I want to tell you about a terrific way to find clues that can help you discover what you’d be happiest, and most fulfilled, doing in your career. It’s called The Life Stories Exercise (also known as The Seven Stories Exercise, trademarked by The 5 O’Clock Club).
This powerful (and free!) tool won’t tell you what type of job to do next, but it will show you which factors to look for to have a satisfying career with purpose. I often use this exercise with clients in my semi-retirement coaching practice. And I’d say that some version of it is at the core of most coaching work — and career advice books.
In a moment, I’ll provide step-by-step instructions for the exercise and explain the Personal Profile Summary worksheet that accompanies this post. But first, let me share a real-life example illustrating how useful The Life Stories Exercise can be.
Look for the motivators, skills, strengths and values that enable you to be most successful and fulfilled.
One Woman Finds Her Calling
A few years back, I coached a woman who wanted out of her corporate HR job, but didn’t know what to do instead. After completing this exercise, several key themes about her motivations, skills and interests emerged: Growing up, she adored playing piano and majored in music in college. Throughout her life, she has gravitated towards teaching roles — offering piano instruction to friends for free and helping co-workers master new software (even though that was not her job). After completing The Life Stories Exercise, it became clear that she was happiest working in team-oriented environments, but struggled in competitive corporate cultures.
Today, she teaches music part-time at a school, gives private piano lessons and hosts music-themed birthday parties for preschoolers. It’s work she loves with clients she adores — a far cry from her corporate life.
I’ve seen this exercise yield similar results with other clients. It’s not quick. But if you’re ready to gain clarity about your next steps and willing to invest time to achieve a more satisfying future, here are the five steps to do it:
5-Step Instructions for The Life Stories Exercise
STEP 1: Create a list of at least 25 enjoyable accomplishments over different phases of your life, from childhood to the present. This exercise can take a few days to complete, so keep a pen and pad (or your phone) handy to capture ideas as they come to you.
Now, before you panic and think, “But I don’t have 25 accomplishments!” let me emphasize that in this exercise, an accomplishment is defined as a challenge that you met successfully and feel good about. It doesn’t need to be work-related or anything grandiose. The accomplishments can be connected to your personal life (past or present) or volunteer activities. It just needs to be an activity that you enjoyed doing and did well.
For example, here are some accomplishments my clients have chosen:
- Planned a six-course dinner party to surprise my husband for his birthday
- Kept my children happy and successful in school during a difficult divorce
- Promoted to manager of my department
- Ran a half-marathon
- Convinced my mom to let me sew my own Halloween costume
As you can see, those accomplishments include all kinds of events, situations and levels of achievement. It’s important to note that accomplishments need not be connected to happy events. In fact, some of your most meaningful accomplishments might involve painful moments, such as when you successfully dealt with a childhood bully.
STEP 2: From the list, select your top seven accomplishments (the ones that are the most meaningful and significant to you). I generally recommend selecting at least one from each of four time periods: childhood, adolescence, professional life and personal life. Then, add three from any time period. Just be sure to choose seven; research shows that’s the number needed to detect patterns.
STEP 3: Write a detailed step-by-step description of each accomplishment. These are your Life Stories. Use a separate page for each. Feel free to use either bullet points or narrative, but try to be as descriptive as possible.
For each description, answer these five questions:
- What motivated you to take action? (For instance: I didn’t want to depend on my parents for spending money or I liked proving I am responsible.)
- What skills/expertise did you enjoy using? (such as math skills, customer service or good communication skills)
- What does this accomplishment reflect about your motivating values? (For example: I tend to be motivated by money… I’m eager to please… I enjoy being independent)
- What personal characteristics and strengths are demonstrated by this accomplishment? (i.e.: strong work ethic; persuasive, pleasant personality; forward-thinker; work well under stress)
- What was the subject matter, interest area or focus of this accomplishment? (Examples: family, community, work, hobby, religion, personal wellness)
STEP 4: Look for the common threads that run through your stories. By that, I mean the motivators, skills, strengths and values that enable you to be most successful and fulfilled. Download the Personal Profile Summary worksheet WHERE SHOWN and record your findings.
Some patterns will be easier to detect than others. If you get stuck, or you’d enjoy another perspective, run your stories by a trusted friend. You’ll be amazed by how easily others see patterns about you that you struggle to identify.
STEP 5: Refer back to your Personal Profile Summary as you research options and evaluate them for fit with your motivating skills, interests and strengths. Think of this part like an internal GPS that will make it easier to target satisfying work options and help guide your choices as you move forward. Good luck!
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