Working Identity, Unconventional strategies for Reinventing Your Career

Working Identity, Unconventional strategies for Reinventing Your Career

Summary of the book Working Identity, Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career: If you think a career change is a well-trodden path, prepare yourself to change your mind and embark on an adventure that will require you to experiment, try things out and ultimately make sense of a multitude of possibilities and even change jobs!

By Herminia Ibarra, 2003, 199 pages, Harvard Business Press

This column was written by Magali, from the blog Parents du 21èmesiècle.

Review and Summary of the book Working Identity, Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

Chapter 1: Reinvent Yourself

A common idea in career management is that, to make a successful transition, you need to know what you want to do. Then plan and act to achieve that goal. We like to think that when we wish to make a career change and reinvent ourselves, all it takes is one big decision, a big leap forward.

But in reality, successful career changes typically happen the other way around: act first, know where you want to go afterwards. These changes take a while to fall into place and give rise to a period of uncertainty.

Why? Because a completely different change of career – not just a change of position – affects your professional image: the image you have of yourself at work, the image you project to others, and the whole of your everyday professional life (workplace, how you spend every day…)

There is hardly any chance that we can discover this self-identity an inner, inflexible and purely intellectual exploration.

It would be more appropriate to envisage that we have a multitude of possible professional identities within us, and to carefully explore them through actions, new contacts, and new career roles that will gradually allow us to narrow down our criteria for choice and to finally commit ourselves to go down one path rather than another.

Part one: Identity in Transition

Chapter 2: A look at the possible options

working identity to choose

Which path to choose?

More often than not, the person who is stressed out, burnt out – or just plain dissatisfied – dreams of a change, but with no idea of what they would like to do if they could change everything.

Some people are a bit more prepared at this stage, with a long list of ideas as to which direction they would like to change to, which are generally quite “sensible” and which do not really inspire them.

And for the small minority who reach this point with a very clear idea of what to do next, well, they usually change their minds when they discover aspects of their dream job that they hadn’t even considered.

In short, no matter where we start, a real career change takes us to a completely different place compared to where we had imagined we would end up. If you try to plan for this career change, you’ll find that your initial thoughts are way off the mark.

A career change almost always starts off with a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. If we exclude the question “who am I?” which at this stage doesn’t actually have a hope of the correct answer, there are two fundamental questions to start with: “what to do? “and “how to do it?”

At this point, we can’t rely on standard career management models that advise us to target our research and cross-reference our interests, skills, and demand by job and industry. Next, make a list of “likely” jobs, similar to the one you already have, and a list of “dreams”. Then go out and look at the job market to check the feasibility of these plans. And, lastly, to initiate a search for a position in our chosen profession.

Why doesn’t this approach work? Because it ignores a fundamental aspect of our professional identity: the job we like is not defined in an absolute way, it is defined in a contextual way.

I like my job because I enjoy the professional interactions I have with my colleagues, clients, superiors, etc., because I enjoy the work environment, the organization and the pace of my work, etc.

All these contextual aspects are overlooked by typical career management models, by the lone introspective “who am I?”, by the collection of abstract and theoretical data on the job market, on the standard profile of someone who does this job or that one.

In one sentence: the only way to know if I like a job or not, is to try it out.

Chapter 3: In between 2 identities

hesitation between 2 identities

Go back to my old job or continue to move forward in bit of a haze?

This chapter describes the long and difficult period during which we float between our old professional identity – the one we have been settled in for a while, in which we have invested so many years of study, time and work – and our new professional identity, which is still unclear. This stage requires the courage to move forward towards an unknown destination, and to leave behind the activities and professional relationships that have formed our daily life and our identity for so many years.

But as unpleasant as this period is – which will involve its share of doubts, fears, confusion, and anticipation – the urge to short-circuit it is the surest way to return to where you started with no progress for your dream of a change in career.

Why is it so difficult? To walk away from a career is like a divorce. It doesn’t happen overnight. The first signs that we are no longer 100% committed to our job often occur before we are even aware of it. After that, it will generally take about 3 years from the decision to want to leave the company to the moment when you do so. It is within this time that we feel out of place in the company, don’t function at full capacity, and that the relationships with our colleagues gradually weaken.

However, the hardest part is still to come: to come up with a new career.

