Career Counseling: A Narrative Approach


Larry Cochran

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    The twentieth century enterprise of vocational guidance emphasizes objectivity in helping individuals select and succeed in occupations. As an applied science, guidance uses rational decision making to logically match individuals to fitting occupations. Guidance personnel make the match by comparing an objective picture of the individual's talents, interests, and goals to the ability and personality requirements of jobs. Preeminent vocational psychologists such as Holland and Super have characterized guidance as a translation service in which the counselor portrays a client's vocational identity and then translates that identity into viable occupational roles. The translation from “psychological talk” to “occupational talk” can even be made without a counselor. For example, in responding to the Strong Interest Inventory, an individual portrays his or her identity when answering the questions, the scoring keys contain the occupational requirements, and the computer matches the two using “true reasoning” as recommended by Parsons. This same translation process can be conducted without a computer, although human scoring errors can reduce the accuracy of counselor-free interventions such as the Self-Directed Search.

    In providing vocational guidance, counselors do more than just translate vocational identities into occupational possibilities. They also represent the community to the client as they try to enhance world-of-work knowledge and increase choice realism. As a representative of the community's common sense, a counselor uses normative data from tests and occupational information from pamphlets to educate clients about occupational realities and their possible and probable options. What has all too often been absent in guidance interventions is counseling that focuses on a client's private sense. Guidance, with its reliance on the scientific techniques devised by applied psychologists, overemphasizes the objective dimension of career development. Although traits provide a convincing basis for making actuarial predictions, they do not comprehend human purpose and passion

    The subjective dimension of career development involves the private meaning of work and occupational choice. While publicly wanting to be a career counselor to help people, an individual can privately want to be a counselor because her parents could never obtain good jobs or because he cannot decide what he wants to do with his own life. By augmenting techniques that are objective, public, rational, and scientific with methods that are subjective, private, emotional, and literary, the counselor can deal with the person as well as with traits. The wholeness embodied by simultaneously examining public reasons and private yearnings transforms vocational guidance into career counseling.

    As long as there has been vocational guidance, there have been a small number of guidance workers who perform career counseling. They attend to the whole person: both objective identity and subjective self-concept. Generally, these career counselors have been of two types. Following in the tradition of William James, Gordon Allport, and Henry Murray, the first type uses autobiographical and personological approaches to facilitate life choices. They have often been criticized for taking too long and for lacking valid evidence for their techniques. The second type follows the psychodynamic tradition. They ease decision making by using depth psychology constructs and psychoanalytic insights. They are criticized for emphasizing psychopathology and for being too intimate. Today, 90 years after the founding of objective vocational guidance, counselors are still struggling to devise time-efficient and cost-effective models and methods for making vocational guidance more personal and career counseling more easily learned. Enter Cochran.

    In Career Counseling: A Narrative Approach, Professor Cochran proposes and proves that the subjective dimension of career development can be addressed by literary models and constructivist methods. Furthermore, he shows counselors how to do it with innovative materials that are efficient and effective. He sagaciously asserts that guidance workers should add innovative subjective methods to their traditional objective techniques, not abandon interest inventories, aptitude tests, and occupational information.

    In explaining his model, methods, and materials, Cochran provides one of the first books on career counseling. Yes, we have numerous books with “career counseling” in the title, but these books are really about vocational guidance or applying career development theories to the practice of career intervention. In this book, Cochran is the first to elaborate in such fine detail a career counseling theory—one that invites counselors to make career interventions more personal. After reading this book, I remain ready to help my clients match their vocational identities to fitting occupations, yet I am now better prepared to also help them emplot their identities into the greatest story they will ever tell—their own lives.

    Mark L.SavickasNortheastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine


    Traditionally, the practice of career counseling has emphasized an objective perspective. Through assessment of the person and exploration of occupations, an objective portrait of the person is matched to critical factors of work. If the match is good—if interests, values, and abilities are congruent with the demands of a chosen line of work—the person is expected to have a more stable, productive, and satisfying career. Drawing on an increasingly sophisticated reserve of tests, workbooks, computer programs, and occupational information, the objective approach is direct, sensible, and beneficial. Yet it is quite limited, and inevitably so, because it neglects the subjective perspective that a person lives. To appreciate what is neglected, consider another view of career decision, extrapolated from William James (1892/1963).

