Category Archives: Narrative

articles about narrative in counseling

22 effective Coaching Questions: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Story Telling Applied to Coaching

Coaching can benefit from animation company Pixar and their rules of story telling.  Pixar has 22 rules of story telling, according to David Price, the author of Pixar Touch – see his blog here. He gleaned these rules from the tweets of Emma Coats, a Pixar storyboard artist. I think they can be usefully applied in coaching. See what you think.

pixar

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

Coaching Question: How can you recognize and celebrate the energy and effort you are applying to your projects?

2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

Coaching Question: How can you keep your client/customer/stakeholder firmly in mind in developing your plans and actions?

3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

Coaching Question: How can you take action right now and stop worrying about how things will turn out?

4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Coaching Question: How many different ways can you describe your history using the formula above?  How are the different versions similar? How do they differ? Which is your favorite version and why? How can this help motivate your next steps?

5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

Coaching Question: What aspects of the patterns you see in your situation are pretty similar? What things are you going to leave unexplored or unanswered in the service of action?

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Coaching Question: If you faced challenges in areas that you feel the least capable, how could you meet those challenges and succeed?

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Coaching Question: Working backwards from where you need to get, what are the foreseeable next steps?

8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

Coaching Question: How can you get a positive outcome and closure in this situation even if it is not the most desirable or perfect outcome?

9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

Coaching Question: What are the most obvious things that would not work in this situation? What does that leave over that might just work?

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

Coaching Question: Thinking about the people you admire, what specific characteristics or achievements do you admire? How does that reflect on you as a person and your priorities?

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

Coaching Question: How can you best articulate this to trusted others without delay so you can get to work on refining and implementing your idea?

12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Coaching Question: What are the most obvious solutions to my problem? What would be the most surprising solutions to my problem?

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Coaching Question: What are your real opinions about this situation?  What would a strong supporter say? What about a critic what would they say?

14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

Coaching Question: Why does this course of action matter so much to you? What meaning does it have for you?  How can you use this meaning and mattering to maintain motivation and persistence?

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

Coaching Question: If you were a member of your team, how would you feel about the proposed action?

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Coaching Question: What is riding on this decision?  How can you use that to motivate you?

17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

Coaching Question: How can you switch your attention to projects where there is a greater liklihood of success? How can you ensure that you are able to transfer what you’ve learned to new projects?

18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Coaching Question: How can you identify when you have finished something and when you are unproductively fiddling with a successful solution? What are the signs?

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Coaching Question: How can you leverage chance events to your advantage?  How can you be ready to take opportunities when they present themselves?

20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

Coaching Question: Thinking about a recent outcome you did not like, how could you have done things differently that would have yielded a better outcome?

21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Coaching Question: Imagine you are the gatekeeper, what things would make you open those gates and remove the barrier?

22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Coaching Question: What are the essential repeating themes, the values and behaviors you want to express in your next actions?

This post was the result of multiple tweets.  First Emma Coats tweets these rules, then David Price blogs on it, then Joshua Cohen blogs on it and then David Winter tweets it and now I blog on it. Social media in action!

The top 10 words of 2011 or of all time?

LinkedIn report the top 10 clichés found on LinkedIn profiles in 2011 (see here).  So how do these words stack up in terms of historic usage?  Using a relatively unknown google research feature called Ngram, we can see how often each of these words have appeared in books since the 1500s!  It is interesting to see how many of the words in career development have only recently become fashionable, but there are some that we might think are shiny and new that have been around before or forever.

Top of the LinkedIn list was “creative”.  Here is the Ngram result:

note: (the graphs show the results of analyzing up to 6000 books published each year from 1500-2008.  In the early years this represents all the books published, and in later years, a random selection of books.  The percentages on the y-axis represent the number of times the searched word appears as a proportion of all words published in the sample of books for that year)

This word didn’t really feature until the self-conscious C20th, and plateaued around the time of the Mad Men Madison Avenue advertising hey-dey in the 1960s.

