycling advocacy organization. Most of the applicants were, like the board members, bicycling fanatics who embraced hard-core distance riding and geeked out on their equipment. I was a casual commuter cyclist with an interest in urban planning, and a good knowledge of political advocacy and media relations.
In my job interview, they started with what they thought was a nice softball question: what kind of bike do you have? They expected some banter about the virtues of certain manufacturers; what they got was a panicked look and two words. “It’s blue.” I had no idea about the make or model; I used it to get around town. But I pressed my advantage: I knew very little about bicycling, I told them, but the board could teach me. Meanwhile, I could help the organization win political battles and newspaper coverage, two crucial but underrepresented areas. The pitch worked, and I was hired.
To understand what’s so special about you, you have to compete on your playing field, not someone else’s. If you let others set the terms of the debate — How much project management experience do you have? What do you know about bicycle mechanics? — you will lose almost every time. There will always be someone who knows more than you do about a given topic, or who has more directly relevant experience.
Instead, you have to seize the confidence to say their criteria are irrelevant (or at least less relevant), and there’s another yardstick that matters more. Too many professionals accept the limitations of other people’s viewpoints, and see themselves as falling short. When you understand what you possess that’s scarce, and are strong enough to make the case for yourself based on your own metrics, you’re likely to be far more persuasive than you ever imagined.