Stories and understanding how they work may well unlock potential to move your career on. After all, at core stories are about how to solve problems and get over difficulties; surely learning how to do this in general might be of great use for your career?
In The Storytelling Animal Jonathan Gottschall describes stories as follows:
“Stories the world over are almost always about people… with problems. the people want something badly – to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story… is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.”
(Gottschall 2011: 52)
According to Gotschall, a story has three basic elements:
- A main character who wants something;
- A reason the main character can not have it;
- A main character who is prepared to go through various struggles and pay a great price to get whatever that is.
Take Disney’s Aladdin as a fairly classic example. Aladdin wants to be rich and not have any troubles. He can’t have this because he is vagrant on living on the streets without possessions or social capital. He sets out to get this through meeting the Princess Jasmine and the help of the magical Genie.
So let’s have a look at how these ideas may be of use for your career.
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Heaven and Hell
The career theorist Larry Cochran points out that all stories have a sense of heaven and hell in them.
“The future brings to completion what was formed in the past, moving away from a personal composition of hell toward a personal composition of heaven.”
(Cochran 1997, p.84)
We get our motivation from our careers by seeing what we really don’t want to have happen and what we really do want to have happen. In the language that Gottschall uses, this is about being clear on what we want and that we would pay a great price to accomplish.
In my experience very few people are generally ambivalent in life, most people are passionate about something, but a lot of people are not very passionate about their careers, especially while they are in a relative degree of safety (such as being on a university degree which protects them from the threat of unemployment). It may be that your career is being held back by the lack of passion, excitement and drive that you have for it. A lot of people are motivated by guilt, duty and fear around their careers. Now, not everyone feels the same degree of excitement for their careers, but it is worth asking what would make a career worthwhile for you. What passion do you have to follow? What would success look like and feel like for you and what failure do you wish to avoid? Until you are clear on this, you are unlikely to have the degree needed to push your career forward. If you are stuck with this, I would suggest Schein’s career anchors as a good place to start thinking about what may be worthwhile to you.
Why have you not been able to get hold of what you are looking for? Understanding the problem you face is half of the solution. At core Gottschall shows us that stories get their drive from the efforts that people go to to solve their problems. Often our problems are unearthed by thinking about our past. When thinking about our past there are two types of information that can be of most use:
- Patterns – this is looking for things that keep on happening that hold us back. Maybe we are bad at communicating, maybe we are too busy with something else to invest in our career, maybe we are unclear on what we want to do and are procrastinating.
- Turning points – these are one-off events that make a big difference.This may be when we had an experience that really opened our eyes to something, we had a setback we are yet to recover from, or where our world shifted giving us different opportunities.
- Omissions – these are a bit harder to work out because they are about events that haven’t happened. This is particularly related to career development. Maybe review the 5 domains in the Employable Graduate Framework to see if you have developed learning in all of these areas. If you have missed out on some of these, this may be holding you back.
Thinking about these events in our past and what barriers they have created will give us a clearer idea of what the problems are that we face. The trick with thinking about barriers is not to just list failings in your career development but think about what is actually holding you back. You may not have an MBA or have over 500 connections on LinkedIn but these may not be creating problems. The key is to look at where you would like to be and ask what is stopping you from getting there.
Stories would be dull and depressing if all they consisted of was a hero having a dream, finding a problem that stopped them achieving their dream, and then getting up and going home. What makes stories great is the fact that having faced up to a challenge, the hero then takes action and uses all they have got to try and get hold of their dream. The last question to ask ourselves is, like the hero in the story, what can we do to get over our barrier to where we want to be?
Well, let’s ask what heros in stories do. I have a list of thoughts to get you started, but feel free to come up with your own ideas:
- Learn stuff. Often discovering a vital piece of information holds the key to success. Take Harry Potter. At some point in all of the books Harry is only able to progress by learning something or working something out. It is worth asking what place learning might have in overcoming your barrier. What could you find out about that that would make a difference?
- Get help. How does Luke Skywalker become a Jedi Knight? He goes off and gets help from Yoda. Heros rarely triumph by themselves, they get by with a little help from their friends. Ask yourself how someone else might help you and what sort of person might be able to give you assistance that you have not yet thought of.
- Use your strengths. It is rare for heroes to triumph using something they are bad at. Harry Potter uses his bravery, Aladin his cunning, Anya uses her bravery and love in Frozen, Sherlock Holmes uses his intelligence, and so on. Think about what your strengths are and how they could be used to overcome your barriers.
- Take a risk. Often a hero has to plunge into the unknown not knowing what will happen. Take Simba who comes back to face off with Scar, or Woody who comes back to rescue his friends in Toy Story 3. We can not always know how things will turn out, often we overcome our barriers because we take a risk not knowing what will happen. Ask yourself if the fear of failure is in fact holding you back.
- Make use of the unexpected. Finally, stories often turn on unexpected and unpredicted events, like Aladdin finding the lamp, Gollum losing the ring in the Hobbit or Lucy stumbling across the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s how you spot and make use of the unexpected that can make the difference. Make sure you are keeping your eyes out for the unexpected and not being too narrow and planned in your approach to overcoming your barriers.
The key, though, is not focus on what you can do but on what your barrier is. Career development, like stories, is about problem solving, having the bravery and courage to use the resources at your disposal to get what you want. Hopefully thinking about stories and your story has opened up a new way of focusing on what is important to you and what you can do about it.
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