Next up is the word “Organizational” – which is kind of embarrassing I was the National Chair of the College of Organizational Psychologists!

“Organizational” is definitely a post-war phenomenon and is there evidence it is on the way down perhaps? Time will tell.

At number 3, was “Effective” – a word that was popular in the renaissance, and is having, well, a renaissance now.

Number six on the list was “Motivated”.

My oh my!  It seems the C20th was all about getting up and getting on, but have we turned the corner in the C21st?  I just cant be bothered to find out!!

At number 10 was that old stalwart of the resume – “Dynamic”.

It seems that as we got progressively more motivated in the C20th we also decided to call ourselves “Dynamic” – the C20th really was an exhausting century!

But what about some other terms that we bandy around frequently in Career Development – like er, “Career”

The word shows a less dramatic rise in usage, having been used relatively often in the renaissance, but really started to build in the Victorian era and the industrial revolution. Interestingly, Parson’s seminal work “Choosing a vocation” was published at the historic peak usage of the term career, which promptly went into decline until the 1950s.  I’m not claiming causation here!

The term “plan” that is dear to the hearts of some in the Career Development world is an interesting one.  It exploded in popularity between 1750 and 1800 (when Napoleon had his mojo) and stayed relatively popular up until the end of world war 2.  Interestingly then it declined until about the 1980s, when the dreaded goal setting literature and Olivia Newton John turned us all into leg warmer wearing goal-focused gym junkies and office warriors – well perhaps!

The current popularity of the term narrative in career development, politics, well just about everywhere, is reflected in the graph below, showing exponential growth in usage since the second world war.

Another term we hear a lot at the moment “constructivism” rocketed to popularity in the 1970s, but by 2008 looks to be at the beginning of suffering an equally sharp decline.  So constructivists out there, get publishing more – or at least start thinking about it, if you believe thought is reality and see if by the power of thinking you can get the line to move upwards once again.  Just kiddin!! 🙂

Words close to my theoretical heart and a basis for the Chaos Theory of Careers is the word “Change”.  Ironically there has been little change in the growth rate in usage of the term change. It shows an almost perfect linear growth rate in C18 and C19 (funny that the Industrial “revolution” didn’t give it a kick along).  However C20th saw the growth rate in usage of the term increase markedly, but then it plateaued around 1970 – which is a little surprising to me.

The term “chance”  has a colorful history as the graph below shows. The Elizabethans were into it big time (as they were equally into “mutability” as Rob Pryor and I point out in our book – The Chaos Theory of Careers.  The term peaked in usage between the world wars, fell steadily in the era of “certainty” of the 1950s to 1980s, and rocked back into popularity in the last 10 years.

Finally “Chaos” is an interesting one. It appears that 1650 was total chaos!  I blame in on Frenchman Renee Descartes who said “I think therefore I am” in this year, well probably “Je pense donc, je suis”, but it is all French to me.  The term has taken centuries to recover from his method of doubt, but has shown steady and predictable (ie not chaotic!!) growth in usage, apparently recently returning to long term growth trends after a little flurry in the 1980s probably associated with the popularization of the science usage of the term by Gleick and others during this decade.

So what other words would be worth exploring?

Make or Break Moments in Careers and Life

Make or Break Moments in Careers and Life

Are there moments in life that are make or break?  In Chaos Theory of Careers Terms, tipping points, where everything changes? Can we predict them, how do we deal with them?

This link here takes you to an ABC broadcast “Life Matters” where I was interviewed alongside Peter Fitzsimons, an ex Australian Rugby player, and now a prolific journalist and writer.  We discuss the nature of these events and how linear thinking and narrative can sometimes contribute to these events.

About midway through Sharelle McMahon a champion netballer shares her dramatic make or break story.

In the second half of the program, Dr Andrew Martin, a leading Educational Psychologist picks up on these ideas in relation to the make or break of final school year exams.

Sadly in the photograph below I was not given a box to stand on when surrounded by the giants of Dr Martin on my right, and Peter FitzSimons on my left!!!

