Turning Disaster into Brownie Points

by Rossy Mendez, former Head Editor, INALJ Puerto Rico
previously published 6/11/14

Turning Disaster into Brownie Points

Rossy_MendezLike many people I have had my share of crappy jobs. I have worked in places where people lacked ethics, in places where I have questioned my sanity and lost my dignity, places where I spent many afternoons in tears and my bills was the only reason I went to work.

Then there were places that lacked organization, places where the to-do list was so long it could outlive any pension plan available. These were the “learning opportunities.” I cannot say that I always saw disaster as opportunity. It is hard to see the benefit of performing three jobs while getting paid the salary of one or in taking initiatives to fix things that are so incredibly disorganized that not doing so would result in the collapse of the institution. I never understood the value in going above my pay grade without any recognition until I learned to use these battle stories as examples of my awesomeness.

In the last couple of cover letters and interviews I have found myself telling battle stories like a camp counselor around a bonfire and what I have noticed is that employers value these experiences. During a recent interview I was asked to tell an experience so challenging that made me want to give up. The question caught me a little off guard; how could I tell a story without trashing my previous employer? I decided to tell the story with tact emphasizing that the situation was the result of many factors including my own lack of experience. I also explained the steps I took to resolve the problem. I emphasized that the situation was a learning opportunity and related it to how that experience could prepare me for the position to which I was applying. Later on I was told that my answer to the question was one of the best that the interviewer had heard. I realized that disasters were not only learning opportunities but examples of my ability to deal with challenging situations.

Thus I offer a few disasters stories that can be turned into brownie points.

1. Performing several jobs with the salary of one- this disaster story can be used for applying to management or hybrid positions. In the case of management, the story shows that you have a general understanding of the goals of an organization and that you are willing to work hard to achieve them. For hybrid positions the story shows that you can learn quickly and multi-task.

2. Starting a project with little upper management support- this disaster involves projects where upper level management is not involved due to lack of interest or even resistance. If as a result of the project you were able to get funding or convince management to implement a new measure this story can be a real winner. The story demonstrates your ability to communicate effectively and be steadfast in achieving your goals.

3. Making a major mistake at work-Believe it or not this disaster can be used to your advantage. While you definitely should not bring it up for no reason, if asked, you should admit that you made a mistake and discuss how you went about fixing it. If your mistake resulted in a great new initiative or the implementation of a new procedure even better!

4. Difficult co-worker/boss- telling a story about how you dealt with a difficult person can be a good indication not only of how you deal with people but also how handle unpleasant situations. This can demonstrate that you are able to separate your emotions and be a team-player, that you are a good problem-solver and that you respect other perspectives.

There are many other disasters that can be turned into positive experiences. When faced with interview questions that address challenges be prepared to use these stories as a way to demonstrate your skills and great personality. Do not be afraid to admit failures as long as you can demonstrate how you have learned from them and used them for major accomplishments. Remember that while you can discuss difficult aspects of your position you should not talk negatively about your co-workers or organization. Simply present these as challenges and mention how they help you grow as a person. You do not want to come across as bitter or someone that is a quitter. Always see a silver lining in your misery and go ahead and turn disasters into brownie points for your next job!