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The Windows and Mirrors in Career Conversations

Reflecting on the value of networking lately, I have been trying out an application of the metaphors of Windows and Mirrors from Emily Style’s approach to designing a reading curriculum. Students need both — stories can function “both as window and as mirror, in order to reflect and reveal most accurately both a multicultural world and the student herself or himself.” So too, when we talk to others about career, it is good for there to be a mix of stories, some in which we see ourselves reflected AND also the kinds that reveal entirely new worlds to us.

And while often moments of career conversation are unplanned, when we come together to network, we can be deliberate, and mindfully choose to seek out both mirrors and windows, knowing that we benefit greatly from hearing about career paths that we never knew existed. These conversations “draw back the curtains” to show us endless possibilities and territories. While at the same time, not forgetting the value of career conversations that can serve as mirrors — for ourselves and for others.

When stories about work get shared, they tend to be from people after they have already figured things out — and the reflection is self-reflection, looking back on experiences years out from the transition and after having made it through, with the wisdom of hindsight. If you have been to a career panel at an academic conference for example, you may have noticed that the people who tend to be asked to sit up on the stage are established. And people in the midst of career transition may not tend to be invited to share their story, and they might say no even if they were asked, fearing that it would be a bad thing to share their disorientation and confusion.

We’ve internalized the mistaken notion that we’re all supposed to have this career thing all sorted out, because it somehow seems like everyone else has.

But of course a big contributing factor to the proliferation of this misconception is precisely the silencing of those messy stories and the uncertainties and ambiguities that thereby get invisibilized. But to share these would be such a gift because it can hold up a mirror to others who may well be confused and disoriented and nervous and uncertain about what comes next. After all, if you’re really going to try to innovate, and work hard to truly design a work life that really suits you, you will experience disorientation precisely because you are innovating. By definition, no one has been exactly here before. Hearing more stories that reflect back an experience of dislocation can help us sit in the discomfort of discernment instead of cutting reflection short, settling for something that isn’t right or is somehow less of a fit if you’d only allowed yourself the luxury of a tailor-made fit.

I learned recently when listening to Sarah LeFleur’s story on How I Built This that part of the reason luxury clothes feel so great is that they are tested several times on human models — who actually move around in the clothes. Often, the more easily available, more affordable “fast fashion” items never get tried out — at any stage of the process — on an actual person, let alone a person who isn’t standing still.

Thus, to celebrate the very real benefits of trying things out to really design a career fit that feels right and will last long, I really like the metaphorical entailments of “looking in the mirror” not only for the sense of agency it gives, but also for normalization of the process of being productively disoriented and actively under development.

I’m picturing someone going around a networking event with the idea of “trying things on for size” as they listen to various work experiences. Talking to someone who does UX research, this person learns that she ALSO found herself particularly energized by methodological puzzles that presented when she was at the same stage of her dissertation, and she used that detail to develop a resume that detailed her methodological bent. And the networker looks into the mirror and imagines how this would suit.

These “changing room” mirror themes also help language some of the disorientation around identity that comes with transition:

· leaving jobs that seemed like they would be a great fit in terms of feeling constrained or ill-suited or not wearing well, or finding that the style changed

· it brings some lightness to the idea of just wanting to try out something new

· it helps you think about a job that you might need to take for necessity as being “just for a season” (no one can fault anyone needing a scarf and mittens in the wintertime)

And we already use these themes — think “wearing multiple hats” or telling someone that a new job seems tailor-made or really “suits them.” Why not use them to explain networking to someone who thinks that networking is something that one only does when jobseeking — you don’t have to be someone who goes to fashion week to still keep abreast of fashions and how they are changing, even if you’re not looking to go on a shopping spree anytime soon.

One really helpful affordance of these metaphors is that they can help those who are in the midst of career transition make sense of the sometimes painful and confusing reactions of former colleagues. It may help to realize that perhaps your change drew back the curtains on a window that this person never even knew was there. Or that your courage to make such a significant life change — and indeed to take a big risk — may have held up a mirror to their own desire to make a change, which they are not yet ready to face.

So especially for anyone finding it hard to narrate career exploration to friends and family, would-be employers, or even to yourself — here’s some starter language:

“I’m trying this experience to broaden my perspective”

“just exploring what’s out there”

“looking for versatility and adaptability”

With more of your own at the ready, I hope they might inspire the seek-ing out and even creation-of more opportunities to share, ask for, and really listen to all kinds of career stories.

Interactional sociolinguist and story listener.