 

 

Transform your Career by shifting: Shift 7 From Goals, Roles And Routines To Meaning, Mattering, And Black Swans

Shiftwork is the work we have to do to manage, thrive and survive in a world where shift happens.  I’ve identified 11 shifts that we have to make (see here), so far I’ve addressed the first six, and in this post, I address the seventh shift.  The earlier ones you can read by following these links:

  • first shift Prediction To Prediction And Pattern Making (see here)
  • second shift From Plans To Plans And Planning (see here)
  • third one From Narrowing Down To Being Focused On Openness (here)
  • fourth shift From Control To Controlled Flexibility (see here)
  • fifth shift  From Risk As Failure To Risk As Endeavour (see here)
  • sixth shift From Probabilities To Probable Possibilities (see here)

We live in a world that is complex, changing and therefore inherently uncertain. These fundamental features of our world apply to everything from cellular reproduction to operating the windscreen wipers on a car.   It is how we respond to the challenges that complexity, change and uncertainty pose that influences or determines how successfully and happily we live in this world.

Ironically, one of the most common responses to complexity, change and uncertainty is to act to reduce or eliminate them, or if we cannot do that, to pretend they do not exist.   We can cope with the idea that one factor causes or influences another thing – like heat turning bread into toast, and we are especially happy when the relationship is controllable – the longer in the toaster, the browner the toast.  However when there are nine different options to operate the windscreen wipers it is all too much.  I know someone who has just sold their car for a cheaper and simpler one for this reason!  If only the world and the people in it obeyed simple rules, life could be conquered, neatly bundled up and put in a box.

To be fair, this approach has been spectacularly successful in many regards.  Sit under an apple tree long enough and you will appreciate Newton’s insights about gravity and apples. Lots of things in the physical world do appear at the human scale to behave in predictable and lawful ways over reasonably long periods of time.  Stonehenge is still standing, Warwick Castle remains, the Pyramids are still around.

However, when it comes to humans and human interactions, simple models of behavior have proved to be less successful, humans and their interactions have proved to be less predictable, less controllable.  There are simply too many different influences coming to bear at any one time with a tendency to change from one moment to the next.

This has not stopped us from trying to account for behavior in the relatively simple terms of personality, star sign, gender, sexuality, head shape, body shape, political views, family history, birth place, birth order, early childhood experience, love of cats or dogs and many more.   In nearly all cases evidence can be found that suggests these factors do play a small part in our behavior. However the emphasis is on the small part they play, and even when combined there is still a very large amount of uncertainty in behavior remaining.

Nonetheless the desire for a predictable live leads us to implementing strategies that are predicated on the world being an unchanging, controllable and predictable place.  The three most common strategies are Goal Setting; Role Setting and Routine Setting.

Goal setting is the most popular behavior change strategy employed by individuals and organizations. It is almost uncritically accepted, a point I and several others have been making for some time (see this article and this one).

In complexity terms, goal setting involves reducing all of the complexity in a situation simply to the actor and the goal – from here to there.   The strength of goal setting is that it demands that we focus upon a clearly defined target, and very often it further demands that we move toward that target within a specific time frame.

As I’ve pointed out before (along with others) goal setting works well in psychology labs and in the short-term. Over longer periods (typically more than 3 – 6 months) the potential for things changing in our environments, or us changing is so great that the goal posts shift or are obliterated.

In situations where there is a lot of ambiguity and change, there is a danger that goal setting will lock us in too early to an objective that is ultimately undesirable.  Goals work best in simple situations in the short-term.  Goals can be useful, but to rely on them overly or exclusively runs the risk of missing opportunities that change brings, or becoming rigid, stereotyped and irrelevant in a complex changing situation.

