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narrative as a critical voice of experience in contemporary career management

conference lecture examining political, commercial and pragmatic issues for research-and-development in contemporary careers

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Bill Law
11 January 2013

Bill Law
the career-learning café

This paper tracks the development of a career-management narrative technique called ‘three-scene storyboarding’ (Law, 2012).  The method invites the recounting of significant events - things happening, involving other people, displaying points-of-view and calling up personal thoughts and feelings. 

An important side-effect of this work is for finding the dissonances, and they have compelling research implications.  The dissonances are between the different ways in which career management is spoken of by government, among professionals and in this narrated experience.  The uses of narrative help us better to understand the reciprocal positioning of business interests, policy imperatives and professional expertise.  They also help us to understand the disconnection of all of that from day-to-day realities of personal and community living (Law, 2013).


decision making and moving on

The aim of storyboarding is to enable people to find meaning and establish purpose for moving on in life.  The person is invited to set down a words-and-images account of an episode in which there is a turning-point - a scene where things can be changed. 

The appeal to narrated episodes and scenes is distinctive in careers work.  It allows for a more progressive and less stark engagement than does matching a person to an opportunity.  The uses of storyboarding are less about decision-making for immediate action.  They are also less about choice between a range of options.  Instead storyboarding sets down a scene-by-scene narrative of moving on - from a remembered past to an anticipated future.  And, in that process, a person works on what from the past to hold onto, and what to let go.  Decision and choices are made, but they are contained within a broader and deeper account of how a person is moving on in life.


expertise and experience

The development of storyboarding is a response to changing economic and cultural conditions - where, increasingly, career options are constrained, persuasive pressures are intensified, and work-life flexibility is required (Law, 2011)

The uses of narrative shifts focus - away from what professional helpers know, and towards what people do.  It repositions careers work - less on expertise, more on experience.  The appropriate terms are, then, not of professional knowledge of ‘career development’, but of people's experience in ‘career management’.

In the UK that experience is rapidly changing, increasingly disturbing and seemingly chaotic.  Zygmunt Baumann (2000)  calls that perpetual re-shaping 'liquid modernity'.  Storyboarding is designed to enable people - in that apparent chaos - to attribute meaning, to arrive at purposes, and to interrogate that narrative to where it becomes appropriate and sustainable. 

The process calls up visualisations of personal flexibility - and, therefore, of social mobility.  An underlying philosophical assumption is that nothing that anybody does about anything need be inevitable.  Daniel Dennett (2003) refers to such freedoms as 'evitability'.


analysis and narrative

For the first hundred years of careers work its processes and materials were designed for expanding economies - which they have best served.   A persistent aim has been to enable client employability.  A greater part of the process is to diagnose by psychological assessments, and these are framed by labour-market requirements.  A major task is to match that psychology to that economics.  Much of UK careers-work expertise is currently defined, trained and credited in such terms (CDI, undated).

But employability is not a reliable concept: a single diagnosis produces variable results.  That one person, on that single occasion, is shown to have more and less employability as the economy expands and contracts.  Employability is less in the characteristics of the person, and more in the availability of the work.

Furthermore, there are cultural shifts undermining the usefulness of the term employability.  Trail-blazing signals are fired up in a commentary on contemporary career management (Madeleine Bunting, 2004).  It describes working life as having causes and consequences for well-being, for relationships and for health.  These concerns do not feature in a tightly-focussed consideration of matched employability.  Madeleine Bunting redirects attention to social settings and wider experience. 

She attracted little attention in the careers-work field.  But her analysis suggested a monograph (Law, 2006a) which contrasts the much-used term ‘labour-market information’ with the newly-coined term ‘labour-market experience’.  It argues that people are at least as responsive to their own experience as they are to professional help, to political urging or to commercial invitations.

There are closely-parallel calls in Greece for a repositioning of careers work (Chrysoula Kosmidou-Hardy, 1990 & 2006).  Such arguments respond to career-management concerns which take into account how working life affects all life - from personal well-being, through social congeniality to planetary survival (Law, 2013).  Careers workers live with a perpetual clamour - dominant interest groups claiming careers-work support for different positions on any of these concerns.  Any headline can increase the volume.

A critical feature of all learning is how it is framed.  Much of matching processes are expressed as lists - such as appear in worksheets, inventories, psychometrics and data-bases.  But experience is best set down as a narrative - telling of how one thing leads to another.  Lists cannot adequately represent such sequences.  The distinction is developed in the monograph Fewer Lists - More Stories (Law, 2006b) which examines how career-management experience usefully can be set down in narrative forms.  Three-scene storyboarding is a product of that thinking.


possibility and pragmatism

Daniel Dennett (op. cit.), drawing on a range of evidence, develops modelling to illustrate an ontology of how people understand the way things are.  He characterises homo-sapiens as having evolved to be able to identity a repertoire of possible meanings for any experience.  He claims that we are, in that sense, free - all is 'evitable'.  That multiple grasp on reality has survival value.  And careers work needs a way of seeing how what has evolved on the savannah becomes useful in contemporary experience.  Nothing need be inevitable.

Peter Sloterdijk (2012) moves the philosophy forward.  He closely examines the epistemology of how we come to believe what is going on, and the ethics of how we find it worthwhile.  Both are pragmatic questions.  And Peter Sloterdijk’s pragmatism is particularly useful to professional engagement with career-management narratives.  He argues for connectedness to every-day experience, and for independence-of-mind in dealing with the clamour-for-attention surrounding careers-work professionals.

