Changing Careers: Applying The Hero’s Journey framework into transitions

Author: Freya Tsuda MacCaie

Affiliation: University of Derby

Changing careers is a major change in life-direction and typically involves a lot of stress: education and prior work experience may become redundant; work-based friendships are lost; financial strain may occur due to lower pay; and there is anxiety associated with being an inexperienced, entry-level worker all over again. For medical workers switching professions, the years of (sometimes costly) training and a strong career-based identity may make career change an even more daunting and stressful experience. How do people cope with this instability and make their previous work experiences and the challenges they face meaningful? Our paper* explored how career changers use stories to create feelings of stability and make their work choices meaningful and valuable.

   Our qualitative study explored how career changers construct meaning through semi-structured interviews attended by workers who had changed their careers. We found that despite significant difference between their former and current careers, participants created coherent stories, which emphasized underlying and largely unchanged work-related values, needs, skills, interests and/or traits. Furthermore, while participants reported personal growth in career change, their stories described a sense of self that remained largely constant—indeed, most participants reported closer alignment between self and expression of self in work following career change. Many participants’ stories referenced childhood memories or family values. This suggests people selectively identify experiences/memories and re-interpret them to construct a story that emphasizes the relevance of past experience and bolsters the stability and coherence of a person’s identity.

  However, within their stories, participants described significant challenges, sacrifices, losses and stresses which were destabilizing, impacting both their inner worlds (mood, sense of self etc.) and their outer worlds (not having any free time, lack of money etc.). Our findings suggest that career change is complex, and involves substantial personal challenges around social identity, status and stability. However, these challenges were described within a story which typically emphasized long-term gain. As such, participants’ stories were quest-like in their description of facing and overcoming challenges in the pursuit of their goal—a career which was the right fit for their identity and lifestyle.

  Career change stories had similarities with ‘The Hero’s Journey’, a quest-story structure in which the hero is called, accepts the call and subsequently leaves his/her ordinary world for unfamiliar terrains. The hero faces and passes ordeals/tests, and is transformed and rewarded, before returning home to the familiar. Many participants’ stories evoked heroic-like notions of independence, risk-taking and bravery, describing growth and self-optimization as rewards. The parallels with The Hero’s Journey suggest that career change is highly challenging (involving trials and sacrifice) but rewarding. The Hero’s Journey story-structure supports career changers to assimilate discontinuity into a narrative of continuity by reframing disruption and challenge within a larger framework of growth and increased authenticity. The hero is transformed but returns to their world prior to the change, re-establishing stability and continuity. Thus, The Hero’s Journey is used to structure and make sense of difficult and destabilizing experiences of transition, such as career change.

  These findings suggest that The Hero’s Journey may be useful to career counselors or others looking to support people through career change or other work-based transitions, as well as various workers to apply it to their own career. Our study highlights the widely felt impacts and stresses associated with career change. An awareness of the centrality of work for some people’s identity and, relatedly, the deeply felt impacts of work-instability, may help healthcare workers support patients through challenging transitions. In the current climate of vocational instability, The Hero’s Journey may feel pertinent to the workforce as they repeatedly venture into the unknown, form alliances, overcome challenges, and return, changed, to greater familiarity and stability.

*McCaie, F. & Kotera, Y. (2020). The Hero’s Journey: Constructing continuity from discontinuity in millennial career changers’ narratives. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. Accepted Manuscript.

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