3 min read

Bad Career Narratives

On bad career narratives and how to fight them
Bad Career Narratives

"So, Nishant, you've essentially had just one year of full-time experience, right?" an interviewer asked me recently.

"Yes, that's right," I said.

What I wanted to say was,

"Yes, I've spent a year learning how to function effectively in an organization, but the steepest growth paths for me in the past have been working for myself for two years. I conquered a whole host of challenges including self-discipline, limited resources, negotiation and sales. A whole gamut of things that I'd love to go deeper into, if given the chance."

I didn't say that. The loaded question affected my confidence. This was a game of narratives. My recruiter had the narrative that the only 'real' experience is full-time organization experience. I did not fight it, so it stuck.

Bad Career Narratives

Job interviews are the apex of dominant narratives:

  • Why did you take a career break?
    Are you even fit to work?
  • Why did you leave this job in a few months?
    Does that mean you'll leave us too?
  • Why are you bad-mouthing a past employer?
    Will you bad-mouth us in the future too?

If a date thought the way recruiters do, I'd be put off immediately. Where is your ability to be charitable? Why would you always assume the worst?

To be fair, though, recruiters have a tough task: to figure out if a person fits in one or two conversations. That makes job interviews battlegrounds for narratives. There are many dominant narratives that will be projected on us, and we must be ready to fight them.

Interview Tip from Nietzsche

I felt low for three days after that interview, because I'd ingested the narrative that I only have one year of real experience. Thankfully, writing to you allows me to rethink and remove bad narratives. If I get this question ever again, y'all know I'm going to crush it.

For Nietzsche, the battle of narratives was a matter of life and death: to be able to create narratives for ourselves that render us beautiful rather than ugly, that was the project. In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, chapters are titled, 'Why I am so wise', 'Why I am so clever', and 'Why I write such excellent books'.

You might read these chapter headings and feel like this is a crazy narcissist, and perhaps you'd be right. Nietzsche had a position on this, though. He believed styling ourselves is critical to our ability to bear life.

"To look at things through coloured glasses, or in the light of the sunset or to furnish them with a surface or skin which is not fully transparent: we should learn all this from artists, and moreover be wiser than them. For this fine power of theirs usually ceases with them where art ceases and life begins; we, however, want to be the poets of our lives, and first of all in the smallest and most commonplace matters.”

Narratives That Work For Us

In a different salary negotiation a couple of years ago, a different recruiter had told me, "You just don't have enough reporting experience to justify that pay." In fact, I had stellar reporting experience, but what he meant was that I didn't have enough full-time, commonly-accepted reporting experience. I muttered, "I understand," and did not negotiate further.

I don't know if the recruiter said that in a conscious attempt to puncture my confidence, or if he was just saying what he believed. Either way, I accepted it at that moment as The Truth, so I did not push further.

Nietzsche's advice on self-styling came from the belief that there was no such thing as The Truth. So it's not the truth that you're a flaky employee, or that you have very little real experience or that you're not qualified for the position.

For Nietzsche, life does not offer us black-and-white facts like that. Narratives are all we get, so we might as well craft narratives that work for us, rather than against us, which is to say: you left because you're committed to your growth, you have a ton of experience, and you're definitely qualified for that position.

Journaling Prompt
What's a bad career narrative you have? Can you craft a different narrative that works for you, instead of against you?