Recently, I read a fascinating interview of the film director Steven Soderberg on why he’s giving up on directing as a career path (thanks to kottke for the link). One particular piece stood out at me, though (my emphasis in bold):
On the few occasions where I’ve talked to film students, one of the things I stress, in addition to learning your craft, is how you behave as a person. For the most part, our lives are about telling stories. So I ask them, “What are the stories you want people to tell about you?” Because at a certain point, your ability to get a job could turn on the stories people tell about you. The reason [then-Universal Pictures chief] Casey Silver put me up for [1998's] Out of Sight after I’d had five flops in a row was because he liked me personally. He also knew I was a responsible filmmaker, and if I got that job, the next time he’d see me was when we screened the movie. If I’m an asshole, then I don’t get that job. Character counts. That’s a long way of saying, “If you can be known as someone who can attract talent, that’s a big plus.”
Stop for a second and ask yourself what kind of story your employer would tell someone about you in a casual conversation. Let’s say your boss is sitting around with other supervisors and they’re telling stories about their employees, good or bad. Most supervisors do this at least some of the time.
What about your other coworkers? What kinds of stories are they going to tell about you when they’re talking about their coworkers?
Are the stories going to reflect well on you?
Are the stories going to imply that you’re a hard worker? That you’re reliable? That you’re pleasant to interact with? That you do your job well?
Or are they going to imply that you do the minimum just to get by? That you’re often late? That you don’t come through on projects? That you’re often unpleasant to deal with?
The story that’s told about you is going to be part of what defines you in the minds of your coworkers and of your supervisors. It’s going to determine who gets promoted, whether or not people work well with you, how good your future references will be, and whether those people will give you a helping hand when you need it.
You contribute to that story every single day.
Do you show up on time? When someone expects something from you, do you come through with high consistency? When someone trusts you, do you stand up for that trust?
Do you say positive things about others at work and avoid backstabbing anyone? Do you deal with situations with good humor?
Do you come through when people need help, even volunteering to help them out when they need it?
When there’s a difficult task, do you handle it? Do you figure out ways to deal with problems that are a bit beyond your current expertise? Do you leave problems for others when you could have solved them?
These questions are the things that make up the story others have about you.
That story will play a big role in helping to define the career opportunities you have and the personal relationships you build.
What story do you want told about you? You answer that question every day through your actions.