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making the most of life's design

how career-management realities can expand career-development possibilities

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
8 October 2015

Bill Law
the career-learning café

The idea of life design sets out an agenda for enabling people to become agents of career success in an increasingly career-challenging world (Mark Savickas et al, 2009).  It's a vigorously ambitious project, based in America. 

I was there at the time, and I can remember how brit careers work was slower off the mark than the Americans.  In the early days we needed to import American ideas.  But they never fully took hold of brit experience.  We needed to think for ourselves - and we did

But reading about life design has given me a dose of déjà-vu - it's an idea well worth importing.  Life design engages psychological constructs to catalyse career-development in response to a changing world.  It's good stuff.  And, with some European help, it can be better. 

I'm talking about unrealised potential.  The realisation agenda is set out here in a five-stages.. 

  1.             by re-constructing life-design possibilities
  2.             by recognising significant influences
  3.             by re-examining dynamic experience
  4.             by resolving demanding issues
  5.             by narrating meaningful action


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  • 1. possibilities

Life design is an ambitious programme, and that willingness to take things on can connect to a wider agenda for action.  The life-design conversation is with a free-standing individual - it's a person-to-person technique.  That person is then understood as revealing some inner and recurring ways of seeing this - psychological constructs.  That's good, but there are other ways of talking about how to get on with a career.  They crop up a lot on this side of the pond.  And they're at least as likely to talk about neighbourhoods and their goings-on as they are about inner life.  Life design can be talked up to take on more. 

There is a particularly influential European voice on this (Pierre Bourdieu,1991).  His ethnographies set out social and cultural experience.  They illuminate how individuals and communities attribute meaning in experience.  Life design is in a good position to take on this wider range of social sciences - and the social constructs that they develop.


  • 2. influences

Taken together talk of psychological and social constructs build broad-based foundations.  They lift the social sciences to where they can glimpse other platforms for understanding career.  The humanities have their own voices on drama, literature, society, culture and geography.  All speak of career.  History is on that list.  And a richly-informed and arresting example of its thinking (Timothy Snyder, 2015) probes the damage that mismanaged change can cause.  It shows how political and professional stances are claimed by agencies and accepted by onlookers.  It is an extreme example of how reactions to change can formally reframe culture, politics and professionalism.  And that reframing reshapes informal social behaviour. 

The humanities can expose what the social sciences miss.  And so, while experience may find what is felt to be a problem, and the social sciences may welcome it as an opportunity, it can take history to expose it as a conflict of interests.  It is talk of careers as politics, raising questions about who gets to do what, who is favoured and who is marginalised.  No learning programme lives in a political vacuum.  And history speaks of how those influences play out.  Such talk is necessary for establishing the credibility of life-design processes.  The programme will be strengthened by being able to identify the political and constituency interests that it reflects.


  • 3. dynamics

Any construction of life design as a response to change needs an understanding of what is changing, and how, and why.  It's a long story: as a species we have learned to deal with change associated with migration, and then settlement, and then communication, and then invention.  It is change after change.  But twenty-first century dynamics are different because all of these changes are invading our lives simultaneously.  The emergence of the trends, the crises and the reforms overlay each other.  This is change upon change.

Its causes are in the leverage of commercial practice, in the proliferation of digital technologies, and in the diversification of cultures.  Its consequences are new ways of finding things out, of settling on what to do about them, and of linking to the people who will share them.  The dynamics are fired up both on- and off-line (Bill Law, 2012a).  And those dynamics are constantly shaping and re-shaping careers.  Navigating that turmoil calls for a stage-by-stage process of learning and re-learning.  It needs to be portable - transferable from one thing to another.  That learning enables students to take charge of their careers - they define the agenda.  So this is more about student self-propulsion, and less about expert recommendations.  It is called 'career management' rather than 'career development'.  These are expansive dynamics, and they belong to a root-and-branch expansion of the life-design programme.


