Postmodern Career Theory: A Lifeline

The Theory logo
Image via Wikipedia

Most university students are probably very familiar with the word theory.  Doesn’t matter if you’re in sciences or arts, doesn’t matter if you’re in first year psychology or senior fourth year theoretical physics – much of the work of academics is developing theories in an attempt to explain something.

Theory is also a word that those in the career development and counselling fields are very familiar with, as we attempt to come up with explanations for why people are the way they are, what makes them change, and how to best explain the development and role of careers in people’s lives.

Early theories in the field of career development were heavily influenced by thinkers who essentially posited three things: (1) people have unique, measurable traits; (2) careers also have unique, measurable traits; and (3) the best career for someone is one whose traits match up the most with that person’s traits.  It may sound overly simplistic, but there was a time when the idea of measuring things like interests, skills, and values and matching those results with careers was quite revolutionary.  Many assessment tools used in career counselling today are derived from those early theories, including the Self-Directed Search, the Strong Interest Inventory, and to some extent the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Postmodern architecture (Image by fensterbme via Flickr)

As is often the case in the world of theory, it wasn’t too long before some people in the career development field decided that these theories weren’t quite cutting it.  While the advent of postmodernism following the Second World War to present led quickly to some pretty radically new theories in areas such as literature, art, and architecture, its influence on career development theory was only a pretty recent development.  It didn’t take long, however, for a great many new theories to turn up on the career development scene, including social learning, cognitive, humanistic, etc., and myriad combinations of those listed, including one that has a large impact on how we understand career development here at Career Services: the Chaos Theory of Careers.

Postmodern theory itself can be a very confusing topic, and I’ll probably only make a fool out of myself by making any attempt to discuss it in a public forum, but I wanted to share an example of an exercise that you could do that could very well take place in a career counsellor’s office were you to go.  It’s taken from Pamela Brott’s “Storied Approach” to assessment.  The exercise is called the “Life Line,”and is meant to illuminate how our lives can be co-constructed, de-constructed, and ultimately constructed again.  It’s a great tool for self-reflection.  It’s meant to be done with the assistance of a professional, but I think it’s easily adapted to be able to do on your own, as I’ve outlined below.  Enjoy!

Life Line

  1. Get yourself a blank piece of paper or newsprint and a whole bunch of coloured pens, markers, or crayons.  In the middle of the paper, draw a horizontal line and place an arrowhead at the right end of the line.  This arrow head represents the present day, so mark the current date by it.  At the left end of the line, write in your date of birth.
  2. Mark along the line any significant dates you can remember, such as when you started and finished different levels of school, graduated, started working, were laid off, got married, began/ended serious relationships, etc.  Don’t restrict yourself to these events.  Think of the different markers on your line as if they were the beginning and ending of chapters in your story.
  3. Try to recall an early memory, and place a notation on the life line around the point where it occurred, along with any significant information you can recall about what that experience was like: What emotions did you experience? Where were you living? Who were the other people present in the memory (the ‘supporting cast’)?
  4. Continue with #3, preferably until you have at least one memory on your life line for each chapter of your life thus far.
  5. Take a close look at your lifeline.  What patterns do you notice?  What does it say about what’s important to you?  What significance do these moments have in your life today?  What have you learned from this experience?  What keywords or adjectives come to mind when you focus on each chapter?
  6. Try to give a title to each chapter that best sums up your thoughts from #5.
  7. Try to adopt some alternative perspectives or viewpoints when looking at your story.  Are there any noticeable exceptions (times when you didn’t follow an identified pattern)?  If different people had been present for each chapter, how would it have been different?  What would your life be like now if you had made a different choice in a certain chapter?
  8. Now it’s time to look towards the future.  What do you think the next chapter of your life holds?  Are you moving in your preferred direction?  Are there two or more clear alternatives open to you?
  9. If you are up to it, take another piece of paper and dray another line with today’s date on the left side of the line.  If you have a goal that you are thinking of moving towards, mark that goal somewhere on the new line at a point where you think it could be accomplished.
  10. Finally, title your new chapter.
  11. Reflect on the exercise as a whole.  You’ve just told your story – does it represent you well?  If not, how would you like it to be different?

The theory here is that knowledge is co-constructed, and that there is no such thing as a universal truth (because we all perceive and think about the world differently, through our own subjective lens).  It is because of this underlying theory that we can use an exercise such as the lifeline to look at ourselves and see if we can begin to discover new truths, or at least different ways of seeing certain things in our lives.  If you have some spare time this holiday season and you’re feeling in the mood for some self-reflection, give it a try!

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.