Vocation as stories we tell ourselves about ourselves

One way to think of vocation is as a type of story that we tell ourselves and others — a story that gives meaning to our lives and structures how illustration_at_title_a_in_just_so_stories_c1912we understand who we are and what we do. It makes sense of lives as we look backward and it guides our aspirations and choices as we look to the future. No surprise, then, that a number of recent contributions to this project have focused on this topic.1

Our identity, both to ourselves and to others, often takes the form of a story. When asked, “who are you?” our first reply is usually with a name–our story’s title, as it were.illustration_at_title_b_in_just_so_stories_c1912 But if pressed for more than a name, we narrate some part of our life (or our aspirations for life looking to the future, as when a student discusses her major). Our story is always selective; we touch on the “plot changes,” the “turning points,” the central roles we play, the crucial events or revelatory experiences that, to our minds, made us who we are. However brief or extensive, we are our stories.


Metaphors for understanding narrative identity

This narrative understanding of identity has borrowed useful metaphors from the study of narrative in literature. We speak of scripts, plots, and roles, and the improvisation that draws on the “repertoire” one has seen, acquired, and rehearsed. These metaphors can help us understand how identity forms, how it adapts fluidly to changing context, and how it accommodates constraining structure while allowing for creative, free agency.

Most of our understanding of ourselves–our scripts, narratives, plots, roles, and other items in our repertoire–arises outside ourselves and is  acquired by observation, mimicry, and rehearsal. We learn our identity as others interact with us, as we are given scripts and assigned roles. We are socialized into particular roles by parents, peers, communities, and institutions. We internalize these scripts, narratives, plots, and roles by incorporating them into our self-narrative and behavioral and conceptual repertoire.

Here is the scroll of every man’s name….

Our repertoire of scripts and roles is large and can be creatively combined–mixed and matched–with improvisatorial daring and skill, creating in the process new scripts and new roles. How others react to such improvisation shapes whether the script or role goes into our permanent repertoire or is abandoned.

Empathy and imagination

Empathy and imagination are crucial to the formation of identity. We learn our scripts and roles by empathizing with mentors and role models—by imagining our way into how he or she thinks, understands, feels. Some we wish to emulate; others serve as negative examples.

Thanks to empathy and imagination, we are able, in the relative safety of our minds, to try out scripts, see ourselves in roles, and imagine the course of different plots. We can imagine different futures, short range and long. We can contemplate likely outcomes of this script or that role or the other plot given the particular context, the other actors present, our abilities and skills. We then attempt to enact our choice, improvising as we go. The hard edges of the world and its institutions may resist and turn our course. Other actors push back with their own scripts, roles, and impelling plots. We are shaped by the intersection of multiple narratives, public and private, social and institutional and personal. Our narrative identity arises out of this interaction.

Identity as a community creation

Identity and understanding are community creations.2 Consider when we encounter an unexpected situation, we often start with confusion. What really happened? What does it mean? Can that possibly be what happened? To begin answering these and related questions, we converse with others, trying out explanations, receiving feedback, modifying our account, creating in the process of give-and-take an account that makes sense. In the process, we simplify and select, and we discard that which does not “fit” and stress that which does. We reduce the ambiguity of experience to the coherence of story, confusion to understanding. To continue the literary metaphor, we author a meaningful story. Or, more accurately, we and those with whom we converse on the issue co-author a meaningful story.


This co-creative process shapes our own sense of self, the stories we tell to make sense of our own lives. We tell our tale and our listeners help us shape and reshape the tale until it “fits” and makes sense to us and to them. Employing empathy and imagination themselves, they ask questions, proffer their own take on the events, draw parallels with similar events in their experience or the experience of others, debate the pros and cons of different interpretive strategies. Through conversation we come to understand collectively.

Importantly, the communities to which we belong or with which we interact facilitate this conversational process by offering “standard” plot outlines and overarching schemata for making sense of life. Our conversational interlocutors are commonly also our community members. As fellow bearers of community plots and schemata, they become the co-creators, the co-authors of the account that we craft to make sense of our lives.

Going forward

In future posts I intend to tease out some implications for a narrative understanding of vocation. What does it mean to “discern” ones vocation in narrative terms? What happens as one acquires a longer, and longer “backstory” as one moves through life? Are the tools that are useful for discerning the story we hope our life will take up to the task of discerning where we are in mid-life or entering into our “encore adulthood”?3

I invite others to engage with these and related questions, either in the comments or with posts of their own.


1. See, for example, the essay by Doug Henry in the Scholarly Resources Project book, At This Time and In This Place.
2. See, for example, David Cunningham’s recent blog entry on vocation as “playing catch.”
3. See, for example, essays by Shirley Showalter and Catherine Fobes in the forthcoming Scholarly Resources Project book, Vocation across the Academy.



Joseph M. Gleeson and Paul Bransom, Paul, ilustrations from a collection of Kipling’s ”Just so stories” (c1912);  public domain.

CorkShakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 Scene 1, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3P422Qhttww

Petrona Viera (1895-1960), El cuentito (“The Story”); public domain.


6 thoughts on “Vocation as stories we tell ourselves about ourselves”

  1. Mark, thanks for this thoughtful post describing the nature of narrative and how welcoming community into the stories we tell about our lives helps us to shape and re-shape our vocations. We continue to follow similar paths. Glad to be on the journey with you.

    Here’s another thought from William Stafford that relates to how we both need community and need a sense of self (thread) as we create our narratives:

    The Way It Is

    There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
    things that change. But it doesn’t change.
    People wonder about what you are pursuing.
    You have to explain about the thread.
    But it is hard for others to see.
    While you hold it you can’t get lost.
    Tragedies happen; people get hurt
    or die; and you suffer and get old.
    Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
    You don’t ever let go of the thread.

    1. Thanks, Shirley!

      The poem captures an important insight. The challenge, of course, is to discern the true thread, and to realize that threads may twist and can even break, only to be tied together with another loose end.

  2. Thanks for the insightful post, Mark. I am really interested in this idea. The section on “Identity as a community creation” reminded me of a very powerful quote by Wendell Berry: “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.” (1). Looking forward to the next one!

    1. Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the Future” in The Long-Legged House, pg. 71.

  3. A lovely piece! My favorite sentence:
    “Through conversation we come to understand collectively.”
    Here, Mark has quite elegantly described an essential remembering stone in our calling as communities.

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