Working Identity 4/4

Herminia Ibarra

Parts 12, 3.

7/ Making Sense

  • Making sense is a practice of putting a frame around experience: interpreting what’s happening today, reinterpreting past events and creating compelling stories that link the two (direct quote).

  • Knowing someone (i.e. predicting one’s behaviour) is possible if you know one’s past stories unveiling their motives and circumstances.

  • Most of the time we’re in the inconclusive phases of changing our minds about various things, without being consciously aware that we are. Alert intermissions are events that tip the scale towards a decision or epiphany about what possible self to become. Such alert intermissions are not random events, they are all over us, it’s just we single them out when they resonate with what we’re doing.

  • Alert intermissions may offer a new frame for our stories, getting us unstuck. So a simple change of frame creates a story that makes sense. And they arise not when a person is thinking deep about the solution, but rather during the “hands-off” period, being an outsider to one’s own problem.

  • Insights are not life stories. Stories have the mandatory “before” and “after” parts, and insights allow reframing and retelling the “before” bit to make it a logical precursor to the “after” part. Drama is unnecessary but is good for convincing others.

  • One can’t recognize a turning point until the end is in sight, then certain (and not all) alert intermissions start making logical sense in the transformation story; during the process some events may be thrown away as incompatible with the clear narrative.

  • To reiterate, making sense consists of three parts: taking advantage of events to reconsider our own selves, stepping back to observe oneself and let insights emerge, and using the events and our interpretations to rework our story.

  • A coherent life story is a living organism requiring constant review and forward thinking.

  • [MK: the usual change management framework is applicable here: unfreeze —> move —> refreeze]

  • Unfreezing events challenge long-held beliefs and cherished self-conceptions. Examples: getting fired or receiving a bad performance review. In these two cases people’s beliefs that they’re in control of their careers are shattered. Such events can be ignored or (better) contribute to self-awareness.

  • Once the unfreezing starts, during the transition period every new event is perceived as a reinforcement of the past event that triggered the unfreezing. This gives a row of confirmation events for the need to change and the proof that the situation is not going to improve itself over time unless some decisive actions are taken.

  • Other examples of unfreezing events can be bad (loss of a family member or a friend), joyful (marriage, birth of a child), professional (completion of a huge project or a corporate transaction), etc.

  • Stepping back from a problem may cause all pieces to click into place, making sense of disparate bits of information and experiences. Recombination can’t occur when the person is deep inside the problem – it’s very similar to innovation via recombination. Then acting on the new picture of the existence becomes much easier.

  • Stepping back helps look at the old and the new and clearly see (not just feel) the incompatibilities, which have to be resolved.

  • Any change has a window of opportunity after which any effort one puts in become wasteful. Spending too much thinking and planning (as mentioned above) brings the person back to the old circumstances and environment.

  • Personal stories are about the key experiences that mark our paths, the meanings we attribute to these experiences and the common thread(s) linking the old and the new. This common thread is essential to convince others (and oneself) that the new self is the logical transition and fits the narrative really well. I.e. why the change is/was needed, who one is becoming and what’s the path to the new identity. This is a very iterative story as it’s impossible to get it right before lots of events and adjustments unfold. And the pitch needs to be internalized; one has to truly believe it [MK: what’s the point of lying to oneself?].

  • The beginning of the transition, when there’s no story, but a long list of possible selves, is depressing. This long list highlights the risk of making the wrong choice [MK: as if there’s only one right choice]. No story = we’re considered being unfocused, so there’s no respect or help from others.

  • Public declarations (making not achieving the promise a hit on one’s reputation) about the desired outcomes and the means to achieve them may help enlist others in achieving the transition. And the story effectively adjusts itself to match the values of those who responded positively to the declarations, thus creating a narrative.

  • Insight into what to do is not a cause of transition, it’s an effect. There’s no epiphany, there are multiple actions that shape our stories, and some of them can be (in hindsight) considered important.

8/ Becoming Yourself

  • The “know yourself” motto is useless as only the people who’ve already discovered themselves can make this claim.

  • Change is the row of cycles of identifying and testing possibilities, each time asking better questions and getting better answers. Speed of trying / implementation is very important, but actually pursuing a variety of experiments (i.e. planning) is essential, too, because this leads to trying not just the preferred options, but also the things that are not as promising.

  • Mid-life career changes are about figuring out how to transfer old preferences and values to new and different contexts and how to integrate those with changing priorities and newly blooming potential. Thus, the solution is never the job change in itself, it’s a journey to a more enjoyable self.

  • Professionals (consultants, lawyers, academics, doctors, etc) are much more likely to cut the old ties close to the point when their new identity is substantially formed; also it’s easier for them to find a new career. It’s easier for them to manage their time and take work home if need be – something a retail employee can’t physically do. They also have wider and better networks than others.

  • Managers are in a bigger trouble because of the “tunnel vision” because of the work structure (endless meetings, 1:1s, etc),  inability to take a step back and giving in to the relentless indoctrination of their firms.

  • The less flexibility people have in their jobs – the longer the sabbatical they need to unwind. Management education (and the break surrounding it) is cool but is usually not long enough to fit the opportunity window. Women are better understood when they announce the need to reinvent themselves (many reasons).

  • The outcome is usually positive for the people who didn’t hesitate to ask, albeit a few false starts may take place. The intermediate issues are (among others) low income for a period of time, lack of intellectual stimulation for the sake of stability, emotional insecurity.

Unconventional strategies

  1. You can’t discover yourself by introspection. Act.

  2. There’s no one true self, focus your attention on which of the many possible selves you want to test and learn about.

  3. Don’t resolve the cognitive dissonance too early, it’s OK to be split between the two worlds – old and new.

  4. There can’t be one big win; any successful transition is based on a series of incremental gains slowly changing us – and making us ready to bring about and accept the outcome.

  5. Don’t fantasise – try the new things in bite-size projects to get the taste without the necessary commitment.

  6. It’s less about the work and more about the people who can guide and support you in your new attempts – but they must be from outside your current close circle.

  7. Truth is revealed in hindsight. Working on one’s story and integrating new experiences (and rethinking past experiences) is more productive than waiting for an a-ha moment.

  8. Major decisions need a helicopter view, which can only be obtained by stepping back from the problem. But the novelty of being an outsider wears off and the existing setup siphons you back unless you act.

  9. Windows of opportunity don’t only open, they close, too. Others need to know that you’re ready for something new, otherwise it’s an uphill battle.