by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
You probably know that communicating your accomplishments is an important aspect of your job search, but if you were asked right now to list several top achievements, could you do it? Many people can't, and the reasons -- social and psychological -- that most people are at a loss when it comes to identifying their accomplishments is the subject of this article.
It Hasn't Occurred to Us to Record Accomplishments Beginning Early in Our Careers
Most people don't think about accomplishments until something changes the status quo of their lives. Few people take their first job out of school and start jotting down their accomplishments. Who has time? Recording accomplishments just isn't a priority for most people.
For many people, the accomplishments issue comes up when they suddenly find themselves in a new job situation. They've been unexpectedly fired or downsized. Perhaps they've worked for the same employer for many years. They've had no compelling reason to keep track of their accomplishments because they haven't had to update their resumes or look for a new job. As a resume writer, I was often approached by clients who said they had not needed a resume for many years -- either because they had not changed jobs or because they had always attained new jobs through networking or being recruited.
Even when a job situation is stable, we're not thinking about accomplishments until something occurs in the job that warrants such reflection. "Often people don't pay attention to their accomplishments until performance-review time," says Carol Johnson, owner of Plan B Consulting in Derby, CT.
We Can't Remember What We've Accomplished
Because most of us haven't tracked accomplishments from the beginning or thought much about them along the way, we have no easy way of remembering achievements when we truly need to. If you were asked for your top accomplishments from three jobs ago, could you come up with them? Can you even list more than a handful of accomplishments from your current job? If not, you're not alone.
Sometimes it's hard even to remember the accomplishments of the past day, as Glen Stansberry notes: "We often forget the things that we got done during the day for lots of reasons. We're taught at an early age that what we do isn't as important as what we didn't do. After all, what we don't get done often impacts us more in work and other social settings. This [mindset] causes us to automatically shove the stuff we did accomplish into the back of our minds, and fret about the undone," he writes in his article, "5 Reasons to Keep a Work Diary."
We're not Sure We've Done Anything Worthy of Being Called an Accomplishment
"Most people are not self-aware of what they bring to the table each day or who they really are," notes Cheryl Roshak, CPC, transition and career coach and president of Cheryl Roshak Associates. "People don't recognize their own accomplishments for what they are," agrees Indianapolis-based corporate recruiter Todd Rogers, "or they confuse accomplishments with their job responsibilities." On a resume, job candidates will list bullet points detailing their job description, observes Gregg Podolski, accounting and finance recruiter for Emerson Group, instead of listing accomplishments. "Yet when I ask a few probing questions, they are almost always able to tell me something they did that earned them praise or was above and beyond the call of duty; yet it was part of their routine so they didn't recognize it for what it was," Podolski says.
We sometimes think what we've done is not good enough, nothing special, too small to count, or not anything that would impress anyone. "Are you convincing yourself something isn't good enough when, in fact, any more objective onlooker would convince you otherwise?" asks author and career expert Miriam Salpeter of Keppie Careers.
Why do people not believe they've done anything accomplishments-worthy? Sometimes an accomplishment just isn't up to our own expectations, so we discount it. Another reason is the way achievements are treated in the workplace -- the message that no one is indispensable, explains educator and consultant Leri M. Thomas, PhD. "Workers aren't typically praised every time they do something exceptional," Thomas says. "If they were, from an employer's perspective, they'd want more compensation. I remember being told that I could be replaced by anyone on the street. So, in the industrial work place, which is still the prevailing culture, managers devalue achievement as a means to hold the bottom line down."
Workers aren't just starved for praise; they are deprived of feedback of any kind from colleagues and superiors in the workplace, says Kiana Wilson, PHR, GCDF, of Tampa, FL. "Many people go through their day-to-day responsibilities without any regard to what they are truly accomplishing. It is only through continuous feedback that these individuals come to realize the magnitude of their contributions and subsequently their accomplishments along the way. Without this feedback, many are left scrambling through their work duties to determine what impact, if any, they have made," Wilson notes.
