The best stories of our lives generally start with “once upon a time” and end with “they lived happily ever after” – at least the best stories I can remember from my formative years.

These days, the master narrative has shifted somewhat from those halcyon days of youth as we’ve moved into the “it was a dark and stormy night” phase of our lives thanks to the shaky economy resulting from the recession and the country’s slow climb back to economic stability. Job loss and the threat of job loss has left many of us living out dramas that we would have never considered back in the fairy tale days of our youth.

Our older son is off to college this fall and like many university freshmen he is confused about his education and career path, so as good parents we’ve put a lot of angst into the sort of advice that we should be giving our 18-year-old. Finally, after countless reiterations of the “follow your passion” speech, I’ve come across the notion of writing a master narrative for his or any other person’s career.

You start with your own version of once upon a time and end with your vision of what happily ever after looks like. For example, once upon a time there was a photographer who was also a pretty good writer, so he set out on a career as a journalist. Over time he became dissatisfied with the path his career as a photographer was taking, so he bundled up his belongings and trundled off to graduate school in quest of new and greater knowledge.

Over the years he moved from newspaper to newspaper while rising in the ranks of responsibility. That was until a series of media layoffs left him scrambling to redefine himself.

Now your narrative doesn’t have to be long. In fact, I’d suggest it only last about four paragraphs. The important thing is that you spend the last paragraph or two looking forward. Whether you’re a recent layoff victim or a college student seeking a path for his or her life, it’s important to think what your ideal career and personal situation might look like.

So the final paragraph might look something like this: So the young man moved forward not knowing what his future might bring. But amid all the uncertainty, he was sure that a quality education would be important as would a rewarding career that would secure the financial well-being of himself and his family, so they could live happily ever after.

Now I know what you’re thinking, this story-telling approach a just sounds silly and oversimplified. But by putting your thoughts and dreams down in story form you’ve done a number of things including creating the first draft of a 90-second elevator speech if you ever get asked by a hiring manager who you are and what do you want to do.

Second, it allows you to think back on the important parts of your career and lets you stroke a possibly bruised ego. Say you just got laid off from a job through no fault of your own, you probably need to remind yourself of all the good you have done since those college days, which will help you to focus on what might lie ahead.

Finally, happily ever after lets you set goals for your future, only you’re doing it on more human terms. Modern career counseling usually couches this more as goal-setting than as dream building, but for most of us telling a story is much more personal than putting a list of one-, two- and five-year goals on note cards and filing them away in a desk drawer.

So today while the snow is blowing and the winds are chilling outside, sit down at your keyboard and start with once upon a time, and don’t forget that the story ends with they lived happily ever after.