Working Identity Book Review

Working Identity by Herminia IbarraI just sped through Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra because it’s due back at the library today and I can’t renew it. Ahh – the pressure of library due dates. I know technically I could just ignore them and hold onto books for another week without incurring any fees or punishment but out of respect to my librarian mother I just can’t bring myself to bend rules like that. So I live under the constant pressure of which book is due when. I really should start controlling myself when it comes to how many holds I place at a time. Inevitably I find 3-4 books all waiting for me at once, all non-renewable because another 50 people after me want them. Talk about the woes of a bookworm.

Anyway – this book had some gems and while it focuses on the process of midlife career transitions, there was a lot of connection and crossover between two other books I hope to be blogging about soon, The Gifts of Imperfection and Transforming Conversion. While its intention was to describe how people move from one “working identity” to the next, it seemed highly applicable to personal growth and the process of coming to faith.

Ibarra’s work focuses on people who realize they are no longer satisfied in their chosen careers:

When the question “Who am I?” reasserts itself long after we thought we’d figured it all out, it is usually motivated, at least in part, by some form of what academics call “disconfirmation” – a tangible sense that our earlier ways of understanding ourselves and the world have failed us or that fundamental assumptions about who we are are no longer as sturdy or satisfying (p. 35).

Ibarra argues that rather than spending a lot of time on introspection, assessments, theories and plans, we should begin a series of small experiments designed to test out the variety of directions we’re interested in, “Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting” (p.2).

While we often want to have a clear path laid out for us before we begin the process of change, Ibarra concludes that, “Transformation, then, happens less by grand design or careful strategy than by the small wins that results from ongoing practices that enhance our capacity to change” (p. 87) and goes on to warn us that, “When we craft experiments, we increase the likelihood that things will never be the same again” (p. 106).

This advice resonated with me as I think we often get stuck in the thinking/planning process and forget to ever actually move forward towards our distant goals. The series of small experiments is exactly what I suggest for people who are trying to “find their calling” but have so many interests they’re not really sure which they’re most passionate about. The only way to find out where your calling lies is to start doing things and see what fits best. Connections happen in motion. Her warning is also important though because we sometimes don’t realize that once we’ve started down this road of exploration, we won’t easily settle back into the old patterns, jobs and lives we had before we started looking around. It can get messy.

Taking action and being aware of the likely consequences is essential. At the same time, we definitely need time and space to step back and reflect on our experiences and evaluate what they mean. Ibarra uses a French phrase “reculer pour mieux sauter” which literally means “stepping back to better leap forward” (p. 148). That step back helps us to ground ourselves, look around and make sure we are leaping in the right direction.

Here’s her summary of advice for making career transitions (and I would argue any major life changes!):

  1. Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection.
  2. Stop trying to find your one true self. Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.
  3. Allow yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go. Better to live the contradictions than to come to a premature resolution.
  4. Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.
  5. Identify projects that can help you get a feel for a new line of work or style of working. Try to do these as extracurricular activities or parallel paths so that you can experiment seriously without making a commitment.
  6. Don’t just focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles.
  7. Don’t wait for a cataclysmic moment when the truth is revealed. Use everyday occurrences to find meaning in the changes you are going through. Practice telling and retelling your story. Over time, it will clarify.
  8. Step back. But not for too long.
  9. Change happens in bursts and starts. There are time when you are open to big change and times when you are not. Seize opportunities.

These points sound simple and succinct but Ibarra notes that most major career transitions take between three to five years and the process is circuitous. She reminds us not to get too frustrated with the messiness of life in progress.

Have you struggled through a career transition experience or any time in your life that felt like you were living in limbo between who you were and who you were becoming? I’d love to hear your story. Did you use any of these strategies or wish you had?



2 thoughts on “Working Identity Book Review

  1. Hi Tash……this book looked interesting so I’ve put a hold on it at my library. Like you, I often become overwhelmed when several books come in at once and there are other people waiting as well so can’t renew them. By the way, I’m wondering if you receive my comments here. I’m not sure I’m doing it correctly.

    • I do Aunt Miriam! The only thing is that for some reason my settings got changed and I don’t get an email when someone comments anymore so sometimes I don’t go log in again for a few days and don’t realize that a new comment has come in!

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