Many people believe that success is expected of them. Many, like me, grew up without earning much praise from parents for accomplishments because they were simply doing what their parents expected them to do. Excellence was nothing out of the ordinary. "For many overachievers, success, work ethic, and striving to be better than everyone else are second nature," observes Patrick K. Hollister, a sales manager with Panasonic.
(On the flip side, of course, are those who are accustomed to lavish praise for everything and consequently feel a need to broadcast every accomplishment. "Gen Y and Z tend to live each day to tell everyone how awesome they are," asserts Jennifer Cash, an operations professional and LinkedIn contributor, "and can easily blog about what they did as if everything they did that day is an accomplishment.")
Some people believe any activity they can't measure or quantify is not an accomplishment. "Most resume-writing and job-search advice states that accomplishments are best when they are backed up by facts and figures," says career-development practitioner Karen Schofield, "Some people work in fields where it isn't always easy to quantify what they have accomplished in their jobs, such as teaching and writing. That situation makes it difficult for the job-seeker to clearly explain what he or she has done and how it benefited the company or client, Schofield says.
When we think of benefit to an employer or client, we generally think in terms of results, and most people miss accomplishments because they aren't thinking in terms of results, observes Darlene Zambruski, managing editor for ResumeEdge.com. "They're thinking in terms of tasks. For example, 'I do this, I do that.' Stopping to think of the consequences if they didn't do 'this' or 'that,' that would give them the accomplishment."
We Have Difficulty Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us
Because we often have no idea how others view us, we're not sure if they perceive what we do as accomplishments-worthy. We're often surprised to discover that the people we work with and observe our work find us far more highly accomplished than we find ourselves. (However, having made that discovery, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking others will talk about our success for us -- so we don't have to.)
Women are especially likely to underestimate how coworkers perceive them, as University of New Mexico researcher Scott Taylor discovered when he studied 251 managers. He found that women were three times less likely than men to accurately predict their coworkers' perception of their work performance. The women tended to undercut themselves when asked to rate their performance through their coworkers' and managers' eyes across many key workplace attributes.
We're Worried About Being Perceived as Boasting
"The need to 'toot you own horn' is just not something that everyone possesses," notes Cash, "and I think that has a lot to do with what generation you grew up in. I think that humility is generation-based. Prior to and including Gen X, one did not talk themselves up or they were looked upon as bragging or brown-nosing. The change in the way society interprets accomplishments has changed at a basic level. What a seasoned job-seeker may interpret as just doing their job and doing it darn well, a younger generation may look at each detail as an accomplishment."
Many of us have been taught that our good work should speak for itself; we shouldn't need to talk about it. Some of us actually think we'll get more attention by being humble than by touting our accomplishments.
Women have particular difficulty with the idea of boasting, notes Peggy Klaus. "It's a well-researched fact that women are terrible self-promoters," she writes.
Man or woman, though, you're not boasting; you're marketing a product. Here's a tip however -- research shows that people who compare themselves to others when touting their accomplishments ("I'm better than others.") do tend to come off as boastful.
Final Thoughts: Clearing the Obstacles to Identifying and Tracking Accomplishments
Now that we better understand the barriers that frequently stand in the way of identifying and tracking our accomplishments, we can begin to break through those barriers. We can't time-travel to the beginning of our careers and begin to record accomplishments in real time. But we can deploy various tools to help us pick our brains, remember, and record achievements. See all the content in our Accomplishments Section for resources.
Read more about brainstorming, tracking, and leveraging career accomplishments in Katharine Hansen's book, You Are More Accomplished Than You Think: How to Brainstorm Your Achievements for Career and Life Success.
Career and Work Accomplishments Section of Quintessential Careers
Find expert job-seeker accomplishments tools, resources, samples -- free expert advice about maximizing career accomplishments in this section of Quintessential Careers: Career-Job-Work Accomplishments Resources for Job-Seekers.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.