In Working Identity, Herminia Ibarra shares unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. For those in mid career looking for a career change, Working Identity shares insights from a study of how people from all walks of professional life change careers. The study investigated how people in mid career change careers against current trends of mobility or greater frequency of career moves across employers and careers; reputations built from the outside of employer firms; create-your-own career paths and rise of portfolio and project careers; pursuit of meaning where enterprise is viewed as a path to deeply held identities and values; balance and flexibility where boundaries between work and non work life blur and family play more important roles than before in career choices and decisions.

Ibarra found that first, we are not one self but many selves. So we cannot simply trade in the old for a new working identity. 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 equally hard to execute that in a planned orderly way

In her research, her starting assumption, based on the work of MIT psychologist and career development expert Edgar Schein is that “changes that occur during a career transition are changes in the nature and integration of a person’s social selves and not in basic personality or patterns of psychological defences.” Research also indicates that identity changes that follow a major period of questioning and exploration are not limited only to competencies, attitudes, and behaviour, they also involve drastic reorganisation of the basic priorities and organising principles that structure a person’s life.

Her findings challenge conventional wisdom that successful career change is knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. She asserts that change usually happens the other way around: Doing comes first, knowing second. She also asserts that changing careers means redefining our working identity or how we see ourselves in our professional roles, what we convey about ourselves to others and ultimately how we live our working lives. Hence career transitions “follow a first-act-and-then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are tightly connected.” The tight connection is the result of years of action. To change it, we need to use the same method.

Most of the time, she observes, our working identity changes gradually and naturally so that we do not notice how much we have changed. Then when a desire for change comes upon us with great urgency, we get stuck trying to think our way out. As Richard Pascale observed in Surfing the Edge of Chaos, “Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting.” We rethink ourselves in the same way by gradually exposing ourselves to new worlds, relationships, and roles.

Turning to theories about evolutionary change and adaptation, she conceptualises reinventions as unfolding through iterative learning cycles in which we generate a variety of possible selves, select some for exploration, and eventually retain some and discard others. She posits that a successful outcome depends on starting a multi step process of envisioning and testing possible futures. She says, “No amount of self reflection can substitute for the direct experience we need to evaluate alternatives according to criteria that change as we do.”

She examines identity in transition of possible selves, between identities and deep change before considering identity in practice with the crafting of experiments, shifting connections and making sense of it. Finally she looks at putting these unconventional strategies to work and becoming yourself. Her summary of the Transition Process and Practices that promote successful change in her book is as set out in the diagram below.

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