While browsing in a local, used bookstore, I recently came across a book, Working Identity, by Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. The review on the back jacket promised a book that “‘provides a world-shifting breakthrough’” in how we approach career transitions and figure out our career niche. If this book was able to make the world shift and it involved careers, I figured I better read it.
Ibarra proposes that we figure out what career path to take, not from hours of self-reflection, or charting ourselves into a career track based on the results of a personality test. Move over Meyers Briggs… Instead, we figure out what our next career move is by trying on different possible selves through engaging in small experiments. An experiment, for example, could be volunteering at a non-profit, doing some free consulting work, taking classes, or starting a small business on the side. These experiments allow us to test out different identities before we upend our current work identity. In other words, as satisfying as it may be to get up in the middle of a meeting and walk out, never to return – who hasn’t had that fantasy – try to hang on and pursue your interests on the weekends until you have explored your options and chosen your next strategic move.
According to Ibarra, transformation from one work identity to another is an emotionally charged process that happens slowly. We endanger our ability to find the right fit if we act too quickly or too slowly. If we act too quickly, quitting a job because we just can’t take it anymore, before we take time to try out possible alternatives, we may land relatively close to where we jumped from. If we act too slowly, debating with ourselves without ever trying out different alternatives, we may never make a move at all.
Ibarra doesn’t absolve us from being honest with ourselves about what is a good fit and what isn’t, but she removes the burden of having to figure out the destination before we start the journey.