I’ve written before about the difference between people who like to think of their lives as a story (“narratives”), and those who see their lives more as a series of disconnected episodes (“episodics.”)
I’ve been thinking recently about this in the context of career choices. I suspect that a lot of people think about their careers in this narrative sense - what step makes sense next, given what I’ve done so far? Where do I want to end up in 5, 10, or 20 years time, what kind of story do I want to be able to tell about what I’ve done, and how I got to where I am?
I’ve certainly been noticing this kind of thinking in myself. I’m thinking about what to do next after my PhD, and I’ve been finding myself drawn to options that feel like a good next step in my story, while feeling some resistance to make choices that don’t seem to produce such a good narrative. I’m a bit worried about this, because I’m not sure “telling a good story” necessarily tracks that what I care about - having a career that I enjoy and that has an impact in the world.
The best way for me to do valuable, fulfilling work might well be to do something that makes a bit less sense, that doesn’t tell such a good story. And yet I do still feel this strong pull towards doing whatever makes for a good story.
There are certainly some reasons why optimising for good storytelling could be a good way to think about your career. It helps you to sell yourself to other people, to ensure you’re developing expertise in a specific area rather than just jumping around randomly, to use and build on what you’ve learnt at each step. This all makes sense. But sometimes this can go too far - wanting to tell a good story might encourage you to stick on a path even if you don’t enjoy it anymore, or lead you to do things that will “justify” past decisions in an irrational way. Having just spent the past few years getting a PhD, I now find myself more attracted to options which require a PhD. These options would help me justify (to myself and others) why spending all that time on a PhD was clearly worth it. But this doesn’t actually make any sense. It’s great that I now have options I wouldn’t have had without a PhD, but if the very best option is something I don’t need a PhD for, it seems crazy to turn it down just for that reason.
I worry a little bit that many people’s career choices are driven too much by the desire to tell a good story, and this prevents them from considering or choosing otherwise great options that don’t fit into such a great narrative. Maybe we can counteract this by finding ways to tell compelling, unconventional stories about not-so-neat career paths - paths that involve exploring a variety of different options and industries, combining unconventional skills, doing lots of small valuable things rather than one hugely influential thing. I’d personally like to hear more stories of people who have had careers that don’t necessarily fit together neatly, people who spent a few years doing something entirely random, but who don’t see that random thing as a mistake or a waste of time.
Relatedly, I’ve also noticed how difficult I’ve found it meeting new people while I’m exploring and figuring out what to do - because I don’t feel like I have a good story I can tell about what I’m doing now and where I’m going. I find myself trying to fit my introduction into some kind of narrative that makes sense depending on who I’m talking to and what background information they have. Maybe the biggest reason that stories are so important to us, especially when it comes to work, is that they form part of our identities. Having a neat, clear story I can tell about my life helps others to make sense of me, and perhaps even helps me to make sense of myself. But none of us fall into neat, clearly-defined identity boxes anyway - maybe it would be better if we stopped trying to.