Working Identity

posted March 14th, 2011 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

The subtitle of Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra is “Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career”.  In the preface to the book, Ibarra says: “This book hinges on two disarmingly simple ideas. First, our working identity is not a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered at the very core of our inner being. Rather, it is made up of many possibilities: some tangible and concrete, defined by the things we do, the company we keep, and the stories we tell about our work and lives; others existing only in the realm of future potential and private dreams. Second, changing careers means changing our selves. Since we are many selves, changing is not a process of swapping one identity for another but rather a transition process in which we reconfigure the full set of possibilities. These simple ideas alter everything we take for granted about finding a new career. They ask us to devote the greater part of our time and energy to action rather than reflection, to doing instead of planning. Hence, the unconventional strategies.”


Ibarra says: “This book tells the stories of thirty-nine people who changed careers. It analyzes their experiences through the lens of psychological and behavioral theories. Based on the stories and extensive research in the social sciences, the book affirms the uncertainties of the career transition process and identifies its underlying principles. But the book does not offer a ten-point plan for better transitioning, because that is not the nature of the process. Instead it lays out a straightforward framework that describes what is really involved and what makes the difference between staying stuck and moving on.”


The author says: “This book is not for everyone. It is not for the person just starting his or her working life nor for the person “downshifting” or easing his or her way out of a fully engaged career. It is for the mid-career professional who questions his or her career path after having made a long-term investment of time, energy, and education in that path.”


In terms of successful career changes, Ibarra says the conventional wisdom is that the key to making one is knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. However, she believes change usually happens the other way around: “Doing comes first, knowing come second. Why? Because changing careers means redefining our working identity — how we see ourselves in our professional roles, what we convey about ourselves to others, and ultimately, how we live our working lives. Career transitions follow a first-act-and-then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are so tightly connected. The tight connection is the result of years of action; to change it, we must resort to the same methods.”


The author says her book is “a study of how people from all walks of professional life change careers”. She says looking close-up at what they really did reveals a couple of things which go against conventional wisdom. “First, we are not one self but many selves. Consequently, we cannot simply trade in the old for a new working identity or upgrade to version 2.0: to reinvent ourselves, we must live through a period of transition in which we rethink and reconfigure a multitude of possibilities. Second, it is nearly impossible to think out how to reinvent ourselves, and, therefore, it is equally hard to execute in a planned and orderly way. A successful outcome hinges less on knowing one’s inner, true self at the start than on starting a multistep process of envisioning and testing possible futures. No amount of self-reflection can substitute for the direct experience we need to evaluate alternatives according to criteria that change as we do.”


The book is divided into two parts. The first part, Identity in Transition, “describes the process of questioning and testing our working identities, eventually making more profound changes than we initially imagined.” The second part, Identity in Practice, “describes what actions throughout the transition period increase the likelihood of making a successful change.”


Ibarra starts by warning the reader that she will not offer them a ten-point plan for making a career change. However, at the end of the book she provides some general guidelines which she says emerge from the stories told in the book. In a section titled “Unconventional Strategies” she distills those guidelines into a set of nine unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. She characterizes them as follows: act, then reflect; flirt with your selves; live the contradictions; make big change in small steps; experiment with new roles; find people who are what you want to be; don’t wait for a catalyst; step back periodically but not for too long; and seize windows of opportunity.  She elaborates on these principles as follows:


Unconventional strategy 1: Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection.

Unconventional strategy 2: Stop trying to find your one true self. Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.

Unconventional strategy 3: Allow yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go. Better to live the contradictions than to come to a premature resolution.

Unconventional strategy 4: Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.

Unconventional strategy 5: Identify projects that can help you get a feel for a new line of work or style of working. Try to do these as extracurricular activities or parallel paths so that you can experiment seriously without making a commitment.

Unconventional strategy 6:Don’t focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles.

Unconventional strategy 7: Don’t wait for a cataclysmic moment when the truth is revealed. Use everyday occurrences to find meaning in the changes you are going through. Practice telling and retelling your story. Over time, it will clarify.

Unconventional strategy 8: Step back. But not for too long.

Unconventional strategy 9: Change happens in bursts and starts. There are times when you are open to big change and times when you are not. Seize opportunities.

Publishers Weekly says this book is “aimed at mid-career professionals who have invested much in careers that may no longer fully satisfy, Ibarra’s book challenges the traditional belief that a meticulous assessment of one’s skills and interests will automatically lead one to discover the right job. In reality, she argues doing comes first, knowing second.”


These days many women I meet are looking for something to do with themselves and their lives which is more meaningful. In many cases, they hope to find the single perfect answer and make the transition in one fell swoop. They want to do something completely different but have not idea what it is. I don’t believe there is one simple answer to these types of questions, in fact, I believe searching for one allows us to stay stuck exactly where we are. Hence, I like Ibarra’s approach because it calls for lots of experimentation and trial and error. She cites many examples of people who make radical transformations, one day at a time.  I think she is on to something and this book is well worth reading.


Let me know what you think!! I would love you to share your thoughts, comments, questions, feedback on this book or any other in the Comments section below or the Resources section of the Forums.




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