Calling on philosophical roots, especially Socrates and Plato, Peter Sloterdijk documents an age-by-age account of clamour and entrapment.  He points to how, in each age - or 'epoché' - prevailing academic abstractions allow social élites to take over cultural beliefs.  He illustrates how the resulting confusions distract people from the realities of every-day experience. 

The analysis resonates with contemporary conditions: disconnection from experts is an escape from information overload, it prefers what plainly seems up-to-date, and that can mean pursuing the fashionable and the celebrated.  All of this is, in part, dues to an educational failure to enable people to seek out multiple - and therefore conflicting - perspectives.  Peter Sloterdijk refers to that education as acting like a sedative.  Disconnection from expertise is reinforced by cultural persuaders who flatter, entice, bribe and threaten people into compliance.  Each new epoché cultivates its own manoeuvring culture.  And if people are not confused by that, then they are simply not paying enough attention.  As, Peter Sloterdijk fears, too many do not.

The coming-and-going of these successive epochés is accelerating, and some people wax ‘nostalgic’ for what, to others, belongs to the relatively recent past.  But nostalgia, which is reflected in various ‘inheritance’ interests, is largely about seeing how a failing past contrasts with a succeeding present.  Each epoché’s élites persuade people to believe that ‘there has been little of any truth or value here, until we arrived’. 

But, despite the efforts of the persuaders, some people’s direct-and-personal experience teaches them that the claims of the élites are false.  They disconnect from that way-of-seeing things.  It can reach a point of cultivating contemptuous distrust of all élites, and turning to each other for trusted support.  That isolation makes it easy for dominant interests to blame marginalised victims for the damage done to them.  It is a dynamic that can cause deep and dangerous fragmentations in society.

Peter Sloterdijk’s underpinning for this account is well-grounded, multilayered, subtle and recursive.  But that tightly-interwoven discourse is tied to three themes - each of them critically important to careers-work professionalism...

  • how influential élites are formed
  • how people comply with élitist persuasion
  • how all can be reconnected to authentic experience

The argument is set out in pragmatically philosophical terms, expanding the dominantly psychological and economic thinking of conventional careers work.  Peter Sloterdijk’s work demands that we understand careers-work in relation to the society it inhabits and to the culture which that society cultivates.  A corollary is that connectedness needs to be predicated - to what is it to be connected?  There are far-reaching implications for the purposes of education - and for the repositioning of careers work research-and-development.


shareholding and stakeholding

The features of narrative - its moving through a before-during-and-after sequence, the way points-of-view move it on, how different social settings set up different expectations - all of this responds to Peter Sloterdijk's thinking.  The only way in which such experience can be set down is through narrative.  And all narration speaks of expectation, meaning and purpose. 

Each narrative is also widely connected in its society.  It means that its uses can be realised in a range of social settings, and can call on many different partners.  And so the uses of narrative connect to voluntary and professional activity, engaging both face-to-face work and learning programmes, and in both the public and private sectors.  Storyboarding is a careers-work research-and-development tool best engaged in multi-agency partnerships.

But connected to what?  All interests claim that careers work is in the interests of clients.  Peter Sloterdijk points how to critically interrogate that claim.  He asks what élite professional, commercial and policy interests are also at stake.  In the business-world and in neo-liberal thinking these are shareholder interests.  A more comprehensive connectedness would link not just to shareholders but also to stakeholders.  These are the people and groups - most of them far from dominantly influential - all with an interest in how careers work works.  The research-and-development agenda would then be predicated on...

  • clients and students - their families - their neighbourhoods - and community groups
  • local business - national economy - global business
  • local planning - national and European policy - global trends
  • the employed - under-employed - exploited - unemployed - and enterprising
  • professional helpers - voluntary organisations - socially enterprising outfits

Research is only as good as the questions it poses.  The repositioning of careers work raises issues for the research questions posed and the methodologies engaged by its professionalism.  It also calls for new thinking on who, and in what situations, careers workers are able usefully to shape the questions and design the methodologies.  But, most comprehensively, it opens a research-and-development agenda in which no voice is allowed to dominate, and none goes unheard.



Zygmunt  Bauman (2000). Liquid Modernity. London: Polity

Madeleine Bunting (2004).  Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives.  London: Harper Collins

CDI (The Career Development Institute (undated)

Daniel Dennett (2003). Freedom Evolves. London: Allen Lane

Chrysoula Kosmidou-Hardy (1990), ‘Careers education and guidance in Greece: a critical approach’.  International Review of Education, 36: pp. 345-359. 

Chrysoula Κοsmidou-Hardy (2006). ‘Media education as critical education across the curriculum - towards a cross-border pedagogy?’, in Waclaw Strykowski (ed.).  From New Teaching Techniques to Virtual Education: Media Education. Poznan Wydanie pp 135-148)

Bill Law (2006a). Learning from Experience.  http;//

Bill Law (2006b).  Fewer Lists, More Stories. http://www.hihohiho/underpinning/cafbiog.pdf

Bill Law (2011).  Ten Propositions in Search of a Profession.

Bill Law (2012).  Three-scene Storyboarding - Learning for Living

Bill Law (2013).  Careers Coaching and Career Development - Any Future for Guidance?  http;//

Peter Sloterdijk (2012).  The Art of Philosophy.  NY: Columbia University Press


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