Metaphors of Career 8: Narrative


“Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.”

– Pamela Rutledge

Many see stories fundamental to being human. We tell stories about ourselves and to ourselves. It is our attempt to put together our desperate experiences into a whole so we understand our lives and what they mean. Given this it is no surprise that Kerr Inkson picked narrative as one of his metaphors of career. You can seen how understanding our past stories and wondering what we want our future stories to be is a powerful way of discussing a career.

The Past

Inkson talks about narratives as a form of “retrospective sensemaking” that is to look back on our lives and try and determine what has actually happened to us. We do this by identifying and noting patterns in our past. Robert Pryor and Jim Bright explain this as follows,

“Humans are pattern identifiers. We recongnise patterns between the people we encounter and the events we experience. We link such similarities with ways consistent with our developing schemas about how we think reality works. In doing so, we infer causes and effects.”

-Pryor and Bright, The Chaos Theory of Careers p. 51.

The schema that Pryor and Bright discuss is in this case the story we are writing about who we are. As a book is made up of a series of linked chapters so our stories are linked together by a collection of patterns. Every now and again something happens that challenges the pattern of our lives, we move from the pattern through a epriod of change to a new pattern. This idea leans heavily on Anthony Giddens idea of the fateful moment. Giddens describes it as follow;

“Fateful moments are times when events come together is such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in his existence… Fateful moments are threatening for the protective cocoon which defends the individuals ontological security, because the ‘business as usual’ attitude that is so important to that cocoon is inevitably broken through”

-Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity p.113, 114

As Giddens points out sometimes an event happens to us that breaks the pattern of the “‘business as usual’ attitude” that we have been existing on leading to a new pattern forming. This is how we come to understand our stories, by looking for patterns in our past and how there patterns are linked together by turning points, or fateful moments, that moves us from one pattern to another. But our careers are about more than our pasts. How then do we link this understanding of our stories to our future?

The Present

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur remains a key theorist for anyone interested in narrative. Ricoeur saw narrative as based around three main metaphors of ‘before’. ‘during’ and ‘after’. Up to this point we have just been discussing narrative in terms of the past. Ricoeur points out how the past teaches us who we are, he claims that any good story teaches us something and any good story is told to change the reader, the ‘before’ moves to our ‘during’ and challenges our ‘after’. This happens as we come to understand who we are. This, for me, is the power of stories in careers work. As we tell the past stories of our lives we become confronted with ourselves which in turn challenges us to be different.

But why would we want to change? Because our stories are incomplete. A story needs an ending. Our back stories may show us who we are now but that can not be a static thing in a story, it automatically throws us forward. Let me give an example. I am a careers adviser, this by itself is just a static piece of information, it doesn’t challenge me or require anything. But if you know that I got into careers advice because of a frustration with being in customer service which I saw as impersonal then that immediately provokes a question, am I having more personal relationships with clients? Am I helping people more? I took action because I desired more personal meaningful ways of helping people in my work. This analysis of my past describes who I am now (someone who wants to help) and confronts me with the central conflict in the plot, my desire to help people. This in turn throws me forward to ask how can I have a future that completesmy plot?


According to narrative theory we are all living incomplete plots, we are all striving to complete our stories. Our desire to complete our story could be called futuring. Larry Cochran describes this process like this,

“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.”

– Larry Cochran, Career Counseling p. 84.

Futuring is deciding what we want our future to be and how we will complete our stories. Cochran uses the ideas of heaven and hell to discuss why we try and complete our plots. The incomplete plots we have confront us with two different types of future, one which we are worried about moving towards and one we want to move towards, our heaven and our hell. In my case my hell was being in a un-fulfilling customer service job while my heaven was being in a role with personal contact with my clients and which allowed me to make mroe of a difference to them. At one point I faced these two futures. I then took action to move myself from my idea of hell to heaven, this was my attempt to complete my plot. Futuring is deciding what we want to be, it is changing the direction of our plot. The conflict we discovered in our “present” confronts us with two futures, one desirable and one not desirable. Futuring then is attempting to move from hell to heaven, to complete our plot.


For me the real power of narrative is how it describes movement in our careers, in Ricoeur’s terms through the metaphors of ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’. It encourages us to understand what the drivers and themes in past our, how these point to an incomplete present and then throws us forward to take action towards our ideal future.


L. Cochran (1997). Career Counselling.  London: Sage Publications.

A. Giddens (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

P. Ricoeur (1988). Time and Narrative – Volume Three. London: University of Chicago Press.

P. Rutledge (2011). “The Psychological Power of Storytelling” in

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