Losing the plot

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A couple of weeks ago I ran a workshop for wonderful bunch of university careers advisers in Dublin. I’m still not sure that we settled on a title for the workshop but the basic idea was to apply new and interesting models and theories to give a fresh perspective on careers guidance practice.

I think the original invitation was something like: ‘Can you run a workshop based on your blog?’ I offered them a menu of possible topics…and they said yes to most of them. So I ended up stitching together a patchwork of themes such as employability, career identity, dealing with uncertainty, motivations and techniques for reflective practice.

Quite a bit of what I included was stuff I’m still working through and finding a place for, so we had fun experimenting together and the workshop was a learning process for me too.

One of the things I decided to throw into the mix was something on narratives. I based it around an article by Robert Pryor and Jim Bright (2008) on archetypal narratives in careers work. They, in turn, based their article on a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker (2004).

Booker argues that similar patterns can be identified in many different parts of literature and storytelling: myths, fairy stories, epics, modern novels and films. The theory is that these archetypal plot structures represent ways in which human beings have tried to make sense of some of the big questions and challenges that are part of our common experience.

Booker identifies seven distinct plots.

Archetype Themes Basic plot Examples
Overcoming the monster Overcoming Fear
Meeting challenges
Taking risks
Becoming aware of the threat
Preparing to do battle
Initial defeat
Final conflict
Victory and escape
Beowulf, Dracula, War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Magnificent Seven, James Bond
Rags to riches Seizing opportunities
Overcoming disadvantages
Fulfilling potential
Initial deprivation
Venturing into the world
Struggling to make progress
Facing the big challenge
Achieving success
Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, David Copperfield
Quest Pursuing a purpose
Surmounting obstacles
Achieving goals
Identifying a problem
Making a journey
Overcoming hurdles
Facing tests
Reaching the destination
The Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress, King Solomon’s Mines, Watership Down
Voyage and return Exploring new contexts
Experiencing transformation
Expanding horizons
Ejected from state of ignorance
Initial curiosity and excitement
Awareness of larger threat
Experiencing danger
Escaping and returning transformed
Alice in Wonderland, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited, The Hobbit
Comedy Experiencing confusion
Being surprised
Achieving harmony
Misinformation and misunderstanding
Misguided actions and decisions
Crisis and stress
Sudden revelation and insight
Resolution and restoration
Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, The Importance of Being Ernest
Tragedy Over-estimating potential
Ignoring vulnerability
Experiencing failure
Lack of self-awareness
Choosing inappropriate goals
Mistakes and self-sabotage
Becoming impulsive and losing control
Traumatic self-destruction
Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Carmen, Bonnie & Clyde, Anna Karenina
Rebirth Experiencing tribulation
Seeking help
Gaining insight
Premonitions of danger
Period of calm and success
Danger returns in force
Defeat and helplessness
Rescue and transformation
Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Peer Gynt

Pryor and Bright apply this thinking to the stories we tell ourselves about our careers. They talk about the dangers of getting stuck in ‘closed system thinking’ in which you are only able to interpret events according to a particular plot structure. So, for example, if you continually see your career progress in terms of ‘overcoming the monster’, you will be on the lookout for threats all the time and are likely to perceive every situation as a struggle or a battle.

Part of our job as practitioners might be to help the client to see how their own ongoing story might fit into a different narrative or combination of narratives.

After the workshop, I jotted down some questions to go along with each plot.

Overcoming the monster

  • Who are you casting in the role of monster?
  • Does the monster only have power over you because you give it to them through your fear/anger?
  • Is the monster what you think it is?
  • Are you fighting the wrong monster?
  • Are you the monster?
  • What are the weapons you already have in your hands?
  • Who are your unexpected allies?
  • Where is the monster’s weak spot?

Rags to riches

  • What from your past is holding you back?
  • Is the prejudice you see only in your head?
  • Whose approval are you trying to win?
  • Are you disowning your origins?
  • Who has been your benefactor?
  • Are you holding true to your principles?
  • Do you need to embrace your past or separate yourself from it?

Quest

  • Do you know what you are seeking?
  • How will you know when you have found it?
  • What will you have to sacrifice in order to obtain it?
  • Is what you are seeking already in your posession?
  • Does what you are seeking actually exist?
  • Who will benefit from your quest?
  • Who can you help with their quest?

Voyage and return

  • What are you running away from?
  • Do you just need to put one foot in front of the other?
  • Is it too late to turn back?
  • Have you already passed the low point of your journey?
  • Who are your travelling companions?
  • What is the point of no return?
  • How has the journey changed you?
  • What would your old self think of you now?

Comedy

  • What assumptions are you making about yourself and others?
  • Could you have misinterpreted or misunderstood something?
  • Are you missing a vital piece of information?
  • Could you have a blind spot?
  • Have you pushed yourself into an extreme position without realising it?
  • Are you repeating the same patterns over and over again?
  • What shift in perspective might resolve this situation?

