Creating Personal Career Stories


Most of us have been confronted with that all-too-frequent question, “so…what do YOU do”? How often have we felt the pressure or discomfort of having to confidently reply with a well-prepared elevator speech? And yet how does the elevator speech do justice to our relationship with work, to our personal career stories? This relationship and these stories include our varied experiences, our myriad interests, our developing skills, our professional choices, our desired career paths, even our abandoned ones. How to summarize all that creatively and compellingly? And how indeed will this summary be heard?

Limitations of the elevator speech

Many clients I work with struggle to create and comfortably express the elevator speech. This struggle is understandable when many of us do not have one career path or one professional role we can easily describe. Many of us have experienced or are currently experiencing new work realities and are having to redefine what work and career mean to us. There are those navigating job loss and career transitions. There are those who are experiencing stress, burnout; others are having to change the way they work. There are young adults wondering how to construct careers that are personally fulfilling, engaging, and yet will inevitably change. And there are those who are re-imagining “retirement”, a stage in life now increasingly marked by a continuation of work and new career paths.

In each of these broad areas, the clients I see have a unique array of diverse life, work and educational experiences, innate talents and learned skills. All of this contributes to a highly nuanced and unique relationship with work that extends over our lifetime. And within this relationship there are multiple career stories.  So how can we create and better articulate our personal career stories and by extension, change the elevator speech?

What makes up our personal career stories?

Increasingly our personal career stories are about our relationship to work and the different experiences we have of work over the course of a lifetime.

These stories include the reality and influence that career transitions have on our experiences of, and opportunities to, work. Our stories often reveal “expertise” that is not tied to one role or profession but is in fact more expansive because of our adaptations to change, further education, and re-training. Our stories are also shaped by how our work is structured - contractual, part-time or self-employment – and how that impacts our definitions of “having a career”, and how that might impact how we structure other areas of our lives.

Reflective practice to gather information

By being attentive to and reflecting on our experiences, particularly our work experiences, we begin to gather information. This information includes: “how” we work, our engagement with work, the meaning work holds for us, what we have learned, what we have contributed. This information reflects the living, moving and expanding relationship we have with our work and career.

Taking time to reflect and gather this information helps us to further personalize our stories. This often gives us more clarity and confidence in the unique particulars of our story. We can then creatively shape the answer to the question, “what do you do?”.

Here are some sample reflective questions to help gather this information:

  • What expectations do I have of work and career?
  • What motivates me about the work I do, or the work I hope to do? What interests and energizes me? What captures my attention or focus?
  • What unique value, skills or talents do I bring to my work? What natural talents and capacities do I recognize within myself that interact with and influence how I do my job?
  • Which of my personal capacities and/or skills are most predominant in the work I do? Have these changed with the different roles and types of work I have had? Do I recognize certain skills, capacities and interests that are consistent in the different work roles I have had?
  • What have I learned from the jobs/roles I have had? What perspectives have I gained?
  • What have I discovered about myself in these different experiences? What new skills or capacities have I discovered within myself?
  • How do I approach my work? What attitude do I bring to my work, or my work environment? Have my attitudes changed?
  • How do I bring my work/my role/my position “to life”, how do I put my personal stamp on my work roles? What personal contributions do I make to my work?

Inventing new answers, new career stories

The way we work, the multiple careers we increasingly have, the shifting meaning that work and career have for us, along with the diversity of skills and expertise we accumulate in our lifetimes create compelling personal career stories, stories that deserve a better conversation.

Equipped with more personal content we are better prepared to create a different response to the question, “what do you do?”. Re-thinking and re-structuring the elevator speech to reflect a personal relationship, a personal career story, may even provoke the questioner into changing the question! And if by chance we are the one asking the question, we should be ready to listen to and hear, a richer and longer response.


Are you interested in more information on how you can create your personal career story? Britt-Mari Sykes PhD is a Career Counselor/Coach, Certified Career Strategist (CCS) and Certified Work/Life Strategist (CWS) with an extensive background in existential psychology and teaching.Contact her at to schedule a consultation call.