Career Stories: Changing the Story You Tell

Posted by: Guest on April 17, 2013 3:53 pm

What story do you tell about your career? Who are you in your career story? Would you like that to be different? How? What story do you want to tell?

Clients I work with, who I call mid-career shifters, whether they have a job or not, come in because they feel dissatisfied at work. Something is missing and it’s hard to even articulate what or why. Those who are in their late 30’s and beyond may also communicate that they want to make a job shift but that change also terrifies them, not only because of general concerns about the economy and prospects for securing a new job, but also because of their age and stage in life.

To change or not to change – is also a question of letting go of a piece of identity that we have worked a long time to create and maintain. Who will I be if I am not the H.R. Manager, Financial Planner, or College Instructor?  

Even if the job that used to be satisfying just doesn’t anymore, making mid-career changes may seem like ending a relationship with an old friend. In fact, it’s a normal feeling to resist the change you want to make, so claims Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. It’s normal to not want to let go of a piece of identity you’ve worked hard to create and to maintain over the years.

The other place of resistance can be about making tradeoffs, and the fear that to take a risk at this stage of life could mean giving up too much. The desire, of course, is find work that is truly satisfying, and to be able to answer the question of why we do what we do with as much confidence as what we do.

Questions of meaning and purpose often show up in stories we tell. Here’s an example of a very simple storytelling exercise that I often use for those who want to make a career change because they’ve lost (or never had) a sense of purpose.

Tell me about a memorable experience you have had, one that you were personally involved in, where something was achieved, and that you feel pretty good about it. Just talk about it as if it is a story, with all of the details you remember.

 If it’s a career exploration workshop, then the storytelling happens in pairs, and I ask the person in the listener role to communicate back to their partner : a strength they hear, and something that stands out in the story about what the story is about (the overall theme).  

Memorable stories usually evoke positive memories, based on meaningful events, so it’s often not hard for the listener to find a strength in the story. So why do this, when the person is not feeling very connected to purpose right now?

Well, stories we tell from memorable experiences, whether positive or negative, give us clues about what matters, even if that has changed. Stories are about details and specific events, and re-connecting to a time when life was meaningful reminds us that it’s something we have achieved before. It’s also a way to begin to appreciate the successes in our lives, which during times of career shifts can be lost to us.

Telling stories about past events is one way to make meaning out of events, and, by definition, we are already creating a shift in perspective. And that’s the beginning of change. We need to know our own story before we change it.

One storytelling approach I use to help clients to get to know their own stories is called Guided Autobiography, a method researched and created by a group of adult educators who identified 10 key life themes and guiding questions. The themes are meant to draw out import influences, experiences and people who have shaped a life (and career) so far. Your Career Story, mentioned in the previous blog, is one of the themes I use, and includes such guiding questions as:

  1. How did you get into your major life work?  What did you want to be when you grew up?  How have childhood interests, passions, teachers influenced the path your life work has taken?  How much choice did you have?
  2. What has been the developmental course of your life work?  Has it been continuous?  Discontinuous?  What have been the peaks and valleys?  What have been the biggest influences in directing the path of your career once chosen?  For example, have they been people, places, events? (Birren & Deutchman, 1991)

What emerges through these stories, whether within a workshop or with individuals, are themes and patterns, long held beliefs, regrets and even what I call loosely points of resistance.  One of the best clues is emotion. Anger, resentment, tears that come up as people read out the stories they have written are keys to the doorway of changing the story.

Often the reading out loud stirs up emotions of anger, tears, regret, sadness, and as a trained therapist, that’s when I will notice the emotion out loud, and offer to put the pause button on, to do some processing of what got stirred up. One client, for example, who I’ll call Anne, realized in reading out her Career Story theme that her tears were holding some unresolved anger from a job she did not get a few years back.  The job symbolized a desire to move out of a career in finance into the arts community.

Our mutual curiosity about the sudden surge of emotion had her realizing how potent the loss was, how it had held her hostage to future dreams because she had avoided seeking similar jobs within the creative sector. The story she was telling was that she wasn’t a creative enough person to make a career move toward the sector she yearned to be part of, so she stopped pursuing paid work in the arts.

Anne’s Career Story revealed another pattern. For the past couple of years, while working in her full-time finance job, Anne had created a parallel life as a playwright and actor. These activities might have remained a secret had they not come up during the reflective writing / storytelling work. Anne was encouraged to tell some memorable stories linked to her writing and acting, as a way to highlight key skills, strengths and values, and as part of the process of creating a new career story. By the time Anne was asked to write an imagined Future Career Story (i.e. the story you would like to tell), she began to slowly change the story she had been telling; that a career in the arts was not possible. The language she used in the future story, and the way she talked about herself, had her describing herself differently.  She had started to define herself as a contributor to the arts community rather than someone who stands outside of it yearning to get in.

Why tell career stories? Based on the work I do with mid-career shifters, the answers to that question are many: stories can highlight key themes and patterns that have shaped a career so far, to re-connect to times when we felt passionate and purposeful, and to come to terms with any past regrets or other unfinished business that may be standing in the way of future career decisions.


Birren, J.E., & Deutchman, D.R.. (1991). Guiding Autobiography: Groups for Older Adults. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.

Kegan, R. (2009). Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock The Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

by Sally Halliday, M.A., RCC, CCC

This post was originally posted on the Career Counsellors Chapter blog February 17, 2013.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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