Tragedy

  • Are you aiming too high?
  • Are you setting yourself up to fail?
  • Have you failed to take into account a vital weakness?
  • What events or conditions could make things go horribly wrong?
  • Are you acting out a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  • What would cause you to lose control?
  • Are you in danger of damaging yourself through your pursuit?

Rebirth

  • Have you had intimations of danger?
  • Have you ignored the warnings?
  • Have you allowed yourself to do something against your better judgement?
  • Are you waiting for someone else to rescue you?
  • Will you have to die to your old life?
  • What are you holding on to that is preventing you from transforming yourself?
  • Might you have to become someone different in order to move on?
What questions would you add?
Does your own career seem to fit a particular narrative?

Further reading

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  1. #1 by Lisa on 15 March 2012 - 16:06

    Oh I love these plots David thanks for sharing. I do a lot of narrative work and can see how this plot list can be useful in identifying underpinning story lines.
    As for my own narrative, I’d have to say the one I most relate to is the Rags to Riches. Although I didn’t quite grow up in rags, nor do I enjoy extensive riches, I do relate to the themes of seizing opportunities, overcoming disadvantages and fulfilling potential. I can also relate to the plot line of initial deprivation, venturing into the world, struggling to make progress, facing the big challenge and achieving success.
    The questions devised are great, I’ll have to try using some and see if I can come up with more – I’ll let you know if I do!

    • #2 by David Winter on 15 March 2012 - 18:03

      Thanks Lisa

      Even if the plots themselves are a little simplistic, it’s interesting to see what happens when you try to fit your experiences into different ones.

      I too can identify with the Rags to Riches themes. I did come from a fairly lowly background – financially, socially, intellectually and emotionally. And much of my life has been about finding opportunities beyond my expectations.

      I’m trying hard not to see my current shift into a management role as Overcoming the Monster, but it does feel a bit like that sometimes!

  2. #3 by rtpower on 19 March 2012 - 11:17

    Thank you – this is such an interesting post.

    I’ve used ‘what’s your favourite film, and why’ in interview skills workshops with students as a simple device for understanding the tone of voice and energy that comes from talking about things you really enjoy. However now I’m thinking I could use the film or book analogy to open up discussion about career paths too.

    Your post also got me wondering about the potential application of this approach with pre-18 yr old too. I don’t work with this client group, but my 13 year old daughter has just had school careers advice that didn’t seem to have moved in very much in terms of theory since the 1980’s when I filled in a questionnaire and was told I could be an ‘administrator’ or ‘nurse’…

  3. #4 by Gillian on 22 March 2012 - 19:34

    This is, indeed, an interesting post, David. The framework could well be used by professionals or recent graduates considering whether or not to return to/continue with some form of higher education. Identifying the hurdles and then asking an HEI or two what they can do to minimise them or even cause them to vanish. I know what’s on my wish-list!

  4. #5 by Sara Whittam (@sarawhittam) on 23 March 2012 - 23:09

    Great post David- really thought provoking. Whilst I have read a lot of the theory around the use of narrative, I don’t naturally use it much in my own guidance, but this has given me some great ideas about how it could be put into practice.

    On a personal note, I most identify with the rebirth theme – I wonder what it will take for the transformation to finally kick in?!

    • #6 by David Winter on 24 March 2012 - 12:07

      Hi Sara
      Thanks for sharing. Often in the Rebirth plot there is a theme of letting go of something that ties you to the past and forces you to be inward looking. This often leads to opening yourself to an external provoking force (not always comfortable) which exposes your vulnerability and facilitates the creation of a new identity. Has that happened to you?

  5. #7 by Michael on 27 March 2012 - 21:57

    It sounds like it was an excellent workshop experience for all.

    With the questions you provided as a follow up, I can see how to modify them for use in motivational interviewing to allow the client to continue developing the next chapter for him/herself.

    As someone who has visited most of these areas in his journey, I can tell you that embracing the role of ‘protagonist’ is sometimes difficult. Even if you recognize yourself in the story, believing that you will ultimately triumph is hard.

    With this approach, a client could create a 3rd party narrative about what comes next, and then slowly move into the role. This is an excellent way to help barriered clients ease into taking control of their lives. I think that it would also be an excellent way to get youth to start writing their life story before they allow life to write the next chapter.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • #8 by David Winter on 30 March 2012 - 13:08

      Hi Michael

      Your comment about the difficulty of people seeing themselves as ultimately successful protagonists is a good one. Many of the successful stories involve some kind if identity change for the main character. The subject at the end of the narrative is a different person from the subject at the start. It is hard to imagine who you would have to become in order to finish the story. Perhaps part of the job of a careers coach is to help clients to explore possible future career identities so that they can find it easier close the gap between how they see themselves now and the image of the kind of person who could be successful.

      Solution focused approaches, which look for examples of potentially useful behaviours in past experiences and try to apply them to present and future challenges could be helpful here. In any good story there are hints about the future identity in the current behaviours of the characters. Often, they only make sense in retrospect, when past experience is re-interpreted in the light of changing insights.

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