How To Change Careers? A Review of 'Working Identity' Idea

Of the books I read recently, Herminia Ibarra's Working Identity made a lasting impression. Despite my deep aversion to the simplistic and formulaic style of business books, and this book is no different, it resonated for two reasons. Professionally, I am exploring solutions to the difficulty of education-to-employment transition, and my experience at the fault-line tells me that this arises, in the first place, because of the divergence of realities of commercial work and that of the college; the students arrive at work without resolving who they are and what they would like to, and struggle to fit in increasingly unforgiving workplaces pursuing the illusive idea of perfect candidates. Further, personally it has been appropriate too, as I am at the very point of questioning whether it is worth living my life the way I am doing now. I may already be in my second career - moving from one country to another and transitioning into Higher Education I have already done - but I do not see this as the final one; I would still want to explore the potential of my writing, study history and do International Development work, and therefore exploring various paths and options.

So, what is really interesting in Professor Ibarra's thesis? Its starting point is that we all have a fixed identity, one true self, and we should plan to find a career that allows us to 'be ourselves' is wrong. Indeed, this assumption of a 'true self' underpins the huge and profitable Personality Testing industry, as well as various 'walking-on-hot-coal' programmes. However, this may indeed one of the big reasons that create so many career crisis, both mid-career, as Prof Ibarra's case studies illustrate, and even early career, as I have seen first hand. Surely, the fixation with true self, and of finding it, is more mid-career than for someone just out of college, but the career counselling industry and parents just thrive on matching pupils to 'best fit' careers. The problem is when the career landscape is shifting, as it is now, neither the careers our parents desired nor the ones Career Counsellor's handbook recommend are quite useful.

Instead, Professor Ibarra suggests that we may have several possible identities, and a successful career change (equally applicable for career choice for a college graduate) should start with experimentation -'test and learn' as she calls it. So, instead of taking time to introspect, or waiting for tests and career counsellors to tell what one should be doing, opening one's mind, engaging in various activities and rejecting the ones that do not fit, is what makes a successful career change.

This indeed means chaos, strain and tension during the period of change, but this should be embraced rather than feared. The point why experimentation nd exploration lead to better career choice is because there is no rulebook, regardless of what various competency theorists would claim, and tacit, rather than explicit, knowledge of various kinds of work and career what the person would need.

In essence, then, Professor Ibarra's suggestion to people like me is to assume an 'Working' (interim) identity - rather than trying to fit everything around us to one true self, it is about declaring to the world that we are searching. Finding careers is indeed like dating, as one of my colleagues say, and not to settle too soon may indeed be the key to success. The three steps that Professor Ibarra suggests - Crafting Experiments (doing various kinds of work and taking training), Shifting Connections (Building new networks) and Making Sense (Reflecting and Learning from experience) - are perhaps common sense, though these are easier to do for Senior Executives of Independent Means (for whom Prof Ibarra is writing) than average people, and particularly students.

My idea is indeed to facilitate just this kind of experimentation, by creating a safe environment where students can do various kinds of work, connect with people of different interests and professions, and make career choices. I have started calling this an Enterprise School, something that sits alongside college and which should facilitate this transition from being a student to a professional. My current work, too closely linked with specific employers and specific jobs, does not allow such experimentation, and yet, this has become a holy grail of the employability conversation - affirming whether there is a job in the end! Professor Ibarra's work allowed me to see the education-to-employment transition problem in a new light, and clarified why finding job mandates is not going to solve the career choice problems (though it may be commercially popular).

As for myself, this gives me a framework which I have done in the past. I have always crafted experiments - right now, I am in the middle of one - and my networks and engagements shifted accordingly. This blog, I shall claim, is my continuous making sense pience, not just I set the agenda for myself here but also take stock. And, these three together helped me through at least one major reinvention of myself.


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