    Career counseling is concerned with the kind of main character to be lived out in a career plot. Suitable employment is not only about matching, but also about the proper vehicle through which a certain character can be enacted in a certain kind of drama. From the multitude of possible selves that might be actualized in work, a person must settle on but one or one small set. Otherwise, living out one character would soon conflict with another character. A person might want to become a wealthy entrepreneur, a sports star, a renowned academic, an adventurer, a missionary, and so on; but the ideals and strengths of one would preclude or confound the ideals and strengths of others. “To make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out one on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real. Its failures are real failures, its triumphs real triumphs, carrying shame and gladness with them” (James, 1892/1963, p. 174).

    Hovering in indecision preserves potential, preserves the multitude of possible selves, but at the expense of any distinctive and enduring actualization of character. Yet in exploring the occupational possibilities for actualizing a character, some are confining, some distorting, and some too compromising. To decide too quickly or carelessly might yield an actualization of character that a person could not avow, resulting in a deformation of envisioned potentials. However, a person must not hover too long, or potential might become wasted potential. A person might avoid failure, for one does not fail in projects one has not tried or adopted as one's own; but a person does not succeed either. Rather, the opportunity to actualize a possible self, a possible life, dwindles in suspension.

    The central problem of this book is not matching, but emplotment; that is, how a person can be cast as the main character in a career narrative that is meaningful, productive, and fulfilling. For some time, scholars have been dissatisfied with the limits of the objective tradition, but have had no way to offer an adequate alternative. There are many fine theories that might provide a basis for a richer, deeper form of career counseling, but these theories are typically quite difficult to translate into a viable practice. For example, personal identity might be noted as an important influence on career development, but it is conspicuously absent in practical recommendations. The purpose of this book, then, is to describe a subjective approach to career counseling that emphasizes meaning and meaning-making while retaining the merits of the traditional, objective approach.

    Described in chapter 1, the basis for making meaning in career is narrative. As Howard (1989) noted, “People tell themselves stories that infuse certain parts of their lives and actions with great meaning and de-emphasize other aspects. But had any of them chosen to tell himself or herself a somewhat different story, the resulting pattern of more-meaningful and less-meaningful aspects of his or her life would have been quite different” (p. 168). The task of career counseling is to help people construct and enact more meaningful career narratives. Accomplishing this task requires an understanding of narrative resources for making meaning, criteria for adopting a narrative as one's own, and the relationship between narrative construction and enaction, between the reflective spectator on life and the active participant in life.

    Chapters 2 through 5 are concerned with practical ways to implement a narrative perspective. Seven episodes of career counseling are described. An episode is a unified set of events that stand out from other events as of distinctive significance. Episodes can be arranged sequentially as steps, cyclically as phases, or contemporaneously as waves. They are viewed as basic units of career counseling that can be flexibly applied in any given case. The first three episodes involve ways to construct a career narrative. The next three episodes involve patterns of action that enact or actualize narrative. The last episode, crystallizing a decision, is a bridge between construction and enaction.

    The final chapter broadens the context of counseling to include cultural narratives that guide or misguide individuals. In particular, attention is given to the way career situations are narrated and to how career counselors might revise or restore workable narratives. Although career counseling requires a larger perspective of a course of life, the realities of everyday life demand a specific focus on situations in which the larger vision is worked out.

    This book was written for scholars and professionals who are concerned with career development. Specifically, it is directed toward career counselors and advanced students in the field. More generally, it is intended for scholars who have been concerned with shortcomings in meaning that are experienced in working. In a striking image, Klapp (1969) likened the social system to a play or theatrical performance, asking: What if we are defective in role casting? Then the social system becomes a disenchanting play in which “most of the actors are dissatisfied with their parts; or, worse, extras standing around with no parts at all” (p. 14). Career counseling is an established profession of “role casting,” one of the social system's ways of assuring a more enchanting play. It is toward this end that a new theoretical approach and practice was developed.

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    About the Author

    Larry Cochran is a Professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology, University of British Columbia. Author of six previous books, his most recent works involve studies of major life decisions, a sense of vocation in career, and the ways in which individuals become more potent agents in shaping a life. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals concerned with career counseling and development.

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