The start of a new year is a good time to sit back and think about the lessons you've learned in the previous 12 months and the areas where you might make changes in the coming year.

Don't worry; this isn't another article about New Year's resolutions—"I'm going to lose 10 pounds," or "I'm going to get that paper submitted that I've been promising to finish for the last 10 months." New Year's resolutions are easily written and, for most people, even more easily tossed aside. Anyone need a nice set of dumbbells?

Here's a better idea. Instead of writing a wish list of what you are going to do—or not—adapt that idea into something more powerful: a statement about yourself, written to reinforce the good points but reminding you of weaknesses you need to continue working on. I'll start by describing my own experiences in writing what I call a "Who Am I?" statement.

The man in the suit

When I have the time, I enjoy staying up till 2 a.m. watching classic black-and-white movies on cable TV. Sometimes you discover something really special. On one memorable occasion a few years ago it was a Gregory Peck movie from 1956, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. It caught my attention because it started out with a job interview with a unique twist.

In the film, Peck's character goes through the usual interviewing and courtship scenarios that are involved in a job change. Times have changed, but the similarities to today are more noticeable than the differences. (One big difference: Peck was interviewing for an executive position that paid $9000 a year.)

I enjoyed watching the interview, which was tricked up a bit by a snarky human resources guy. He gave Peck's character—Tom Rath—an office and a typewriter and asked him to write his autobiography, closing with a short statement titled "The Most Significant Thing About Me Is … " They gave him an hour to do this, and the filmmakers used that time to show flashbacks. Rath/Peck sweated over the process, particularly the "Most Significant Thing About Me" part.

After watching the film, I decided to do the exercise myself.

I sweated over it, too, and for some of the same reasons. Writing about yourself is hard for almost everyone. Writing succinctly is hard, too. But succinct writing can be powerful, and when you combine a few powerful words with personal insights that touch you deeply, the result can be important. In my struggles, I alternated between my career and the rest of my life: Should I write about my work as a recruiter or my roles as a father and husband? I noted a tendency to write about accomplishments, which distanced me from the really important stuff.

In the film, Rath decides not to bare his soul and turns in a one-paragraph statement saying that the only thing that the employer needs to know is that he can do this job, and that what matters most is that he has applied for a job at their company. It's an affront to the human resources guy, but he gets the position anyway because the boss likes his style.

When I was done writing my own "Who Am I?" statement (as I called it earlier), I found that the most significant thing about me has nothing to do with my particular job. But it does have a great deal to do with what drives me in my career. This all happened 3 years ago, but—in contrast to so many New Year's resolutions—it stayed with me. I repeated the process, updating my statement, this year. I plan to make revisions every January from now on.

Who are you?

I've honed my "Who Am I?" statement to about 70 to 80 words, or eight short lines. I know it inside and out, and whenever I am in a slump or pondering a particularly important decision, I review it to ensure that the direction I am headed is consistent with my core beliefs.

I believe that graduate students and postdocs can benefit from this exercise, too. You've been pulled this way and that by advisers. You've been counseled by parents, lab mates, friends, and me. Taking the time to think about what is really important, across the entire spectrum of your life and not just in your work and career, can do more than just about anything else to help you focus your efforts on achieving what matters most to you.

My process

The first thing I did was to try and answer the human resources guy's question, "what is the most significant thing about you?" I found—and you will, too—that it's difficult to identify a single, most significant thing. So instead, I thought about words, specific descriptors, that were the key pieces of what makes me, me.

My example is far too personal to share, but I'll give you some ideas for the words I could have come up with, keywords that then could be built into the short statements that constitute your "Who am I?" statement. When you find a word that resonates with you, you'll know.

  • Respect – how you treat other people; you may have it or desire more
  • Leadership – some are driven by the need to be a leader of a successful team
  • Independence – others prefer to work alone, with control
  • Productivity – may resonate with your sense of duty, to an employer or to yourself
  • Competence – reaching a certain level of expertise in your work
  • Health – healthy in both mind and body
  • Caring – relationships with family and friends
  • Balance – reminds us that work is not all
  • Adventure – the opposite of conformity, it drives many people
  • Passion – a powerful emotion when directed toward your life's work

For many people there would be keywords covering the spiritual side of life as well; everything important should be covered here.

Note that not all of these words should describe your strengths; there's an aspirational element as well. These words describe your fundamental values—and against some of those values you probably don't measure up as well as you'd like. I wove my keywords into a short statement in such a way that, when I read it back, it reinforces my desire to improve. And I have indeed noticed a change.

Putting it all together

Here's an example of how this might read. I'll use the keywords above and come up with a possible "Who Am I?" statement—not mine but hopefully a decent example on which you can model your own:

I'm an independent scientist, competent in all that I do, on track to become a leader in the field of enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass. Passionate about conserving our resources, I seek an adventure where I can contribute to the coming biofuels revolution. Able to pour huge amounts of labor into being productive, I also realize that a healthy mind and body requires I recognize the balance that is so important to my family and friends. I will always listen well, show others respect, and be seen as a caring human being.

Print out your version on a small piece of paper and carry it like a card in your wallet until you know it inside and out. When you're feeling uncertain or when you need to make a critical decision, read it to ensure that the choices you make jibe with that which is most significant about you.

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400014