Metaphors of Career 3: Cycle

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

– Seven Ages of Man by William Shakespeare

What Shakespeare articulates in this monologue and what this blog is about is the idea that we do not stay the same throughout our lives but move through various seasons or ages. Shakespeare lists the stages of being a infant, a school boy, a lover, a soldier, the justice (a respectable middle aged man), the slippered pantaloon (an old man) and finally oblivion. Each of these stages bring with it different experiences that we face and also we are a different “us” in each of these stages. As Shakespeare says “we play many parts” and yet they are all us in some way. As Levinson has pointed out what Shakespeare discuss here is in effect a view of career based around the idea of a cycle.

When we think about careers we see similar ideas being used. We look at education as a stage of preparation, leaving school or uni as a transition into a new stage of finding a new role. When I left uni I did a number of temporary jobs and was often told by friends not to worry about not having permanent work because lots of people at my “stage” did the same. As we move through life we change ourselves, the situations we find ourselves in change and other people’s expectations of us change.

Donald Super’s Career Rainbow

Donald Super was a career theorist who particularly looked at career through this lense. He created a famous diagram called a Life Rainbow to illustrate this.

From Careers NZ (

Super’s Rainbow looks at career across two axis. Firstly of what stage we are in, from growth to decline, and secondly which of our roles are more important at various stages. This creates a view where we can see that people will have careers that go through a cycle themselves from exploration to decline and thease interact with different other roles in these stages. So a student will mainly be exploring their career but will have more time and space to do this as they have less constraints from other areas of life while by the time we hit our 30s and 40s we can expect to be established in our careers but to have more conflict from other areas of life such as from raising children or looking after elderly family. Super’s main two questions are what stage are you at? And what other things interact with your career at this stage?

What shape is your rainbow?

The danger of the idea of a cycle is that it can create a stereotype which may not fit the individual. For example it is easy to assume you will have children.. Also it may be hard for some people to fit their lives into the categories that Super prescribes. What about people who have strong religious identities, are very politically active or have developed strong social media identities. For this reason I would suggest it is best to see Super’s rainbow as an example of what a cycle. The questions Super raises are important. How would you describe the stage your cycle is at? What are the roles that you play in your life at the moment and how do they define your stage? How has the passage of time effected your cycle to date? What would you expect the trajectory of your career to be in the future? How would you feel if your cycle as become broken in some way by a break down in a relationship, loosing a job, a bereavement? If this has happened to you what effect has it had on your trajectory?

Let’s try have a look at an example. There seems to be a expected cycle around graduating from university. You leave uni, aim at a “graduate level job” which you aim to progress through to maintain a stable position in your career. It seems that the general social narrative is that in this stage in your 20s and 30s you move away from being dependent on your family and leave getting married or starting a family until after your career is established. There is a set trajectory here and a set view of the interaction that your roles have in your life focussing on clearing space to establish a career so that you can properly support a family. Super’s theory (at least with the slant I am proposing) has the power to expose what is socially assumed. This gives people the power to see what is going on and to ask if they want this cycle for themselves or if they would better desire an alternative.

I’ve aimed to the finish these blogs with an exercise. I like the idea of using the idea of a cycle to underpin a story. Tacking the idea of a career trajectory through stages write down what you think the main stages are that you have moved through to where you are now, try as much as possible to avoid using the terms and ideas Super does. Which of the various roles you have in life are the most important to you and how have they developed? How would you like to see yourself developing in the future?


Careers New Zealand. Career Theory and Models – Super’s Theory. Accessed 4th September 2012. <>

Levinson, D. J., Darrow, C. N., Klein, E. B., Levinson, M. H., & McKee, B. (1978). The seasons of a man’s
life. New York: Knopf.

Super, D. E. (1957). The psychology of careers. New York: Harper and Row.

Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In D. Brown, L. Brooks &
Associates (Eds), Career choice and development (second ed., pp. 197-261). San Francisco: Jossey-

Super, D. E. (1992). Toward a comprehensive theory of career development. In D. H. Montross & C. J.
Shinkman (Eds.), Career development: Theory and practice. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

One thought on “Metaphors of Career 3: Cycle

  1. Great post. I think that at this point in history, people have the possibility to develop a richer set of options than at many points in the past. That may be why my parents and stepparents have been so confused by my stepping back and expecting more out of life at different points, than they seem to imagine can even be, based on their own experiences within academia and schools. The more examples people see, and conceptual tools they have to see what they might do, the more recreation is possible.

    Shakespeare’s list of roles, for example, is rather simple by today’s standards, and reminds me of my parents’ characterization of me in a letter when I was 21 as being like “a bitter old man” and “a whiny child” just because I stepped back from doing software development and considered what more life could consist of, as I saw other people doing more than just “getting by.” These were mostly entrepreneurs and musicians, but many TED/TEDx talks demonstrate that there are a range of ways people can carve alternative paths in life. How to do so can be a big challenge, though, and there are too few really useful and popularly accessible guides.

    The concept of cycle reminds me of the cyclical hero’s journey concept:

    It can be hard to apply that to life in the abstract, but the idea of cycles and phases has some validity if you look at life decision making as a creative process, as Christopher Vogler talks about experiencing while writing the Writers Journey:

    Two noteworthy talks that also address the way people think about lives over time —

    Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms” RSA Animate

    Demotivational Wisdom: E.L. Kersten at TEDxUCDavis

    Also, Milow’s song Born in the Eighties describes this, being stuck at different points and imaging the future based on seeing other people’s lives.

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