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Chris Targett
23 February 2017

We make sense of the world through stories, whether it is describing what we had for dinner, what we plan to do in the future or recalling favourite memories. In the telling and retelling, stories evolve and twist; people even have memories which haven’t even existed, it’s as if how they have remembered the story over the years has changed[i]. In career terms, we are aware of how this links to the concept that we construct our own careers, through narrative, as we author lives which are meaningful to us[ii].
Sometimes the stories we hear of why an individual wants to do something are very convoluted narratives, along the lines of my “sister’s, cousin’s, wife said I would like it.”

In terms of the context for decision making which our stories create, it is almost like a hall of mirrors where there is a truth of a sorts but it is distorted by our very nature of being human and how we sense the world. Consider the following as a description of life from the perspective of a young person, making decisions about the future…

Inside their own minds they have an internal narrative of what they like and don’t like, hopes, fears and dreams, questions and possible answers to life’s great riddles. This internal perspective is influenced by stories told by others of how the world works, whether from teachers, parents, social workers, youth workers, uncles, aunts, relatives, friends, employers and religious leaders. Associated with this are social and culturally weighted perspectives of what they feel is possible or right for each, as explored by the clinical psychologist Gideon Arulmani and the Promise Foundation in their work[iii] with regards to “Cultural Preparedness”[iv].

In addition, our young person absorbs narratives through the media, from the news outlets and dramas on TV and radio, providing examples of how he or she could live their life, which again is culturally weighted. Grains of truth mixed with constructs that are designed to excite, elate or frighten us. Within these narratives and interactions we also have those who would deliberately hold secrets or lie to us, whether white lies or those of grey or black.

We then have stories told to us through adverts, deliberately designed to sway and push us in different directions; to foster a need or desire. Consider the concept of toys for boys and toys for girls and the constructed notions of female beauty, which many professionals acknowledge are leading[v]. Contrasted with this are perspectives from other media sources who seek to disrupt these mainstream messages to provide a different influential narrative of what may be possible for our young people, such as the web based group and outlet “let toys be toys[vi]” and “a mighty girl[vii]”.

Within these narratives are shifting perspectives with a fragile and fluid consideration of what the truth may actually be. Yet, there are some perspectives we could consider to be definitely false and based on misinformation and others, which are not false, but based on culturally charged perspectives that reinforce a particular view or sense of place, such as the idea among some families that “not many poor people go to Russell Group Universities”. As a statement it isn’t completely false, as fewer poor people are going to these Universities according to latest figures[viii] (which is perhaps a discussion for another article regarding social mobility). However, it doesn’t mean that working class people can’t go to these universities, nor should this idea (of not being able to go) be an intractable truth for some families that no discussion will shift.

Within all of this we also have narratives found in books and on the internet, made up of adventures and sometimes facts, we have stories and perspectives explored through Music and Art… in paintings, sculpture or tattoos adorned on flesh. Providing yet further perspectives of what is meaningful, possible or out there in the world.

On top of this, we also have the fact that as people, we misinterpret information, we don’t take on all the salient points of an argument and we forget things. A rational plea may fall on deaf or distracted ears or a glossy sales pitch may be more meaningful for us than a dry presentation. In addition, some stories can create emotional and at times visceral reactions within us; reminding us that we remain above all things, intensely human.

What a web of narratives and influence this all is, of shifting sands and meaning. It is very muddy and unclear, a hubbub or murmur web of information. Standing in the middle of which is our young person. Yet, let’s put a final layer of murkiness over all of this. It is not just the young person who stands surrounded by our murmur web; each and every one of us stands surrounded by these mixed narratives. As we live our lives, we influence each other with our biases, the discussions of the things we love and hate, stories of things which happen to us and the things we hope to do, our opinions which vary from the informed to the uninformed. It is all very human, flawed and beautiful. In a world of more and more information, presented as narratives of truth and fiction (with sometimes a blurring between the two) it can become quite overwhelming.

So why use the concept of narratives or stories to discuss what is happening for our young person, why not data? In part, because recent work by psychologists have confirmed that our brains will never work like computers[ix] . Therefore, using the analogy of our decision making processes to be akin to that of computers, is unhelpful. Stories, however, are what we can see ourselves doing as we make sense of the world. We are not the first to explore this concept as a way to consider how we think about the choices we make[x] but, we can expand upon it. What might this all mean for careers work and our young person standing within this murmur web of stories and influence, particularly when the idea of a “post-truth world[xi]” and “hyper-normalisation”[xii] are our given contexts?

