Working Identity 3/4

Herminia Ibarra

Parts 1, 2.

5/ Crafting Experiments

  • The biggest mistake people are making when switching careers is delay taking a first step until the destination is clear. Most people build the new working identity via ‘side projects’, not compromising their existing jobs.

  • Experiments show where the action will lead. Some are unintentional, some are designed; they can be exploratory (to get a feel of things) or confirmatory (supporting or refuting a hypothesis).

  • Exploration is about formulating hypotheses; confirmation is about rigorously testing the preliminary conclusions.

  • After a certain point if a hypothesis starts to materialize, an exploratory approach is no longer sufficient, more decisive actions are required. These actions are easier if the new gig is based on the existing work platform – skills, knowledge and interests – creating a niche instead of jumping ship.

  • Exploration requires looking at a broad range of options to ensure comparison and necessary discrimination of options. Running multiple experiments at once allows comparing perceptions, feelings, time involved, stress levels and potential outcomes – something that can’t possibly be guessed without trying.

  • It’s OK to refuse an opportunity due to a lack of role models.

  • Early explorations are safer than career changes and effectively are diversifying the skills / interests portfolio rather than putting all eggs into a single basket.

  • Too long of an exploration becomes a self-fulfilling goal; it must lead to setting new goals and finding the means to achieve them, otherwise it becomes a defence mechanism against changing.

  • There is nothing wrong about side projects if they don’t break NDAs / non-competes. Sometimes a change of career is really doing something not too detached but viewed and positioned from a different angle.

  • Temporary assignments and volunteer work (as long as one’s cash flow allows that and the opportunities are genuine and not an attempt to get work for nothing) can work, too.

  • “Going back to school” [MK: a typical US term], getting an MBA or something of this kind is interesting, motivational, expensive and creates a feel-good bubble.

  • Experiments lead to the change of one’s personality, and even a mild success means that the person is never going back to the old self.

  • While rationality is important, it’s the emotions that are leading us towards change. And this is scary because we’re afraid of our emotional biases (rightfully so).

  • “Negotiating with yourself and losing” is a cognitive dissonance between the two versions of oneself: the rational one and the emotional one.

  • The stronger the attraction to a particular option – the easier it is to fall victim to numerous biases, especially the ones that are favouring poor options and escalating commitment to it. It’s not easy to hide such flirtation because the lack of commitment to the main job is visible. And the risk is that one can get too emotionally attached to a new opportunity way before it actually takes shape.

6/ Shifting Connections

  • When acquiring a new trade, the help from more experienced people (mentors, masters) is essential for fast skills transfer. But when changing careers, the existing connections circle can actually do more damage than help, as they reinforce the existing, and not the needed, behaviours.

  • Changing careers is about changing the people one’s spending more time with, who can become role models and admire. All reinventions require social support. And this support will come from the 2-3 circle, but not from the immediate one. The colleagues / work mentors / even major clients may provide a poor advice to stay when the move is needed.

  • [MK: a note to myself. Actually, while it’s sad of seeing friends drift away, it’s important to still do it in order to make room for new, equally fulfilling relationships.]

  • Mark Granovetter: people find new jobs via personal connections, but the weak ties at the same time (see the “2nd – 3rd circle” above). And the power of the connection or the strength of the relationship is less important than the strength and the size of another person’s network to allow the inflow of new information.

  • Close contacts bind us to our outdated identities, so they need to be politely ignored when trying new identities on. The ultimate form is brainwashing, and it works best when people are completely separated from their friends, family and others who can remind them of their old identities.

  • [MK: on a personal level, that’s exactly what happened to me in 2011 when I left my corporate job at an Australian telco Optus for a top role in a small Russian startup Aviasales. People around me suggested I beg my old employer to take me back. So yeah, I know firsthand that resisting the pressure is hard.]

  • Shifting connections requires actively finding new guiding figures, peer groups and communities of practice so that to see what could become out of you. [MK: It’s role modelling, which saves a lot of energy during the discovery phase.]

  • Shifting a peer group provides the necessary social proof (including the acknowledgement of doubts or the possibility of a new path). The more the network shifts from inside to outside the organization, the more self-fulfilling the need for a change of scenery becomes. Validation from others who’ve already “done that” is very motivating and it confirms the new beliefs.

  • Guiding figures are those who encourage the transition and teach new ways of life and work. They provide emotional support during the “in-between” period. They help people move towards their “favourite possible selves”.

  • A guiding figure reassures the person that the chosen path is consistent with their true potential. And it’s believable because the guiding figure has experience and pretty much can “look over the horizon” and also explain the things that are happening to the person as they progress in the transition. Another important contribution of a guiding figure is the reality check, setting realistic expectations.

  • Where can one find such figures? It’s a mix of luck (or perseverance), curiosity (being genuinely interested in what another person is doing) and courage (to make the first contact or to follow up).

  • Choosing a person from the weak circle is always a good idea, as one can try new identities on without disappointing someone invested in the person or without fighting an uphill battle of showing a new side of oneself to someone who knows them professionally.

  • Communities of practice are communities where one can practice the new trade and build identity in relation to the community and its members. The offer the context of the new trade (which one can’t comprehensively read in the books or on the internet) – the substance and the style. It’s not a panacea, but still a very helpful way of rounding one up. It’s a way to become an insider, with adopting not just the skills, but also the social norms, subjective viewpoints, language, demeanour and outlook.

  • Apprenticeship exists for the young; there are almost no institutional forms to do the same for the people looking for a mid-life career change. So it’s up to the community (and the new social circles) to fill in the gaps (knowledge, experience, values) in one’s new identity. A “stamp of approval” of the community is needed for the new identity to be complete.

  • The need for psychological safety can’t be overstated: there needs to be a “safe zone” (especially in the relationship with a guiding figure) that isn’t too narrow (overcontrol) or wide (lack of attention). Many people never make the move because they don’t feel they have the support from someone they respect, and/or that they have no “safe zone” where to practice their new identity. But this new base to build the new identity on can’t be close to home, otherwise the gravitation will pull the person back to the old self.

Part 4.