To do this, we will have to try out some things that are completely new to us, sometimes a few at once. The goal is to assess things more accurately:

  • The skills we possess and the skills we need to do this job
  • What our emotions tell us: “Do I feel happy to be the newcomer in this new team? Do I feel uncomfortable? Is this lack of confidence in the job manageable?”
  • Consider what the future holds: will I still like this job, this work environment in a few years’ time?

We will also have to put new business relationships to the test, identify people we would like to emulate and teams we would like to work with. The questions to ask ourselves are: “Do I want to be like them? Can I become like them?”

After all of that comes the need to make sense of these new tasks: “Why do I want to change careers? Why do I want to leave this old job? Why do I want to try to learn about this new business?”. To begin with, the answers you find will just confuse you. At this point, every chance to clarify our career path is valuable: job interviews, family lunches, discussions with fellow interns…

Once this trial process is underway – new activities, new encounters, new history – a battle between all the possible choices will gradually highlight the one that will become our next job.

We still need to know how to choose! There are two selection criteria:

  • Our feelings: Does this job make me feel good? Is it something I wish to continue to pursue? Do I want to spend the next few years there?
  • Feedback from others: do people offer encouragement as a result of our efforts, or do we come up against brick walls?

Chapter 4: A profound change

start step by step

Everything starts with small steps!

A career change will involve two types of change.

First, small steps. Even if we feel that a major change is needed, it is easier and more natural for us to start with quick, cosmetic changes. Try a new job, meet new people, train in a new skill, etc.

Even if this strategy is not sufficient, this approach of small steps is really effective. Firstly, because it doesn’t stop you dead in your tracks when you make small changes rather than a big leap into the unknown. Secondly, because the series of small steps creates a momentum… that leads to the profound change we need.

The second type of change, a profound change, will happen in the second phase. It is this one that characterizes the difference between a simple change of position and a real career change. And, unlike small steps, this process will remain virtually hidden from outside observers (colleagues, family, friends…)

To imagine what this profound change will be about, it is useful to visualize our professional choices as the accumulation of three levels of reflection:

  • 1st level: our current position, our profession, our business sector
  • 2nd level: our skills, our motivations, our work values
  • 3rd level: how we view the world.

The profound change will be on the 3rd level, how we view the world. However, the problem is that most of the time we are not consciously aware of this framework.

We take it for granted, as universal, but we don’t realize that it is personal to us. For example, our emotional relationship with institutions (submissive, rebellious, etc.), our definition of success (money, power, etc.), our preconceptions about what is and is not possible in the workplace.

It is this framework that needs to be updated and adjusted in order to create a successful change in career. If we don’t, we are doomed to fall back into the same professional roles, the same work relationships, the same type of work, the same (im)balance between professional and personal life.

Part two: Identification in practice

Chapter 5: Experimentation

The biggest mistake that you can make when you change career is if you delay your first move until you have clarity about where you want to go. This is because if you take the initiative and try out various options, you will learn more about yourself and where you want to go next.

The objective of this chapter is to introduce a range of possibilities to try out. You can try the majority of them whilst still in your current job; they are part of a strategy of small steps rather than a huge jump into the unknown.

Naturally, if you test out a few things that have been on your mind in terms of career changes, these will all help you to decide. But of equal interest, your proactive approach will open up possibilities that you may not have thought of at the outset.

Experimentation means that you try things out and see where that leads you. It’s the answer to a very simple question, “What if?”.

If you test things out, it can be in many different aspects: voluntary or involuntary (an impromptu meeting, a chance project), exploratory, for validation…

It is important at the experimentation stage to test several options at the same time, as if you do this it will allow you to compare the results of these various trials and, as a result, to update what you feel is important: “I feel really fulfilled when I do A, B leaves me disappointed” “If I could spend my days there, I would only do C”.

There is a progression in the experimentation phase. You start your approach with questions based on curiosity, very open questions “What if I tried A” and test them out with small and simple tests, which can be done in parallel with your current professional activity.

For example:

  • Start a project in your spare time, in the evening, at weekends or even if you’re on vacation; in addition to your regular job.
  • Take on a short-term assignment, either when on vacation or a sabbatical
  • Take time off to train and go back to school

But this phase should not be continued indefinitely. It is the preparation for a stage of validation, where we will no longer try things out to see if they are feasible, “What if”, but to validate our choice “Is this what I want to do?”. This stage will require a lot more of your time and effort and, generally; will require you to give up your current career in order to give yourself enough time for your new project to take off.

