There are lots of books out there with advice on working in the “new economy,” a world where jobs within organizations no longer offer a lot of security, and it’s tough to find a dependable career path. As we move from big employers to freelancing to small organizations and back, we may begin to feel like our career history is a like the pieces of a patchwork quilt that someone forgot to sew together. It can be hard to explain to a potential employer how our varied experiences make up a coherent whole—a beautiful quilt instead of a bunch of patches.
Pamela Slim’s book, Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together, takes a fresh approach to the challenges of working in the new economy. Slim, a writer, coach, consultant, and martial arts expert, embodies someone with a patchwork of experiences that somehow create a coherent whole. She observes that in a sense, “we are all self-employed,”(67) and she advises us to charge of our own careers and create a story that encompasses the whole of a “body of work.”
Slim says that a career is a “cumulative and connected body of work.”(6) A body of work is based in your values, your experiences, and the skills that connect all the aspects of your life. A body of work addresses a big theme—a big cause, a big problem, or a big question—that has engaged you. She says, “Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. . . Individuals who structure their careers around autonomy, mastery, and purpose will have a powerful body of work.” (7)
Slim’s book is packed with helpful case studies and practical exercises to help the reader identify her own body of work. In working through some of her exercises, I realized that my body of work is centered on educating young people to be engaged citizens and empowering women to realize their full potential. Most everything I’ve done—from volunteer work in 4-H in high school to part time fundraising work for a women’s health collective, from more than two decades of college teaching to starting a coaching practice—have focused on those two big goals.
To identify your body of work and begin to articulate it to others, Slim says you must start by identifying your root—the ideas that drive you or the problems you want to solve. From there, you need to name your ingredients: the skills, experiences, and knowledge that you bring to the table. It's also important to choose your work mode. Do you work best alone or as part of a team? Do you need the security of being an employee or the freedom available to a freelancer?
To build a career based in the idea of a body of work, Slim says you must create and innovate at each stage of your career. There will inevitably be fears that arise along the way, and she advises reader to “surf the fear.” In fact, the chapter entitled “Surf Your Fear” was my favorite. It's packed with good advice on how to confront, identify, and navigate your fears. Don’t ignore your fear or “stomp on it,” says Slim. Instead take time to evaluate what our fears are trying to tell us and determine whether the fear might offer an opportunity for growth.
Slim offers strategies for forming a team of peers, mentors, and collaborators to help us build a body of work. She urges readers to define what success means to them instead of measuring achievements by the yardsticks of others. And finally, Slim says, sell your story. Find a way to tie it all together into a compelling story that will help potential clients and employers understand what we have to offer.
A lot of the literature these days uses the term “personal brand”to describe the compelling story we create about ourselves, but I find “body of work” is an idea that carries more resonance for me. A body of work is about the cumulative legacy we bring to the world.
I recommend Body of Work if:
- You've bounced around a lot of different types of jobs and struggle to present yours as a coherent career path;
- You’re facing a career change and struggling to think about how to tell your career story;
- You want to think deeply about the meaning of the work to which you've given your life in order to understand your own contributions to the world.
What is YOUR body of work?