  • 4. issues

Talk of career management, where students define an agenda, raises issues for how far-ranging that agenda can be.  As it stands the life-design process introduces a client to a career counsellor, opening a question-and-answer process.  Clients are free to talk about whatever surprises them, what troubles them, what excites them, what is important to them and why.  The conversation is then about how those thoughts-and-feelings figure in career management.  It's a process of recalling experience, revisiting memories and finding patterns which suggest priorities.  There need be no limit to where that conversation can go - that is life-design's strength.  But there is an issue for career counsellors who don't want career-development expertise to be diluted by career-management autonomy.  Expert exclusivity curtails, student inclusivity expands (Bill Law, 2014). 

That expansion needs greater place-and-space than face-to-face work can find.  The reality is that life design is set in an hinterland occupied by social attachments, political-and-commercial manoeuvring, and accelerating change-upon-change.  This issue is for how the enablement of stage-by-stage and portable learning can taking hold of self-propelled career management.  A question is how much of a future is there for a life-design contained by face-to-face encounters.  An answer is that life-design needs to link encounter to curriculum.  There is no part of the curriculum incapable of carrying some part of career-management freight.  The outcome is then for students and their helpers to learn from each other about what issues are thrown up and how they can be navigated.  It enlarges the scope for life-design.


  • 5. narrative

A summary: the hinterland of life design is a place of puzzling complexity, out-of-the-blue surprise and confusing dynamics.  The essentials for an acceptable educational response are being narrowed by politics, its sponsors and some professionals.  Educators who listen to students find learning-for-living developing an inclusive rather than exclusive agenda.  That's because what people do about career is what they do about life, and neither the social sciences nor the humanities have found any limits to that.  The life-design project is right, therefore, to assemble its careers constructions into a narrative.  People are better able to make sense of a narrative however vague, than of analysis however precise (Law, 2012b). 

A narrative is a sequence - one thing leading to another.  It can be long-term or short, plodding or wide-ranging, trite or layered.  An inclusive agenda needs a long-term, wide-ranging and layered narrative.  It can raise who-what-when-where-how-and-why questions.  And that doesn't whizz its audience along, it draws them in.  Now they are both interested onlookers and galvanised agents.  And students and their educators want to know how the story speaks of their lives, their child, their family, their work, their fear and their hope.  That narrative is expansive.  And that account of life-design is most expansive a response to change when it features turning points, changes-of-mind, and ready-for-anything flexibility. 


Was there ever a time when that ability - to look and look again, to reflect and discover another way, to be shocked and to resolve to do something about it - were more needed?  With America It is the change-after-change back-and-forth story of migration, settlement, communication, and invention.  Living memory knows a lot about that Euro-American story. 

Part of it is where brit careers work got its ideational kick-start.  But now, and throughout the globe, change-upon-change puts pressures on work-life that have never been more intense, and controlling interests that have never been more entrenched.  This expanded life-design programme, realising more of its potential, will engage students and educators in new and more inclusive ways for finding out what's going on, and firing up a more complete apparatus for dealing with it.      


  • references

Pierre Bourdieu (1991).  Language and Symbolic Power.  London:  Polity Press

Bill Law (2014).  'On-line careers work - colonist or inhabitant'.  In Arulmani, G, Bakshi, A, Leong, F T L and Watts, A G. Handbook of Career Development - International Perspectives.  New York: Springer 

Bill Law, B (2012a).  'On-line careers work – hit and myth'.  Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling. October 2012, Issue 29. th.pdf

Bill Law (2012b).  'Three-scene storyboarding - how narratives enlarge careers work'.  Journal of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling.  March

Mark Savickas and others (2009).  'Life designing a paradigm for career construction in the 21st century'.  Journal of Vocational Behaviour. 75, 3, 239–250.

Timothy Snyder (2015).  Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.  London: Bodley Head


careers work needs your say on this
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...or contact... 

Dr Bill Law FRSA

in the career-learning café

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at 07855 293 855



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