Working Identity 1/4

Herminia Ibarra

I’m grateful to my INSEAD classmates for recommending this book.

1/ Reinventing Yourself

  • Career transition is very rarely a planned process when thinking comes first; action usually comes first – and transforms the working identity of a person. It’s not instantaneous, it’s a gradual (and painful) process when reconsidering multiple possibilities. And it’s not a planned process: the successful approach is jumping on multiple stepping stones, each of them being one of the possible futures based on the past decisions. And in hindsight this process can be rationalized backwards to make an inspiring story for others.

  • The best investment of time is not into tasks but into relationships. [MK: It’s a cliché but never hurts to remind myself of it.]

  • The transition phase into a new working self is essential because one doesn’t give up their current professional career (built on blood and tears) unless there’s an alternative. An alternative is effectively a possible new self that will emerge should a person take a particular route or make a certain decision. Another part is recognizing that the current self is outdated (hence the need for a change) and the past aspirations are no longer relevant. A “feared” self is someone the person will become should they do nothing and just keep doing what they’re doing.

  • Change is hard not because new things are hard to grasp, but because we’re too stuck with the old selves and the tried-and-true ways of doing things that need (at least partial) undoing.

  • The transition is lingering between identities – the old one that puts food on the table – and the new one that is not firm or clear, but which creates new opportunities.

  • The attitudes towards money and risk are very persuasive and hard to let go [MK: I’ve come through near poverty in my early career, so it still haunts me occasionally]. This is what makes a person “rational” and making sacrifices for something unknown and unclear is irrational.

  • The person’s “internal state” (talents, goals and preferences) is how the West defines a person. Hence any change must be rooted in the introspection (i.e. deep reflection into oneself) leading to the choice of compatible opportunities.

  • “… identities change in practice, as we start doing new things (crafting experiments), interacting with different people (shifting connections) and reinterpreting life through the lens of the emerging opportunities (making sense).” [this is a direct quote from the book]

2/ Possible Selves

  • The “conformist” way (the usual career switching process, which is more of the same) and the “nonconformist” way (passion —> living or personal interest —> small business). [MK: I’ve long argued that the nonconformist way is actually running from reality and is a hidden form of unemployment.]

  • Any change has two aspects: what to and how to.

  • The “plan-and-implement” model is a traditional one: you imagine an end goal and work backwards to it. But the recommended process is actually bottom-up (your skills and wishes define what you can achieve).

  • The model is quite logical…

Research career fields: make the most of what you like and what you can to find the best opportunity.

Develop at least two different tracks or lists of ideas: one for “more of the same” and another one for “completely different and maybe crazy”.

Go out into the market for a reality check: fond out the like-minded people via networks, professional groups and random coffees. [MK: mind you, this takes years]

Decide on the target and settle on the plan to achieve it: it sounds so emotionally easy.

  • ... kind of. It relies on the “analyse-execute” framework, which is unfortunately flawed because if one keep analysing, the range of opportunities widens, and widens, and at some point in time it will make sense to actually start satisficing. It’s not a straight line, but rather a series of iterative steps.

  • The end result doesn’t exist (neither it’s known) at the beginning of the journey. And the person at the end of the journey is not the one who started it.

  • The “who am I” question is posed in instances when a person receives negative feedback / experience prompting the person to question their assumptions about oneself. Another (more kind) version of this question is “which of the possible identities, which I could try, interests me the most?”.

  • The traditional approach is trying to figure out the person’s “true self” (via various tests) and avoiding incompatible experiences. Through introspection the person understands their inner motivations and makes more independent decisions as they mature. The issue with the “true self” is that it doesn’t exist and is thus unachievable (but the neurosis of never achieving it is real). This leads to not making any decisions. Also, introspection replaces action; executing a carefully crafted plan made though introspection (i.e. without rounds of feedback) will never work.

  • In reality we have different identities (past, existing and future), which define our behaviours and role models. The more we like the possible selves, the higher the pressure to conform to it.

  • The “possible selves” list is a rational thing to do. It also includes safe options, crazy options, scary options, etc. It’s easy to overanalyse it and never making a decision on the option to start implementing. And the decision needs to be taken and acted upon quickly, otherwise in addition to the existing stress the person also gets a decision paralysis.

Part 2.