Working Identity 2/4

Herminia Ibarra

Part 1

3/ Between Identities

  • Transition is painful and takes longer than anticipated. It can easily take years even while the person is still employed; they just create new identities and see if they fit.

  • It’s a process of still being attached to the old self, not fully being the new self yet. Because it’s iterative, at no time the final identity is clear. It’s the range of possible options that is valuable, it ensures the decision to cut old ties is made no earlier than it’s practically needed.

  • It’s hard to let go of the old self partially because that “old self” was the desired “new self” at an earlier point in time, with time and efforts invested into becoming one. And it’s a huge emotional sacrifice to let go of the old self.

  • Change itself is a tip of an iceberg: the urge for a change may be brewing for years before the leap.

  • A transition is also reflected in the weakening of existing ties at work (i.e. a mutual withdrawal), the person implicitly leaves the inner circles of others and this is an irreparable damage to the relationship. And the new circles haven’t been built yet (or the level of trust is still low).

  • Leaving an old identity behind is associated with “disidentification” or “disenchantment” erasing some of the possible future scenarios. This hurts even more if the relationship with a role model is severed, leading to the loss of a substantial portion of one’s identity.

  • Oscillating between possible opportunities gives one the ability to come up with new and better ways of integrating the “before” and “after” selves. Insufficient time for such exploration may lead to poor irreversible decisions.

  • The “reinvention practices” should be rooted in action (making new contacts, trying new activities) and not in imagination, which is too abstract and self-consuming. This means trialling new activities.

  • The people bit is harder, as one has to trial relationships and effectively look for new role models (while loosening grip on the old ones).

  • One’s personal narrative also undergoes transformation: one has to have a consistent story of personal change, based on new values, interests, aspirations and simply new knowledge. Such consistent story is for not only public consumption, but also for reinforcing personal decisions. It’s hard to reconcile all aspects of one’s life with a narrative as certain things are quite incompatible (say, it’s hard to commit 80 hours a week to a job while raising a family).

  • Doing various things (with a lower quality than anticipated, for quite some time) all at once during the transition leads to constant dissatisfaction and an “impostor syndrome”.

  • People become fragmented, not whole. And this poses a problem, as prolonged exposure to such fragmentation leads to negative mental health outcomes. But the longer one can tolerate this, the usually better the transition outcomes become.

  • This variety has to be reduced using the “gut feeling” (what feels right) and the feedback from valuable others (verbal and non-verbal responses to one’s trials and errors). Discarding opportunities is essential for the development of one’s working identity.

4/ Deep Change

  • Reinventing is about small adjustments in course and deep shifts in perspective. Small adjustments accumulate, slowly changing the view on the world and oneself – until the old frame collapses under the weight of new information and circumstances. The perspective, thus, has to be reinvented to match the new assumptions and their weights.

  • However, interrupting the reinventing process too early doesn’t allow for a new perspective to fully form and internalize and can throw the person back to square one along with the need to repair the self-inflicted damage.

  • Since there’s no one major jump from old to new, the transition is about taking on actionable projects (having objectives, beginning and the end), changing them one at a time. A row of small wins makes the big goal emerge faster and look less scary, i.e. one’s thinking doesn’t get paralyzed or avoiding serious decisions.

  • It’s no surprise the first problem to solve for most people is securing cash flow; the second is the need for constant expansion of the network. Small wins are good at building goodwill with the network.

  • The need for a change may come out of the unbearable external pressures (office politics, inability to juggle family and job) or the need for self-actualization (inability or unwillingness to suppress values, emotions and aspirations any longer).

  • A job change is NOT career reinvention, as the depth of internal transformation in the latter is much bigger but is also invisible to the outside observer.

  • Career anchors are the competencies, preferences and work-related values that we would be unwilling to give up if forced to make a choice.

  • Another hard thing about transition is letting go of the “ought self”, i.e. the fear of others’ perceptions of oneself. And the more successful the current employer is – the deeper it is internalized within the person to the point that one believes they are the company (or, less pathetically, one is essential or indispensable to the company). Poor work-life balance is the direct result of being the company, not being in the company.

Part 3.