“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Life happens… literally and it’s fine until it somehow affects your career. We get married, divorced, care for sick parents, deal with tragedies, decide to travel the world, become an entrepreneur, get burned out or even decide that the career we have been in for most of our adult life is one we no longer want. Any one of these major life events may prompt us to take some time away from our current careers to figure life out. Sounds pretty innocent, right? It is, until you do it and then decide to re-enter the work force and have to come face to face with judgment. What an ugly word, but it is unfortunately the reality. Let’s face it, not everyone will understand that you left your high paying six figure job with bonus and stock options to travel the world or try your hand at being an entrepreneur. Now, I’m not talking about the person who has had jobs in four different industries in the past 10 years. I’m talking about someone who has a very consistent career for 15 or 20 years and made a decision to make a huge change in their life for whatever the reason. I’m also not talking about the people that interview you that see a life change as a wonderful opportunity from someone that was willing to take the risk in their life that many people can’t. I’m talking about that very uncomfortable telephone or in person interview where you can feel judgment permeate your body like a knife and you know without the interviewer saying explicitly that they will not be calling you back for a second interview. So how do you handle this? The bottom line is you cannot control someone else’s life experience and as a result you will not control what they think, but what you can control is how prepared your are to address what may be perceived as the elephant in the room. Here are some tips:
1) The extended gap in your resume. Whatever the reason is, be prepared to explain two things. A) Why you took that time off and B) What did you do during that time that provided some type of learning experience that will ultimately benefit the company, because remember it is always about what benefit you can bring to the company that another candidate cannot. Depending on how severe the circumstances are, even if you took time off to care for a sick or elderly parent, try to build some time in there to stay up on events in your industry, take a course or seminar, study for industry certification exams. There should be something that you can do. Of course, if your circumstances are extreme, then just say so and talk about what you do bring to the table.
2) You have been working in the same industry for 15 years, your making great money and can do your job with your eyes closed and have dreamed….no fantasized, of leaving a stressful environment to open a cupcake café. (Come on…you know who you are). You save some money liquidate your assets and open your business. A year later, the business is failing, you are broke and realize that being an entrepreneur is not for you. Make a list of every new skill and experience that you had during that time that you would have never been able to get sitting behind a desk (networking, decision making, building a business and doing it all on your own, speaking engagements). Next to each of those skills write out how that skill benefits you as a person and your new position. Once you have done that memorize it and practice speaking about it. Do this until you are comfortable because remember, the person on the other side of the table needs to believe you and the only way that they can do that is if you believe yourself first.
3) Is your resume a little bit jumpy but easily explainable? Even to the extent that if you explained the reasons for leaving it would make you a more desirable candidate? For example, if you are a superstar employee and have never had to rely on job boards or a recruiter to get a job because someone at the senior level always wants you on their team, then say that. But be careful because if you are jumping every six months to a year you will be viewed as just taking advantage of opportunity or more money and not making strategic career decisions. Maybe you took what appeared to be your dream job only to realize that it was severely misrepresented during the interview process. You need to practice how you are going to explain that and in doing so talk about a) what you learned from the experience b) how were you able to maintain your professionalism c) what skills did you have to use that you may not use otherwise (diplomacy, patience, negotiating). There is always something that can be learned or carried forward from a bad experience or job.
Being able to effectively talk about the gaps in your resume is one of the single most important things that you will have to do in order to be successful during the interview process. This exercise will take some time to complete, and it should. If you are struggling to do it on your own get the assistance of someone you trust, a Coach or a mentor. Once you are able to write all of your talking points practice them, memorize them and most importantly make sure you believe them yourself otherwise it will come out in your body language. If you read it out loud and don’t believe it, then revise it until you do. This also does not guarantee that you will get the job on the first round. Allow for at least one year to get back into the workforce. Be persistent, be honest and most importantly believe in yourself and what you have to offer.
Life is a struggle for some more than others. I know that because I raised two children alone with little help from family or friends. I was always envious when I saw people around me that are able to live truly authentic lives but looking back on it, they were fortunate to have a strong extended family unit or did not have children to worry about. Nevertheless, there were things that were incredibly important to me. My children for one but also my career. So how do you have both when you are going it alone? Here are some of my tips:
- You may not be able to have it all but you can have what is most important to you. Only you can decide what that is. Is it important to be at events for your children, move forward in your career or take time for yourself? Map out a plan with your children to decide which events they want you to attend and are the most important to both them and you. This will help you to plan any necessary time off from work. Maybe you can’t do a weekend spa trip which includes hours of yoga, hiking and meditation so find a day spa or maybe just a mani/pedi. How about an afternoon hike or some time at the beach. What ever it is, fit an amount of “me time” into your schedule that feels comfortable to you.
- Don’t compare yourself to others that are able to live a truly authentic life and never appear to struggle. Facebook is such an amazing way to connect with people but can also make you feel a bit envious. I admit that I struggle with this myself. Your path is yours and it might not be able to include restful trips to Europe, attending all kinds of inspiring events or dedicating hours every day to working out and reading. What is most important is how can you fit limited amounts of this into your life that allows you to recharge. Keep a journal of the personal and professional successes that you have had. It is very helpful to see it written down on paper. Attend an event once a year, if possible, where you are surrounded by amazing people. It will help to keep you going.
- Your career is precious! My career has always been just as important to me as my children. Balancing it was difficult at times because of life’s struggles. When things got to be too difficult to handle, I did the same thing every time. 1) Keep your head down and work on the task at hand. Do it much slower than you normally would to avoid making mistakes because your mind wanders off elsewhere. 2) Try not to bring drama into the office. It only makes things worse. There might be things that you have to handle. Do so, but then get right back to work. 3) Try not to work on long term projects in that moment. They might be too overwhelming so only do tasks that you can easily complete.
- Surround yourself with people that understand or are understanding to your path. If someone clearly does not understand or care about you, keep them at bay. They will only use their own judgement or fears to bring you down to where they are at. Rely on a mentor to hold you accountable. Gravitate to people that feel “right” for you. You don’t want someone who will try to set unrealistic expectations either. Your circle of people does not need to be a large one. You are much better off with a small group of people that really care than a large group that want to try to hold you to their agenda.
What are some of the things that you have done to help get you through the day and continue moving forward? I would love to hear your ideas. It might help someone else overcome a hurdle.