Looking Back to the Future: Connecting Life Story to Career Decisions

Posted by: Guest on February 22, 2013 12:00 pm

“I don’t want to focus on the past. I just want to get on with finding another job. Something more fulfilling.”

This was the message I received after seeing a client who I’ll call Bill for the first time. He was calling me to cancel our second appointment. In his early 40’s, Bill had recently been laid off. He was shocked, he said, because although he had changed jobs many times, this was the first time he was let go. He also revealed during our initial session that he was unhappy at work, had been thinking about a career change for a year or so, and if anything good was to come from this experience, it was that he would use the time and severance pay to really identify what he wanted. “I don’t even feel like I’ve made a real career decision before. “ he said, adding that he had a feeling that he was trapped in some kind of work pattern that wasn’t serving him anymore, and he wanted to find out more about that so that he could change it. This story is one I hear often within the group of mid-career shifters I see in my counselling practice. “I’ve been pretty good at getting jobs, and some I really liked, but I feel like I’ve been surviving.”

As someone who made a major career change myself at about age forty, I can empathize with the mid-life search for meaning and a yearning to feel passionate about my work. There is a certain tension to these experiences when you are over forty, which sometimes reveals itself in a familiar dance between feelings of desire and panic. “What if I make the change, give up my pension plan, and blow it? What if I don’t change and I never get to find out if it could be better?” Making a “real career decision” at mid-life has its particular risks and tradeoffs.

One way I work with mid-career shifters is through story, and in particular, through a method called Guided Autobiography. Career construction theory, narrative methods and storytelling are not new to career counselling. These approaches highlight key concepts such as re-evaluating purpose, clarifying values, the creation of a career identity, managing change, and the importance of meaning-making. If telling stories is a natural way to make sense of our world and ourselves in it, then using narrative approaches within career counselling (a meaning-making process in itself!) can really support clients seeking hope and new perspectives as they prepare to make their next career move.

Something I said to Bill must have made sense to him, because he did call again, and we did work together for many sessions, the result of which was a new career role. As part of our session planning together, I offered to work with looking back time using some of the Guided Autobiography themes (Birren & Deutchman, 1991) along with various other interventions such as values ranking, transferable skills, informational interviewing and dimensions of personality.

Guided Autobiography, which is sometimes referred to as life review, is a method described by a group of adult educators who researched, developed and created a group format based on what they call 10 salient life themes. Their book outlines the theory, and provides the specific themes, writing guidelines and guiding questions that go along with each theme, in order to evoke specific memories and stories related to the theme. The objective is to draw out key events, influences and experiences that have shaped you and your life so far. I have used this method with groups of adults going through various transitions, whether it’s surviving cancer, leaving an abusive relationship, or making a major career change. In each case, specific themes are selected based on the clientele and the decisions they are facing now.

For those facing career decisions, I’ve used this method within a series of workshops, where participants have homework in the form of one of the themes (e.g. Major Turning Points in Your Life and Career; Your Career Story; The Role of Money; Your Future Career Story). The guiding questions provide a catalyst for reflection and writing. Participants are asked to come back with a couple of pages each week, and read out their written stories within small groups. Some time is taken early on to demonstrate how to give respectful feedback, along with written guidelines and a handout we created that guides the feedback within a career framework. For example, participants respond by noticing key skills, interests, values and themes.

Now, I use this same method with individual clients such as Bill, where session work is divided between reviewing the theme (i.e. the client reads it out loud and I respond, and we discuss its meaning) and on various other career exploration activities. I position this looking back time as a relevant activity to do when in transition, transitions being a good time to gain some perspective, re-evaluate and update key strengths, experiences, interests and values. There is much I could say about the power of this storytelling approach, so let me summarize some key points.

Overall, one purpose of this method is to engage clients in the stories of their lives in a way that has them feeling more hopeful and appreciative of the life lived. The process itself, of reading out a story that has already been given some relevance and consideration through the writing of it, is to replace reactivity with curiosity and even acceptance. I say acceptance because, at times, the stories evoke a sense of regret or judgment, as in: “why didn’t I take that job? What stopped me from moving?” Once the story is told, there is time for responding, and for clarifying questions and linking to the present.

Your Career Story is one of the ten themes, and just to get a taste of what a client is asked to consider, here are some of the guiding questions: 

  1. What has been your major life’s work or career?
  2. How did you get into your major life work? How did you find it? Did you choose it because your family expected it? Was it because of a teacher you knew? Did your appearance have anything to do with it? When did you begin your life work?
  3. How early did you formulate your life career goals? 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?
  4. What has been the developmental course of your life work? Has it been continuous? Discontinuous? What have been the peaks and valleys? Have there been major or minor setbacks? Major changes in focus? Have you had a sequence or series of careers?
  5. What have been the biggest influences in directing the path of your career once chosen? For example, have they been people, places, events?
    1. If you do not have a major life work (yet), what would you like to do? Why?
    2. If you feel you have finished your major life work, how do you evaluate it?
    3. How has your work provided new options? Limited options?
    4. Are you “on time” in your career, or ahead or behind in terms of your expectations?
    5. How would you like to look back on your life work? What story would you like to tell about your career?

As homework, clients as asked to reflect on the questions and write what comes up, in a storytelling fashion, with lots of details and specific examples. When they came into a session, I ask them what it was like to do the reflective writing, and then ask that they read it out loud (They also have the right to decline, but no one has so far.)

Guided Autobiography is one method and approach to using story as a means to support clients through career changes and meaningful decision-making. Its structure provides a container to focus the looking back time, which allows clients to view the past differently, to shift their perspective about past decisions while they refine and update key values, skills, experiences and interests moving forward.

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


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

Sally Halliday divides her time between her private practice in downtown Vancouver and a leadership role at UBC Continuing Studies Life and Career Programs.

This post was originally posted on the Career Counsellors Chapter blog January 18, 2013.

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

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