Storytelling in Career Development

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Throughout history, cultures have embraced storytelling to help people understand their origins and how they belong. We all have stories about who we are and how we fit into the world, and we make choices in our lives according to our stories and how they fit with a particular situation and time. Our stories continue to shape our identity whether they are cultural folklore, religious myths, or personal experiences, and they have the power to influence our choices and shape our future.

Storytelling is an effective tool in career coaching for the following reasons:

  • Storytelling is a right-brain and creative process that stimulates other right brain neuropathways to enhance imagining/dreaming, creative thinking, and innovative problem solving — all things important for career transition or change.
  • In her book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown tells us that our brains are wired for story and it is in our DNA. According to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, hearing a story — a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end — causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin, chemicals that trigger the uniquely human ability to connect, empathize, and make meaning. Neurologist and novelist Robert Burton explains that our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize the pattern of a story.
  • Writing one’s story down allows us to review and reflect on our story as an observer and allows for a different perspective. It affirms that our personal stories are important and true for us, and writing them down allows us to share our stories with others, fostering understanding and even camaraderie.
  • In writing down stories and including details such as strengths, aptitudes, best interests, ideal career objectives, and action steps, we actually make those concepts concrete. Stephen Covey, in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says that only 3% of people actually write down their goals but of those 3%, 97% achieve them successfully within their desired time frame — pretty powerful!
  • In my own experience, I have repeatedly observed that when writing down goals or concepts, something happens in the brain that enables them to materialize. In writing our stories, we put our attention on our experiences and our intentions, and that focus allows us to manifest them.

The Use of Narrative and Storytelling in Career Coaching

Figuring out “what to be when we grow up” and who we are in terms of our career identity is something that most of us engage in at one time or another. In career work, storytelling is about asking clients to re-interpret their experiences and then identify their values, needs, desires, strengths, and aptitudes to find meaningful work in a rapidly and constantly changing marketplace. If given the opportunity or in making the conscious choice, most people would construct a career that adds meaning, impact, and value to their lives. The use of storytelling in career work focuses on the meaning of past experiences, present situations, and future aspirations to identify an authentic career path.

Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero’s Journey, helps us support clients in creating their own hero journey. We can walk our clients through the following steps:

  1. The Challenge: Identify the career challenge that your client is facing at the moment (lay-off, desire to move up the professional ladder, unhappy in current role, desire to re-career, desire to start own business, etc.).
  2. The Hero or Heroine: Determine the main character’s interests, values, strengths, desires, and needs. To identify these, have the client describe three important or memorable events that happened in childhood and then explain them in detail. What was the event and what made it memorable? Who else was involved in the event and what were their roles? What did your client learn about him/herself from each of those events in relation to their strengths, interests, values, or character traits? What was the lesson learned, if there was one? What title would your client give the event if it were being published as a news article?
  3. The Goal: Determine what your client is aiming for and what his or her ideal life looks like. What is the client’s family situation, financial situation, and state of health? Where is your client living and in what kind of community? What values, desires, and needs are being fulfilled? What would be the headline of this story ?
  4. Dark Forces: Determine why your client doesn’t have this life now. Where did he or she get side-tracked? What beliefs is your client carrying that are not supportive? Who are the villains that the hero faces, what are they saying and how much power is the hero giving them? How can your client beat their villains? What would be the headline of this story ?
  5. Courage: Determine the occupations that your client can imagine him or herself in. Why is your client interested in these and what skills, strengths, and aptitudes are being used? What kind of an organization would your client like to work in? What are the labour market trends for these roles of interest and which ones are viable? What steps does your client need to take to make them happen, such as up-skilling or re-educating? How feasible are these options?
  6. The Arena: Pick the top two or three career choices and use a metaphor for exploring these. For example, have your client imagine having achieved his or her ideal career as being at the summit of a mountain or on a map after a long journey. Then, have your client look back over the journey and examine what steps and actions he or she took to get to the destination. What challenges or fears did your client face? What personal skills, attributes, strengths, and resources did your client rely on? Who helped your client?
  7. The Win: Have your client research options (on-line, talk to people in similar roles, volunteer, job shadow, etc.).  Your client can then review two or three possibilities, and looking through the lens of which options best meet his or her values, needs, desires, strengths, and interests, decide which one seems the best option. How will your client navigate this process? What map will be used? Who are the fellow travellers your client would want to have along for support?
  8. Return: Lastly, your client can take the required steps and celebrate the journey along the way.

Here is a different approach to story development in career coaching:

Questions to Elicit Client Stories

  • What has been something you are most proud of in your career?
  • What has been one of the most challenging situations you found yourself in?
  • What has your boss commended you for?
  • Have you achieved any recognition at work?
  • What do you enjoy solving?
  • Did you fix something that was broken at work?
  • Did you ever work on a project that didn’t come to fruition? How did you handle the disappointment?
  • What do you most love about the work you have done in your career?
  • Did you resolve something that someone else tried to resolve but couldn’t?
  • What is your favourite thing to do? What do you enjoy most at work?
  • What kind of environment do you like to work in?
  • Who was your favourite boss and why?
  • Has there ever been a situation where you felt your boss let you down? How did you handle it?
  • It’s -30C on a Monday morning in February. What is going to motivate you to get out of bed?
  • What did you dream of doing when you were a child and why?
  • Tell me about a time when things were going really well, when you felt on top of the world? What was this like? If you can’t come up with a time like that, can you imagine what it would feel like? Get descriptive.
  • If you were a billboard, what would it say?
  • If money wasn’t an issue, what would you be doing every day?
  • If you knew you could not fail, what would you choose to do?

Thanks to Kristin Vandegriend, Sharon Graham, Skye Berry-Burke, and Maureen McCann for their contributions to this topic!

Additional Resources

The exercises above have been adapted from the counselling principles of Mark L. Savakis and Paul J. Hartung, and the work of Mark Franklin and Career Cycles.  George Dutch offers insight on the topic of life-story writing for career change in The Canadian Journal of Career Development, Volume 15. In addition, there are many examples of how story writing can successfully support a new career identity or facilitate a positive career change. Many career development theorists — Richard Nelson Bolles, Bernard Haldane, and Vance Peavy, among others — have studied and promoted the benefits of storytelling.

Lysa Appleton is a seasoned leadership consultant and career and employment coach who is dedicated to helping high-performing professionals and industry leaders secure work that expresses their purpose, feeds their passion, and stretches their potential. She is also a certified Career Development Practitioner, and a certified Career Strategist and Employment Strategist with Career Professionals of Canada. Check out Lysa’s career story on her website and on LinkedIn.


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