Another way of simplifying the world is to think of ourselves and others as occupying roles.  We do this to ourselves when we think in terms of “worker”, “homemaker”, “parent”, “lover”, “child” etc.   Like goals these can be useful ways of making sense, but ultimately they are limited and too rigid to capture the complexity of a changing world.  The simplistic messages first adumbrated about work-life balance highlight the limitations of dividing the world into these categories.  The reality is messier, the boundaries are blurred.  In organizations in the past, the extensive application of roles in the workplace led to demarcation disputes, inflexibility and a lack of competitiveness.   Organizations with rigid structures have typically not fared well in the 21st century business environment.  Similarly those with an overly rigid sense of self, reinforced by a role label also struggle.

The third strategy is to impose routines as way of increasing predictability and reducing complexity.  Everyone knows where they are with a set of rules.  Funnily in sport, the most artificial of rule-governed environments, where doing the best within the rules is the whole raison d’etre, the rules often change from one season to the next. For instance check this site to see how the rules changed in baseball. Changes are made as players adapt and exploit loopholes or even as was the case in 1975, a shortage of horses meant they needed to find another type of hide to cover the balls!

The point is that there is always an exception to the rule.  Things change unpredictably requiring the rules or routines to change.  Rules and routines are always a response to complexity, they never lead or tame it.  Further because things are complex, the rules or routines will never be able to fully capture or anticipate that complexity.

We all have experienced the exasperation of dealing with “more than my job’s worth” little pedants – or their voice activated counter-parts, or sometimes whole bureaucracies that just cant or wont respond to your particular circumstances.   Rules, regulations, policies and the like are an essential part of life that provide a degree of certainty and consistency of expectation in human interaction, but like Goals and Roles, when applied rigidly, without finesse and wisdom, they can become rigid, inefficient, and sometimes damaging or even inhumane.

Shift 7 is about recognising the value and importance of these strategies, but seeks to add other approaches to life that transcend these attempts at trying to control and predict everything.   The move to Meaning, Mattering and Black Swans underlines the fundamental importance of these things to the human condition.

Doing things that have personal or community meaning is an important but neglected consideration in our work and organizations.  Instead of jumping straight to the goal setting tool bag to solve our problems, time spent reflecting on what is the most meaningful thing that I or we could do, may provide a bigger guiding framework into which shorter-term goals or roles or routines begin to make sense.  Having this sense of meaningful work also provides a home for wisdom – the wisdom to recognize when goals are not appropriate or should be changed or abandoned.

Mattering is a related concept to meaning and it relates to doing work that matters to us and to others.  It means doing work that resonates with our sense of calling, purpose or vision, and work that has a tangible and important positive effect on others or society.  It is about social connection and doing something useful and worthwhile. It is work as social contribution.   Again mattering is superordinate concept to Goals, Roles and Routines.   It guides us as to their use and application.

Ironically Meaning and Mattering are the things that provide the motive force to maintain Goals, Roles and Routines.  It is when we start to question whether what we are doing is meaningless or feel that is does not matter to us or to others that we begin to waiver, before getting stuck.  Often a failure to think sufficiently and frequently about Meaning and Mattering risks us following Goals, Roles and Routines on autopilot, and in so doing we do not take into account the shifting sands of our lives and the result is we run aground and get stuck fast.   As Norm Amundson points out many people (and organizations) report feeling “stuck” when they hit a crisis point.

Finally, the Black Swans refers to the term I think was termed by Nassim Taleb in his eponymous book from 2007.  He makes the point that Europeans assumed that all swans were white until a black one was discovered in Western Australia.  The point is that in many situations (more than we tend to appreciate) it only takes one thing of which we were previously unaware to change everything.  Black Swans are a reminder that what we dont know we dont know has the greatest potential to impact our lives and they are things that we cannot predict with goals, or simplify into Roles or Routines.

The presence of Black Swans in our lives (that Taleb credits for every event of signifcance in human history!) is a potent reminder of the severe limitations on our ability to predict, control, goal-set, role-set or routinize our lives.  It is a reminder that if we want to be successful in our lives, we need to do what is meaningful, what matters and to be excited and content to live with the uncertainty of Black Swans.