Chapter 6: Build a New Network

believe in you heros

Find someone who believes in you

We cannot reinvent ourselves to be able to achieve everything we want without help from others. Our professional identity develops with and through our relationships with others. And yet, there is a paradox: the people who know us best – colleagues, family, friends, etc. – are also the ones who are most likely to prevent the changes we want to make.

Even when they offer us their support, they are inclined to still view us in our previous business persona, the one we want to break away from. The same is true of all career management professionals (career management consultants, outplacement consultants, recruiters, head-hunters, etc.).

Therefore, we have to create a new network for a change in career to succeed, because no self-reinvention can occur without the support of others. It requires us to identify people who can recognize – and help us develop – a new professional image. It also means we need to identify people we admire; who we want to emulate, who we want to spend time with. To achieve this, we need to draw on new acquaintances or those from our professional network that we don’t know so well (contacts of our business contacts).

To sever the relationships, we currently have within our network and the formation of a new professional network can be a difficult process, as it has to be achieved and put together in a period where things are already a big challenge, in which we are in between two professional environments and have to work hard to identify the right people (see Chapter 3). A time when there may be a strong temptation to seek comfort with people who know us well, rather than to embark on the challenge to forge a new network.

However, what enables us to investigate new career possibilities is to connect with people on the periphery of our network (the contacts of our contacts) who can introduce us to new people, ideas, information and projects.

These new people in our business relationships can take three forms:

1. Peer groups.

The ties to these people may well lie in the past (the School A alumni society), in the present (a career assessment group you’ve participated in), in the future (for example, a group of young entrepreneurs)

2. A mentor

The role of a mentor is to provide encouragement and to demonstrate the fact that alternative ways to live and work are possible. The mentor is the one who believes in our dreams; who reassures us that we have the potential to achieve them. They are also the one who explains and makes sense of these new situations; that you experience in a career change, which can lead to uncertainty and confusion.

3. Get to know the rules of the profession

The point to teach yourself about this is so that you can learn the rules; the ways to operate, the language, the codes, etc. of the professional world that you want to join. For young graduates, to gain access to this is; generally, via internships or apprenticeships, to acquire the rules of the given field; to gradually move from a peripheral, protected role to an active role at the heart of the organization’s workforce.

For all those who follow the path to a new career; it is essential that they integrate and learn about their new role. But since nothing is institutionally provided for, it is down to the individual to identify and develop this scenario.

Chapter 7: Make sense of all of it

A career change is an adventure that needs to have meaning, both for ourselves and for others; who may not understand the reason for the change.

When we are in the middle of this transition period, in between the two different careers, many of us dream of an epiphany, a light bulb moment when all becomes clear. Unfortunately, these flashes of clarity are rare. More often than not, it will necessitate a delicate struggle to make sense of the present; to reinterpret the past, and then to form both of these into a story that makes sense of both the past and present.

Obviously, there are different paths we can choose on the road to a career change. But they are usually small and subtle. However, they can be enough to disrupt our routine; to force us to step back, to make us appreciate the options that we have available to us.

From that point onwards, it is the narrative, the story that we create from them, that will give them substance. As we tell our story to our colleagues, friends and mentors, as we experiment with different versions; as we take note of their feedback, our story will develop, and key moments will emerge.

Related articles

I invite you to discover and refer to articles and columns that touch on different aspects of work; career and even job changes:

  • The 4-Hour Week Tim Ferriss teaches you about productivity tips so you can free up your time and pursue your passions.
  • Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days In his book Side Hustle, Chris Guillebeau shares the 27 steps to help to create a side income.
  • Work. How to find joy and meaning in every hour of the day The famous Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, shares his method to create a life of happiness at work.
  • Getting More: How to Succeed at Work and in Life through Negotiation Learn the art of negotiation at work through Stuart Diamond’s book Getting More.
  • Bill O’Hanlon: How to work less and enjoy life Author of more than 35 books, Bill O’Hanlon teaches us how to work less and have more time to enjoy the things we really care about.
  • The 80/20 Principle Learn how to apply Pareto’s Law at work.
  • Changing jobs? When to think whether you should retrain? Learn more about the reality of work today.

