by Katharine Hansen Ph.D.
If you’re confused about what to do with your career — or what to do next with your career — and you haven’t gained insight from taking assessments there is another way. You can learn more about yourself gain insight into the best career for you and plot out how to get there through creating stories.
A small but growing collection of research for example has looked at using story and narrative in career counseling. “Psychotherapy is based on the premise that we each create our own life story from the time we are born” wrote Jack Maguire in The Power of Personal Storytelling. Career counselors are increasingly using narrative approaches to encourage clients to build their career stories.
Authors Christensen and Johnston suggested in the Journal of Career Development that developing narratives can significantly help individuals to know what to emphasize in their career planning. They proposed that counselors perceive clients as both authors and central characters in their career stories which they are “concurrently constructing and enacting.” Constructing their career story the authors said enables clients to discover connections and meaning in their careers that they might not have otherwise. When individuals imagine their desired future stories they facilitate their belief that their storied envisioned future will play out in reality. The authors’ research indicated that indeed clients who could tell these future stories tended to be “more effective in bringing those plans to fruition” while Maguire characterized the narrative-therapy process as revising or replacing negative stories with positive ones.
Instead of answering the question traditionally explored in career counseling “Who am I?” by listing traits such as interests skills aptitudes and values narrative approaches articulate the job-seeker’s preferred future. Larry Cochran who has devoted an entire book to the use of narrative in career counseling notes that the narrative approach emphasizes “emplotment” which refers to how a person can cast himself or herself as the main character in a career narrative that is meaningful productive and fulfilling. Plotting out a career story can also help a person conceptualize the steps needed to attain his or her desired career remind the narrator of career goals and enable him or her to stay on track in achieving the envisioned career.
Following are a number of approaches to exploring your career desires and passions through storytelling. Considerable overlap exists among these story exercises so don’t feel you need to use all of them. But pick a couple that resonate with you and use them to examine meanings themes and patterns in your career to date as well as to plot out how to attain your career dreams.
- Write the story of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Talk about what attracted you to you childhood dream career and how that attraction may have changed over the years. Discuss how your ambitions have evolved. Have you looked up to role models — people working in your dream career whom you wanted to emulate people who inspire you? Include them in your story.
- Tell the story of how you chose your current career. What attracted you to this career? Who were your influences? In what ways has your career met or failed to meet your expectations?
- Chronicle your career to date particularly noting internal factors — behaviors motivations and attitudes such as what you’ve liked and disliked about each job. Discuss what you learned in each job that you decided to apply to your next job. For example I discovered at about mid-career that I was a pretty good manager but only on a small scale. I did not excel when charged with managing a large staff and knew that I should avoid large-scale management in future jobs. Identify the common threads patterns and plot lines in your career story. What have you valued the most in each of your jobs? How can you interpret the meaning of your past career in a way that provides a vision for the future?
- Now write the same story focusing on external factors that you felt were important such as people and organizations. Source: Kerr Inkson.
- Now compose the story of the career you wish you’d had. What did you do in this fantasy story that you wish you had done in reality? What training or education did you pursue and what experience did you attain? What’s stopping you from implementing this fantasy career path? How can you reinvent your career based on this fantasy?
- Recall the story of your best job. What made it such a great job? Why did you leave? What did you learn?
- Compose a story about the proudest accomplishment of your working life. What makes this achievement such a source of pride for you? Did you attain the recognition you felt you deserved for this accomplishment?
- Identify one positive and one negative personal career incident in detail. What did you learn from each of these incidents and how have they influenced your subsequent career? Source: Kerr Inkson.
- Construct a story about your most difficult decision in leaving a job or changing your career. Why did you leave/change? What made the departure/change so hard?
- Develop a story about what you’d like to change about your current employer. What would you need to change about your job and/or organization to make it a better fit for you? What would the organization and job be like in an ideal world?
- Recall a story of coping with change that an organization you worked for underwent. What was most significant for you personally in undergoing your organization’s change(s)? What did you learned from undergoing change with your organization? Have you acquired or sharpened any skills as a result of going through change? If an employer were interviewing you for a new job or promotion right now what story would you tell if asked to give an example that demonstrates your flexibility adaptability and ability to handle change?
- Imagine you are being interviewed for a job and the interviewer asks: “Tell me the story of why you have decided to move on from where you are.” What story would you tell? Source: Kerr Inkson.
- Conduct an informational interview with someone whose career path you admire write the story of that path. Learn how to conduct an informational interview. Write about the aspects of this person’s career that reinforce what you already know elements that surprise you things you like and things you dislike about the interviewee’s career. Ask yourself these questions and include the answers in your story:
- What did you learn about yourself?
- What did you learn about what you value in a job and in a workplace?
- What did you learn about how to break into your interviewee’s career field?
- What did you learn about how to succeed in this field?
- How do your skills/grades/experiences measure up to what’s required for entry or success in this field?
- Have your ideas about pursuing this field changed now that you know more about it?
- If you still want to pursue your original career direction what is your strategy for seeking a job in this field?
- If you have decided against your original field what fields are you now considering and how will you go about finding out if another field suits you better?
- Initiate a similar story exercise with a written career story such as one from Po Bronson’s What Should I Do with My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question or Nobodies to Somebodies by Peter Han stories of how “100 great careers got their start” or Real People Real Jobs: 40 People Tell Their Stories by David Montross Zandy Leibowitz and Christopher Shinkman. Answer the same reflective questions as in the previous item.
- Try the same story exercise with one or both of your parents. You may gain additional insights into your own career path. A parent’s career story can reveal surprises as well as explanations of the family dynamic or influences into your own career. Source: Kerr Inkson.
- Picture yourself in your ultimate career. Maybe you feel that obstacles — perhaps lack of credentials or experience — stand in your way of achieving this pie-in-the-sky career. But in your story no such obstacles exist. What would it be like to wake up every morning excited about going to work? What kind of work would instill that kind of enthusiasm in you? Write about what a typical day is like both during and after working hours. What are your job functions? What are the rewards of your job? What is your workplace like? What are you wearing? Who are your co-workers clients customers and other people you come in contact with every day? What is your lifestyle like? Where do you live? Now think about what it would take to bring this story to life. How could you achieve your dream? How could you overcome the obstacles?
- Craft the story of “what you want to be.” Consider a story that tells what you want to stand for how your work matters and how you can make a difference. Source: Tom Peters.
Final Thoughts on Using Stories for Career Exploration
If career assessments that yield lists of possible careers have left you cold consider a story-based approach to career exploration. You just might be amazed at how much you can learn about yourself and how you can design your future through developing your story. As Kerr Inkson writes in Understanding Careers “By interpreting the past we use narrative to make sense of the present and thereby see a way to the future.” Remember also that crafting the story of your career is an ongoing exercise in that you will need to reconfigure the story to account for new occurrences in your career and life.
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.
Check out all of the free Career Storytelling Tools for Job-Seekers that we have on Quintessential Careers.