 

Researching Chaotically Presentation by Robert Pryor & Jim Bright

This is a presentation given by Robert Pryor and Jim Bright at the Career Development Association International Conference, Cairns, QLD, April 29th 2011.

It addresses some of the issues in researching the Chaos Theory of Careers.

 

Narrative the untold story – presentation by Jim Bright and Robert Pryor CDAA 2011

Here are the slides of a paper given by Robert Pryor and myself at the Career Development Association of Australia International Conference, in Cairns, Qld, Australia, on April 27th 2011.

It highlights the strengths, but also the limitations of the narrative approach.

 

 

What’s your story morning glory?

Have a look at the following descriptions and decide which best captures the truth about your career.

1. You became aware over time of a major dark power in your career, it could have been a parent, colleague, boss, or some physical thing such as a disability or the tyranny of distance. You spent a time thinking about this hinderance and what you could do about it. You spent some time frustrated and giving in to this power. After struggling and living with this power and almost giving up hope, you eventually summoned enough courage to overcome it, leading to a happier more content career.
2. You had nothing, maybe out of work, demoted, disillusioned or the perpetual underdog. Then circumstances threw you into having to deal with a crisis at work. No-one really believed you were up to it, and you struggled, but as time went on you got more confident and eventually succeeded where others failed or where others had doubted your ability. Your career improved markedly afterwards.
3. Things were going along just fine, until you became aware of something that really needed addressing through work such as an injustice or a need to find something out. You started to address the issue and met a lot of resistance. You persisted, but just when you think you were in sight of your goal, it was blocked by even greater resistance, indeed outright hostility. You took some knocks, but stuck to your guns and finally you came through, a little scarred, but able to say you reached the goal.
4. You decided on a course of action, without realizing just how hard or complex it would be. Initially everything went well, and you felt exhilarated by your progress. Then things started to go wrong, and just when you thought they couldn’t get any worse they did. You were on the point of total collapse and failure, when a miracle occured that rescued you from oblivion and delivered you a sweet victory. The learning you experienced transformed your outlook on work.
5. You were living in a world of work where you simply couldn’t understand what was going on or why. Nothing seemed to make sense and nothing you did seemed to be correct. Indeed every time you acted, it ended up going spectacularly wrong. You just seemed to see things differently to other people. Things got so bad and frustrating you felt like quitting until somebody with a new perspective came along and for the first time in ages you realised how deluded you and perhaps others had been, resulting in smoother sailing from there on in.
6. You had a nagging sense of need or desire, something was missing from your life. You responded to an offer from a third party, perhaps a colleague, and embarked on a new course of action. Initially you felt your needs were being met at last. However as time went on things started to go wrong, and that only changed when they got a whole lot worse. So bad indeed, that everything began to fall apart, eventually you were left with nothing, and feeling pretty abject. That pact with the third party was your demise.
7. You met someone who made your working life go really well for a while, and without knowing it you were not really in control anymore, and it was this other person who was calling the shots. Essentially your life was put on hold as this other person took almost complete control. Then out of the blue an innocent third party acted or said something that made you wake up to yourself and come out from under the spell. Suddenly you felt reinvigorated and back on track again.

The 7 different narratives above, are according to Christopher Booker (7 essential plots:why we tell stories. Continuum, 2005), the 7 different fundamental plot lines in the stories that we tell in all societies. In the order presented above they are: 1. Overcoming the monster; 2. Rags to riches; 3. the Quest; 4. Voyage and Return; 5. Tragedy; 6. Comedy and 7. Rebirth. Rob Pryor and myself have written a paper in the International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance exploring these ideas further.

From a career perspective, having insight into which plot you are using for your career narrative can be the first step in changing the plot to a more useful one for your purposes. Any one plot is merely one take on reality, and other plots might provide a better or more positive perspective to help you think about your career. So if you identified with the Tragedy story, maybe you need to start working on a Rags to riches, or Voyage and Return story instead!