Part three: Implement these strategies outside the box

Chapter 8: Become yourself

become yourself find your perfect job

This new job is just perfect for me!

If we knew up front what to just be ourselves actually means; a move to a new career would be so much easier. But, the fact is, we constantly evolve and change. So the usual career management advice of “know what you want” proves to be the prize that awaits us at the end of the journey; rather than the light that shines along the path to it

There is really no alternative to a long and patient examination of the possibilities. We shouldn’t rely on the light bulb moment; nor should we expect to wake up one morning prepared to take on our new professional identity. We discover our identity through action, and each new experience brings its own set of new questions and answers.

Instead of the implementation of a well-thought-out plan; you need to be prepared to go through a messy process of trial and error. A career change is not just the challenge to find work that we enjoy; and that makes sense – which is a challenge in itself! – but it also involves the adaptation of old attitudes and values into new contexts; and the ability to integrate them with new priorities in life and the discovery of new possibilities.

Conclusion on “Working Identity, Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career”:

Herminia Ibarra’s book Professional Identity is a unique, invaluable and ambitious book that should be grabbed; and read by all smart and rebellious individuals.

It contains messages dear to Olivier Roland: take action now, don’t hesitate; test your idea in a small way before you abandon everything else; go and meet people in the field that interests you…

Herminia Ibarra, author of this book, is a fulltime professor at INSEAD; and the book has been published by Harvard Business Press. Beneath the apparent simplicity of the advice, it is serious; very serious advice backed up with detailed analysis of dozens of cases of people who successfully changed their careers.

A friend recommended it to me when I was in the middle of this long road of career change; (nearly) ready to walk away from my position as a high-powered young executive in a French Blue-Chip firm; and in total confusion about what my new career path might be. This book has been my faithful companion throughout my journey of change. When I read it, it gave me the confidence to be proactive; allowed me to take the time to test a whole host of potential projects; to meet huge numbers of people even though I couldn’t answer the question “what do you want to do in life?”

In addition to the quality of the advice offered, the book, Working Identity; is an inspiration in light of the cross section of career changes that it goes in to detail about. The originality of these case studies is that they authentically present each person’s experience.

The focus is not on the “once the person has succeeded” perspective with an obvious; linear explanation of why they succeeded. On the contrary, the basis of each case study is to present each person’s experience through their change of career in an honest and detailed way: the thrill to break away from the oppressive old identity, the joy to discover new activities and meet new people, the anxiety that you won’t make it, the confusion about which activity to choose…

The cross range of these case studies will also serve as an inspiration due to the variety of possibilities they open up. Small changes – if we weren’t aware of the time and energy spent to achieve them – like this female executive in a start-up who becomes… a coach for executives in start-ups.

And the kind of changes that would deservedly make the front page of Paris Match. This psychiatrist, author of best sellers, who becomes a Buddhist monk. The trader at one of the major banks in the City of London who becomes a writer; and is asked by Hollywood to adapt his first manuscript into a film. 

Beyond that, the book Working Identity is an inspiration to me in the message I deliver to parents who read my articles on Parents of the 21st Century. Herminia Ibarra emphasizes, at length, how difficult, and even painful, a career change can be. For our children, these changes will be inevitable, in the unpredictable world that awaits them.

You won’t spare your children the pain of transition, but you can empower them with skills and attitudes that will allow them to enjoy the journey rather than moan and worry about every obstacle along the way. Here are 6 essential attitudes that you can instil in your kids:

  • love to learn
  • cultivate your creativity
  • develop critical skills to help you think
  • know how to cooperate with others
  • learn to communicate effectively, even in stressful situations
  • live ethically and take care of yourself, others, as well as your environment

Strong points:

  • Easy to read
  • Captivates you, the case studies read like a novel
  • Gives you inspiration due to the realism and diversity of the case studies
  • Solid scientific approach

Weak points:

  • The book Working Identity has not been translated into French
  • Working Identity is printed in black and white and would benefit it was re-printed with a touch of color
  • A very literary intesive text, which would be enhanced by summary sheets; and more diagrams to make it more user-friendly for day-to-day life

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