Storytelling: Culture & Careers Collide
“Tell me the facts, and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.” -Native American Proverb
Narrative Career Counseling Theory offers a framework to help job seekers explore their future careers (Cochran, 1997) through a constructivist approach to career development; it encourages job seekers to examine personal stories in order to make sense of their own language, context, and reality. In this way, Narrative Career Counseling Theory uses ones’ stories to transform lived experiences and aspirations into clear and actionable career steps. Zak (2015) states that human brains are hardwired to make sense through stories; therefore, it is important that classroom experiences provide an avenue for students to utilize stories as they create their idea of career development and planning.
Today’s students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, may hear others’ career stories and try to appropriate them as their own. Storyteller and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) speaks of storytelling in her TED talk, The Danger of the Single Story. She describes how, as a young girl, she primarily read and subsequently wrote stories reflective of British culture. She wrote about blue-eyed children and snow, despite the reality that she lived in Nigeria and did not personally experience things such as mercurial weather or eating apples. Adichie (2009) says this illustrates the power of a story: she wrote stories that were not reflective of her experience and her culture.
Students who are given the opportunity to create stories focused on themselves, their experiences, and their own culture gain an increased understanding of who they are and their potential in the world of work. This article offers career educators a glimpse into the incredible value of students’ stories, along with three simple and free classroom strategies that any educator can implement in middle school or high school classrooms.
Storytelling Strategy: Personal Identity through Seven Stories
“The incredible thing about using stories to figure out your career is that you already have the source material within you.” -Kerri Twigg
The Seven Stories Exercise has been credited to Bernard Haldane and innovated upon by others, such as career coach Kerry Twigg, quoted above. For this activity, students consider their enjoyable accomplishment stories, representing times when they were proud of what they did and enjoyed the process as well. The original strategy involves writing one accomplishment story per day for a week, although students can do it with just one story, as they have less life experience. Note that these stories do not have to be about work at all, making it even more accessible to students. Once the story is shared, the student and their classmates can identify the personal values, interests, skills, and aptitudes that were present in the story. Unlike Adichie’s example above, this activity grounds the students in who they are and what is truly important to them, rather than what others think.
Storytelling Strategy: Exploring Your Possible Lives
“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” -Fred Rogers
Huan Hsin-hsin, Ph.D., published a lesson in NCDA’s book, Experiential Activities for Teaching Career Counseling and for Facilitating Career Groups, Volume III, that applies creativity in our career exploration (Lara et al., 2011). The strategy, Five Fantasy Lives, has students list five future postsecondary career stories: from taking a gap year, to entering the workforce, to studying molecular biology at a highly selective university. The creativity continues as they then chart what their life will be like in each possible story, including finances, free time, and whether it is fun to think about each particular life. Through this strategy of designing the stories of their future, students can connect to their values and interests and begin the process of making postsecondary decisions based solidly on their self-awareness and career knowledge.
Storytelling Strategy: Interview Success with SOAR
"You are what you do, not what you say you'll do." -C.G. Jung
A typical interview technique that employs storytelling is the SOAR method. This method allows the interviewee to share all the significant parts of a story while answering an interview question. The S stands for the situation encountered; the O is the obstacle overcome; the A represents actions taken, and the R stands for Results. The similar STAR Method uses Situation, Task, Action, Results, yet we find SOAR more relatable for students with obstacles rather than tasks.
Teaching students to use SOAR transforms them into memorable job or internship candidates. Because stories have such an impact, the interviewers are likely to connect to the stories told through the SOAR method and to remember the student more clearly when deliberating their hiring options.
Storytelling: Be the Author of Your Own Story
“We will not be characters in our stories. Not villains, not victims, not even heroes. We are the authors of our lives. We write our own daring endings.” -Brené Brown
With the tools listed above, practitioners can create an opportunity for students to advocate for their own unique identities and interests to be valued equitably. Both the word “advocate” and “vocation” contain the root voc or voice or calling. When students are taught to advocate, they learn to speak up on behalf of themselves and the greater good. When students find a vocation, they find careers they are equipped to do— and believe they are meant to do. As such, Narrative Career Counseling and the use of stories can be a useful tool in the often confusing yet imperative arena of career exploration with young adults.
Adichie, C. (2009, July). The danger of a single story [Video]. Ted Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Brooks, K. (2009, April). You majored in what?: Mapping your path from chaos to career. Viking Books. https://katharinebrooks.com/you-majored-in-what/
Brown, B. (2015, August). Rising strong: How the ability to reset transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Spiegel & Grau. https://brenebrown.com/books-audio/
Cochran, L. (1997). Career Counseling: A Narrative Approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Lara, T., Pope, M., & Minor, C. (2011). Experiential Activities for Teaching Career Counseling and for Facilitating Career Groups, Volume III. National Career Development Association.
Lehigh University Center for Career & Professional Development. (n.d.). The seven stories exercise: Discovering your motivated skills. https://careercenter.lehigh.edu/sites/careercenter.lehigh.edu/files/Seven%20Stories%20Exercise.pdf
Taub, R. (n.d.). What to say about yourself in an interview — SOAR interview examples. Resume to Referral. https://www.resumetoreferral.com/tell-me-about-yourself-interview-strategies/
Twigg, K. (2021, January). The career stories method. Page Two Books. https://www.career-stories.com/book/
Zak, P. (2015, February). Why inspiring stories make us react: The neuroscience of narrative. Cerebrum. https://www.dana.org/article/why-inspiring-stories-make-us-react-the-neuroscience-of-narrative/
Karoline Jarr, Ph.D., CCSP, is a career and education consultant who helps the education sector maintain its relevance by connecting classroom and real-world learning experiences. She has expertise across program evaluation, assessment, curriculum, learning, and socio-economic dynamics of student development, with an emphasis on non-profit business, secondary and post-secondary, career-learning, and professional development. Before consulting, she served in many education organizations including as Vice President of Research and Program Effectiveness for Project Lead The Way. She holds a Ph.D. in Psychological and Quantitative Foundations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Janae Hunderman, M.Ed, CCPC, CCSP, is the founding Work-Based Learning Coordinator for the Business Education Connection in Durango, Colorado, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between three area high schools. She is pioneering internship programs and designing work-based learning curriculum as well as supporting other Colorado schools to develop their career preparation programs. She holds a Masters in Linguistically Diverse Education and is both a Certified Co-Active Coach and an Associate Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation and supports adults through career and life transitions within her private coaching practice. Janae currently serves on the Colorado Career Development Association board and is Steering Committee Chair for Leadership La Plata. She can be reached at email@example.com.