We each seek to provide our scattered and often confusing experiences with a sense of coherence by arranging episodes of our lives into stories.(Dan McAdams: click on the image for more information)
As children, we are introduced to myths, fables and stories, and we are exposed to narrative in film, broadcast, art and dance. It is how we communicate; it is how we pass on meaning; it is how we relax.
Crucially, it is also how we attempt to understand our existence, particularly during periods of significant disruption.
Transitions, which are significant and potentially challenging changes in our lives (such as enforced career change in my case), often cause us to instinctively tack stock of our situations. This process can subconscious or deliberate, and often tends to take the form of us reviewing the story of our lives in an attempt to restore narrative coherence when confronted by change and transition.
This recounting of our life can can be conducted internally (in our own minds), or perhaps externally by talking to others. However, undertaking a conscious and written (as well as any other form of) review can permit us an opportunity to reflect on change and transition – and their impact – in a paced and controlled manner. This, in turn, might allow greater scope to think about what emerges.
In terms of structuring that process, a useful guide might be to pursue an inclination to view our lives as a series of chapters, which come together to form an over coherent story (as the opening quotation implies). In writing about or recording our lives in this way, we can begin to detect themes that might explain how we have arrived at a time of change, and where we might go in the future. By rearranging and exploring aspects that stand out to us – be they high or low points – we can attempt to make sense of them and use them to guide us as we move forward in life.
As we begin to unravel these narrative threads, some themes might suggest situational, self, support and strategic (4S) assets to be harnessed as we transition towards that future, while others might indicate liabilities that we need to address, accommodate and potentially overcome as we plan and move towards that future.
This might sound familiar to those with experience of conducting SWOT (strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, threats) analyses. In this case, the subject of your SWOT analysis is your own life: broken down into your situational, self, support and strategic assets and liabilities.
A case study
My life was narrated for me by others… It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.(Tara Westover: click on the image for more information)
When I was confronted by an unexpected an unwelcome illness and job loss, I found myself instinctively reviewing events in an effort to understand their impact and how I could overcome them. However, instinct alone was an imperfect guide. Consequently, I found myself casting around for a more structured template.
Inspired by an awareness of a tendency to see lives and events in storied form, I began to narratively and chronologically trace my life before, during and after my illness in order to reconnect with what mattered to me. I started with my earliest memories, as I had also I learned that it is these recollections and early influences that began to shape who I am. Therefore, if I wanted to determine how I had arrived at a crossroads in my life – and more crucially, which ‘assets’ I needed to take with me, develop and harness as I moved towards the future – then I felt I had to start at the beginning.
In attempting to resurrect myself as a child and a young man I had a very personal objective: I wanted to discover how and why I became what I am, to understand the forces and emotions behind my present reactions.(Arturo Barea: click on the image for more information)
By beginning my narrative reflections with my earliest memories, I was able trace a path through decisions I had made and experiences I had accumulated, which, in turn, suggested how I could best exploit the opportunities a forced change might present. Given we tend to story our lives chronologically, this is how I organised my own exploration, particularly as I found it easier to make connections between key phases, influences and events in this way.
Transition story structure and substance
To achieve this, Dan McAdams recommends exploring ley life events, memories and concerns in as much detail as possible. This detailed exploration can be achieved by describing what happened, where, with whom and accompanied by what thoughts and feelings.
If needed, prompts for these events might include:
- Earliest memories
- Other childhood, youth and adult memories
- High points in our lives
- Low points and turning points (or ‘light bulb’ moments).
The aim should be to focus on the significance of these events as regards the overall life story.
Having done so, a subsequent review of the resulting narrative might then indicate available self, situational, support and strategic assets (including motivations) that can be used in building our transition plans for the future. This exploration can also highlight potential factors – or liabilities – that need to be worked around or accommodated in order to pursue those goals.
Crucially, this narrative work might not just reveal what could be considered professional goals, but our emotional motivations: potentially delivering a more roundly satisfying plan and outcome as a result.
In my case, my story revealed a number of self, support and strategic assets, including:
- A determination not to dwell on the past (a self-motivational asset – or a liability if I failed to do so)
- The professional and educational experience I had previously accrued, which I considered a situational asset
- A realisation that my family is a crucial support asset – as understanding which increased my motivation to generate a strategic means to transition ‘well’, so I could repay their support.