A tool for teasing out your lifelong themes
The Career Timeline
While I was talking to a class of counseling students about my focus on career counseling, one student asked, “You said that your desire is to help heal the world; doesn’t your corporate background lead you to guide career counseling clients into corporate America where they wouldn’t help heal the world?” My answer was this: “fewer than half of my clients are looking for full time employment at large corporations that make widgets. By helping my clients find meaning and purpose in the work that they do, I believe I am indeed helping heal the world.”
Later I was reflecting on why someone would have had that impression – that I was somehow only oriented towards helping people find work in the corporate world. I looked at the differences between that talk and others, and realized that due to the time constraints of this particular talk, I hadn’t shared much depth about my life and career. Thus students only heard that before counseling I had a “15 year career in IT at Nike.”
People often become “resume bound” when pondering career change; they’re only able to conceive of themselves and their possible futures within the constraints of their resume. This was the mistake I had made in how I presented myself to that counseling class.
I take a holistic approach to career counseling, and a useful tool for that is the career timeline. Really, it’s not just a career timeline, but a life timeline, and it provides a launchpad for uncovering themes and threads that you might not even be aware of.
Start with a blank page – 8.5×11 is fine, but legal or tabloid size is even better. You can also use the attached PDF template. Turn it sideways and draw a line from left to right. Mark it in 5-year increments starting at birth until your age now. Below the line write all the jobs you’ve held, marking on the line how old you were when you had them.
This job list is a great starting point, but if we look at only that as the guide for what other options someone might have, we’d miss the rest of the person! So we move on to adding more layers to this timeline.
Above the line, note all the hobbies that you’ve had. This can include both things we traditionally might classify as hobbies, and just general activities. For example, if you’re a lifelong skier, enjoy reading French history, or enjoy baking, add those. Ask family about things you were excited about at an early age.
Add another layer for anything you’ve done in a volunteer capacity, even if it wasn’t called “volunteering.” An example of this could be helping a friend with MS with her adaptive computer tools so as her mobility reduced she could still communicate with the world.
Career theorist Donald Super broke down our lives into roles: Parent, Child, Partner, Student, Worker, Citizen, Leisurite, and Home-maker. Some roles don’t need explanation, but citizen in this case means working for the community or participating in politics, leisurite means having fun, and home-maker means taking care of responsibilities like cleaning, maintenance, food, etc.
Write down what role was most important to you during the stages of your life. You don’t have to use the roles I listed, but it’s a good start. Usually there is more than one salient role in a person’s life, so stack roles as necessary.
Above the roles, add your dreams. What were ideas that you had, careers you thought about, and the future you wanted? What did you want but dismissed because of what your family and society told you, explicitly or implicitly, about what someone of your gender, class, race, or culture was allowed or expected to do? Think about what others may have suggested you’d be good at, but that you resisted, not from lack of interest but because you thought you couldn’t do it.
Now, write down achievements. These needn’t be related to your current occupation in any way; raising a child, remodeling a house, finishing a project/degree, landing your firm’s biggest client are all options here. For me, a good example would be “spending 3 months designing and building for Burning Man an interactive 8×8 foot, 900 pixel LED light board that plays Pong, Etch-a-Sketch, a cellular automata simulation, and generates music.” (See below)
Putting it all together
On my first career timeline, my counseling career shift was already underway. What surprised me about my timeline is that while I thought my theme had always been “technology,” looking at it more holistically, I identified another thread: “helping others.” I had never seen that just looking at my resume!
As you look at your timeline, what themes can you find? What threads tie together your jobs, achievements, dreams, roles, and hobbies? Share your timeline with a friend, loved one, or even a career counselor to see if they find themes you don’t.
You now have a map of the past; turn the page over and write out future timelines. Start with roles, as defined earlier. Do you want the parent role to become one of the most important roles for the next ten years? Do you want to focus on volunteering and relaxing sooner? What importance will work have in your future?
Go through the other categories: Do you hope to finish some significant projects in the next 20 years? Do you hope for a particular level of professional development in the next ten years? While none of this is set in stone, it can help you understand where to direct your energy.
Counselors often have three questions we help people with: “Where are you now? Where do you want to go? How can we help you get there?” The career/life timeline is a perfect tool for helping people start drawing the map of their past that might help decide their future, while escaping the rigidity of the resume.
If this exercise sounds interesting to you and you’d like to do it together, feel free to make an appointment to work with me!