I not only tell stories, I collect them. I interview people about their complicated career paths and publish the articles once a month. After two years, I’ve found there’s a key factor that separates the interviews I find interesting and the ones I get fully sucked into, head first.
But before I talk about other people’s stories, I need to rewind to one of my own.
When I graduated college a year early, a proud and eager honors student, I shot out resumes into the job market like I’d gotten a hold of a t-shirt cannon.
Imagine those t-shirts fluttering to the ground of an empty stadium while a sad hotdog wrapper tumbles by. That’s a pretty dead-on metaphor to how my job search went.
So there was a lot at stake six months in when I finally got a call for an interview. In the brand new business dress my mom had bought me, I nervously walked through an active construction site to my “marketing” interview. Only, as I asked deeper questions about the odd terms the interviewer was using, it struck me–it was a pyramid scheme. The interviewer saw the dawning on my face and cut things short. It wasn’t going to work out.
I walked off, dazed. My only interview had been a scam. That I got rejected from. Obviously, I had gone terribly wrong somewhere. I’d missed something critically important that kept other people from launching themselves into the world and thwacking into a mud puddle.
I sat in the parking garage, numbly hugging the purse I’d borrowed to carry my resumes, utterly alone.
I would continue to struggle for a few years in a lot of ways I’m sure to talk about later. But flash forward to 2014, with a stable career in advising, I pitched a feature where I’d interview alumni who graduated into or after the economic crash exploring how they got into their careers. It would be educational. It would be human interest for the college.
Secretly, it was a postmortem. I needed to know what crucial piece I’d missed all those years ago.
I’d missed, it turns out, the stories themselves.
Maybe it was because I approached potential interviewees with my own awkward account first, maybe it was the mission of helping young people, but I started getting the real stories, not the polished social-media ones. Not all of the interviewees shared with me times when they felt like they’d crashed or made a wrong turn or taken a step only to find the ground drop away beneath them, but a lot of them did.
A National Geographic photojournalist shared the moment a doctor handed her a handicap placard and told her she’d never lead a normal life. A speech therapist laughed with me about applying for a nighttime bike assembler position at Target and getting turned down. One person called me after reading the draft of her feature, stunned that I’d made her sound cool. I was surprised she didn’t see herself that way already.
The thing about those stories that get vulnerable, when they get to the triumphant parts, they make me clap and grin (yes, sometimes literally). With those people who are brave enough to share their weaker moments, I feel as though I’ve known them for years instead of, as is often the case, being in the middle of our very first conversation.
The power in our stories doesn’t come from the proudest, glossiest, Instagram moments. The power comes from the vulnerable parts. The parts we’re afraid of showing each other.
We all want to feel connection in those places where we feel most alone.
I can’t speak for the people I’ve interviewed, but for me, talking to others who say, “While you were in that parking garage, I was out there too somewhere, feeling the same way,” moves me in ways that the white-toothed smile, LinkedIn-ready stories simply don’t.
So to writers of fictional stories or people just looking for more connection to the people in their lives…my suggestion? Take the risk. Get vulnerable. Show off your humanity. And stick close to the people who give you those things in return.
You can read my interviews with these amazing folks at UCSB’s College of Letters and Science page.