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To fashion your unicorn career, speak up about your passions, value, and objectives

As you work to develop your unicorn career, whether you are applying for a job right now or strategizing what you will do years in the future, three elements are crucial: your passions, your value, and your objectives. These are three distinct but related concepts that you need to both know for yourself and be able to communicate to others. But what are they exactly?

Passion is what drives you. Your passion is what brings a smile to your face, what ignites your creative engine, what makes you approach a problem with gusto. Your passion could be for a specific field, subfield, profession, industry, customer, type of problem, or some combination. When your work fulfills your passion, you’ll find that you don’t need a cupcake to reward yourself—the output itself is satiating enough.

Value is what you offer to a partner. It consists mainly of your problem-solving abilities and all the accoutrements that come with them, such as your skills, knowledge, experience, and expertise. When you know your value, you can elucidate this to foster collaborations and to encourage employers to hire you.

Objectives are what you want to do. Your objectives may be personal or professional, big picture or granular. They may be very specific, like “I want to work in City X, on consumer products in the beauty industry.” Or they could be more general, such as “I want to use my passion for science communications to advance STEM.”

Now, did you see what I just did there, dropping passion into that last objective? That was no accident! This is a perfect example of how passion and objectives—and value too—interplay, interconnect, and interact. Knowing your passions can help you better define your value and clarify your objectives. And understanding your objectives can help you be better attuned to your passion and articulate your value. The more you know about these three elements, the better you can build your unicorn career.

How do you determine what they are? We discussed some strategies for being a “data scientist” about yourself in a previous column. Briefly, you can define your value by looking at facts of your life—I solved these problems; I have this skill. Passion and objectives are more subjective and can change over time, so defining them can present more of a challenge. But if you take note of the moments when you are at your highest energy, joy, creativity, and enthusiasm, you’ll be able to home in on these crucial elements.

Once you can articulate these factors for yourself, the next phase is learning to effectively communicate them to others. This takes some skill, as you don’t want to be perceived as being presumptuous, a braggart, or inappropriate.

I was reminded of this recently when I asked a scientist I know well what her overarching career goal is and what she sees for herself in the future. She answered quickly, happily, and confidently: to make a significant impact in her field and to win a Nobel Prize.

Some may view this as arrogant, but I didn’t respond that way—I was thrilled for her. She was sharing her belief in herself and the contributions she would make in her discipline. She was showcasing her passion, ambition, and drive. She was demonstrating that she viewed herself as a leader and an innovator. And she wasn’t doing it with a cocky mannerism. She was speaking in a way that articulated her value as a scholar to give back to her community and her dream of being a successful researcher.

Her answer also surprised me, but not for the reason you may think. I was amazed at her confidence and clarity. Many professionals, especially those who are STEM-educated, tend not to elucidate the details of our passions, value, and objectives for fear that we will be seen as being arrogant or boastful. This is especially true for women and members of other underrepresented groups in science. We may have even been outright told not to share our abilities. But you have to make your value, objectives, and passions known. This does not mean you become a braggadocio or uppity or snobby. It means you lead with a generous and enthusiastic spirit, which others tend to respond to positively.

Where, when, and how you reveal your trident of passions, value, and objectives are just as important as knowing what they are—and the best approach can vary depending on the specifics of the situation. It was perfectly appropriate (and noble!) for this scientist to highlight her Nobel dream in her conversation with me. But, it would be seen as inappropriate to declare to an academic hiring committee that you want to win the planet’s top award in your field. Instead, she would discuss her objectives that more closely align with the problems she would solve as a professor—for example, to conduct novel research, teach and inspire students, and serve the institution. When you are encouraging someone to hire you, you have to discuss your objectives, passion, and value in terms of the decisionmaker’s needs and operate according to the culture of the ecosystem. But in almost any context, it is relevant and appropriate to state that your objective is to make a big contribution to the field through your value, document how your passion aligns with the culture and outputs of the organization, and—as this scientist did—champion yourself with self-assurance.

The story of another scientist, who landed his dream job developing sneakers at Nike, highlights the benefits of making your passions, goals, and objectives known. His vision since he was 11 years old was to work in the sneaker industry, and he took every step you could imagine to work toward this finish line. He researched the sector. He networked and reached out to experts for advice. He pursued degrees that would bring him closer to the industry movers and shakers. In addition to this leg work, this guy also did something else that struck me: He told everyone he could about his dream to work for a sneaker company. And the more he learned about Nike, the more he told people his dream was to work at Nike. By the time he defended his dissertation, Nike knew who he was, the value he could provide them, his objective to apply his knowledge to sneaker development, and his passion for the company. A position was open, and he got the job.

Don’t be afraid to champion yourself. If you don’t share your unique skills, experience, expertise, and know-how, how can someone know the value you could provide?

That doesn’t mean you should lead potential networking interactions with “I’m awesome! I am a gift to science! You should hire me!” Rather, as you are engaging in the conversation and asking questions about the other party’s activities, you can inject information about yourself in the context of a question. For example, “I was excited to read your paper about examining cancer biology using tools from theoretical particle physics. I am passionate about physics-based approaches too. In fact, my undergraduate degree is in physics, and I have worked on projects relating to physics technique Z. Have you ever used this method?” 

When you know your passions, value, and objectives—and communicate these by examining ways that your passions can help other parties—you open doors for everyone to succeed. And combined with your bravery, confidence, and professionalism in asking for opportunities, you might be surprised to find yourself in your unicorn job—and maybe even with a Nobel Prize down the road, too.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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