Three notable uses of using narrative as an empowering device can be found in contemporary careers practice:

Bill Law uses the idea of three scene story boarding[xiii] as a way of helping clients to challenge stories they tell about themselves. By exploring different ways their lives could be and, therefore, how different their decisions may be, is one approach.

Gideon Arulmani uses the idea of vignettes, to break down assumptions our clients may have and to challenge pre-existing beliefs. This approach asks that us as career practitioners challenge and disrupt pre-existing beliefs, which may be life limiting, by challenging “limiting assumptions[xiv]”. This is also explored through the Career Thinking Session by Barbara Bassot and Hazel Reid. It is in contrast to the concept discussed in hyper-normalisation[xv] with regards the ability of social media, in particular, to only feed information which confirms or reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. This raises questions with regards the risk of social media in keeping young people in their comfort zones and not offering any challenge; potentially impacting on how they build their career narratives. In this context, however, careers guidance can be used to challenge and explore pre-existing beliefs with regards to careers, without external agendas influencing the discussions.

The Systems Theory Framework of Careers Development and Counselling by Wendy Patton and Mary McMahon[xvi] is another approach, which challenges us as practitioners to consider how we can intervene in the systems around our clients to affect change. For example, by engaging with the parents and carers of students, you could influence their thoughts with regards to careers. In turn, they can then influence their children and affect the change you may wish to see.

Beyond these interesting and beguiling approaches though, at a most basic level in our own careers practice, we tell stories. As career professionals we don’t just provide cold calculated options, we link these to what is possible and where they may lead. In doing so, we shift from being “coolly neutral” to being partial in how we paint our pictures of how options link and what is possible[xvii]. In doing so, not only do we build relationships and trust with our clients, we also take care not to unduly influence with the agendas of others or lead them towards what we feel is right. Yet stories have power and we are part of culture, with our narratives we feed into the murmur web as much as any other.

We must remain mindful, however, that we will influence and in doing so, have a responsibility to ensure that the stories we offer do not become one sided or offer the agenda of any given party. It is this; our very ethics and approach which separates us from all of the other story tellers working with our young person, who stands in the middle of the web.


[i] http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/08/making-sense-of-memory/ , 16th August 2012 by Taylor Beck, Harvard Correspondent

[ii] http://www.careerlifecollege.edu.au/blog/narrative-constructivist-approaches-career-counselling/, 5th July 2013

[iii] https://careersintheory.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/the-east-and-west-of-careers-guidance/

[iv] http://www.thepromisefoundation.org/guiding-principles

[v] http://www.naeyc.org/content/what-research-says-gender-typed-toys and https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/28/toys-kids-girls-boys-childhood-development-gender-research

[vi] http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/why-it-matters/

[vii] http://www.amightygirl.com/

[viii] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/number-of-poor-students-attending-uks-leading-universities-falls-despite-millions-spent-to-encourage-a6879771.html , 18th February 2016

[ix] https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer , 18th May 2016 by Robert Epstein

[x] Examples: http://holeinmypocket.com/pages/alburt/architecture/the art of the storyteller/storytelling thesis.pdf , http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/07/stories-are-how-we-make-sense-of-life.html, https://socialecology.uci.edu/sites/socialecology.uci.edu/files/users/feldmanm/Feldman_Skoldberg_Brown_Horner_2004.pdf , http://www.nickowen.net/story-narrative/ , https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/everyone-storyteller-its-how-we-make-sense-world-anton-valkov

[xi] http://www.npr.org/2016/12/11/505154631/a-finders-guide-to-facts and http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21706498-dishonesty-politics-nothing-new-manner-which-some-politicians-now-lie-and and https://digitaleconomyforum.org/chapter-1-your-opinion-vs-my-truth?gclid=CPimjpGsztECFbgy0wodoNEEWg

[xii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04b183c

[xiii] http://www.hihohiho.com/storyboarding/sboverview.pdf, 2010

[xiv] http://www.nice-network.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/NICE_Handbook_full_version_online.pdf , page 203, 2012

[xv] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04b183c

[xvi] http://eprints.qut.edu.au/2621/1/2621_1.pdf, 2006

[xvii] http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/8509

First published on Wednesday 15th February 2017 on the CXK blog. 

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