The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Finding a different song to sing


When you’ve been doing the same thing for a while, how do you find the inspiration to reinvigorate how you see your work and professional purpose?

Drawing on his own experience, Graham Holden offers five techniques to help you answer the question, ‘why do you do what you do?’

Do you get itchy feet?

As you grow as a person, so too do you shift what you want from your professional life and purpose.”

I don’t. Or at least I didn’t. I spent over 30 years working in higher education and when you’re used singing the same song, it’s a comfortable place to be. You can see your work evolving over time. But then you get the urge to sing something different, to do something different. As you grow as a person, so too do you shift what you want from your professional life and purpose.

If you’re thinking about how your professional purpose can, or has, shifted, here are some questions drawn from my own experience to help you navigate where you are now and where you might be in the future. But first, here’s how I arrived here.

How I arrived here

Two of my wonderful colleagues at Invisible Grail, Helen Teague and Louise Clifton, have written blog posts recently that really struck a chord with me as I reflected on my professional journey over the last 6 months.

In ‘What’s a professional narrative?’ Louise explores how values, voice and purpose shape our individual narratives and how these reflect ‘who we are and what we do’. Helen’s blog asks ‘are you tuning into the narrative that you are telling yourself and others’ and reflects on how this develops our sense of self.

It was time to find a different song to sing.”

Having worked for many years in higher education, I’ve found that old habits die hard and even though I no longer work in a university, the rhythm of the academic year stays with me. For all of us lucky enough to be involved in education the start of the academic year is a time of hope, of new beginnings and of excitement for what the year ahead will bring. But a year ago, at the end of a particularly long day of meetings, I found myself looking at the year ahead without my usual anticipation. A chance discussion with a colleague led me to thinking, like Rita in the film Educating Rita, it was time to find a different song to sing. A song, there is some irony here for anyone who has been unfortunate enough to hear me sing, that would enable me to express my professional identity in new ways and give me a renewed sense of purpose.

But how do you find a different song when you have been singing the same one, or at least ones from the same songbook, for most of your professional career?

Why do you do what you do?

Drawing on my experiences, here are a few simple things you could do to help you distil where you are and where you might go next:

Why do you do what you do?

Spend 5 minutes free writing on what drives you. When you’re done, pick out a few key words and phrases that distil where your thoughts have taken you. This will help you to understand why you have chosen the songs you’ve been singing.

How did I get here? Who, or what, has helped or held you back?

Draw a picture of your journey. It could be the last few months or years, or it could cover your whole career. Make sure you include the critical moments on your journey. Doing this will help you visualise your professional journey and the achievements and challenges along the way.

Why has your professional purpose shifted?

Write it down and interrogate your answer. Why do you feel this way? What has changed? What does this mean for you? Answering these questions will illuminate what has happened and why.

These first three activities should help you not only understand the journey you have taken but also to discover, or re-discover, your professional purpose. Next:

What is stopping you from singing a different song?

Spend 5 minutes writing as many answers as you can. Write each one on a separate sticky note. When you have finished read them back, placing them into groups as you do. This activity will help you to find common themes beyond specific challenges, elevating your viewpoint to the bigger picture.

What will success look like?

Now you have a renewed sense of purpose and identified a different song to sing, sit quietly for a few minutes and visualize what success will feel like. Write down three words to describe this. Doing this will help give you confidence that your new song is the right one.

I hope you found this useful. At Invisible Grail we believe passionately in the power of narrative and storytelling to enable individuals, teams and organisations to connect to their purpose and be the best they can be…just don’t ask me to sing!

This blog post was inspired by an example of a writing workshop that was shared by Heather Dyer, who is a consultant with the Royal Literary Fund.

By Graham Holden

Graham is a Client Relationship Director at Invisible Grail. An experienced leader and academic, Graham is passionate about higher education and how it transforms lives. With over thirty years of experience, Graham has led the design and delivery of transformational programmes that make a difference.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like:

What’s your story?

What are the stories you’ve adopted that shape your professional journey?

Helen Teague explores how we create our own narratives and how these can be used to help or hinder our professional growth. She asks: What chapter are you on? Are you tuning into the narrative you’re telling yourself and others? And offers some tips and questions to help guide you along the way.

A professional narrative: who we are and what we do

What is a professional narrative? How do we know when we have one? And do we even need one?

Louise Clifton explores how values, voice and purpose shape our individual and collective narratives, and how these reflect who we are and what we do.

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