Working Identity: How to align who you are with what you do
Most of us are quick to identify ourselves with our job or line of work. We are likely to identify others similarly. Often the first question we ask a new acquaintance is a flavour of: “So, what do you do?” For better or for worse, we are largely defined (by others and by ourselves) by “what we do.” Many of our days are spent doing “what we do.” Work generally takes precedence and we fit our lives around the space and time that remains.
When we feel unfulfilled in our work, it’s easy to get bitter and mad at the work itself. The problem may be less about the work, and more about the misalignment between who we are and what we do. The lofty aim of career transformation is to lessen the gap between who you are with what you do and how you do it.
Of course, this is no easy task. This becomes much larger than just finding another job or moving into a new field. At the heart of this misalignment is a question about our identity: the essence of who we are and our place in the world. And because work is the thing we spend so much time doing, it’s almost impossible to separate it from the work we do. The question becomes about our Working Identity.
The term Working Identity was made popular from by Herminia Ibarra in her book “Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.” (In lieu of reading the book, check out this article which shares nine of her “unconventional strategies.”
The Truth About Transformation
A shift in identity often times equates to a transformation. A few things about transformation, career or otherwise, are worth mentioning.
1. Transformation is not about finding your one “True Self.”
In Working Identity, Ibarra talks about the “True Self” myth:
“Far more often than not, the true-self approach––there is a “right” career out there, and looking inward will give us the insight necessary to find it––often paralyzes us. If we don’t know what “it” is, then we’re reluctant to make any choices. We wait for the flash of blinding insight, while opportunities pass us by.”
The reality is that there is a myriad of possible selves, lines of work, and jobs we could do. Many of the jobs, companies and opportunities that exist today were born years after we took our very first career aptitude test. The reality is that there are many things you can be doing given your unique set of interests, skills, strengths, and dreams. Waiting for one “true self” to emerge will keep you stuck.
A good TED talk that explores this topic is by Emilie Wapnick: Why some of us don’t have one true calling.
2. Transformation takes time.
In his article The Ultimate Guide to Reinventing Yourself, serial career changer James Altucher believes that it takes five years to reinvent yourself:
“I’ve probably seen 500 examples of this. All the same: five years. Here’s a description of the five years:
Year One: you’re flailing and reading everything and just starting to DO.
Year Two: you know who you need to talk to and network with. You’re Doing every day. You finally know what the monopoly board looks like in your new endeavours.
Year Three: you’re good enough to start making money. It might not be a living yet.
Year Four: you’re making a good living.
Year Five: you’re making wealth.
Sometimes I get frustrated in years 1–4. I say, “why isn’t it happening yet?” and I punch the floor and hurt my hand and throw a coconut on the floor in a weird ritual. That’s ok. Just keep going. Or stop and pick a new field. Changing is never bad. It means you learned enough from one thing and now you are ready for the next.”
Ibarra echoes this sentiment: “The reinventing process is rarely quick or easy, even for the veteran job-hopper. Emotionally, it is hard to let go of a career in which we have invested much time, training, and hard work. Letting go is even harder when the alternatives remain fuzzy. And yet there’s no avoiding this agonizing period between old and new careers: A transition can begin years before a concrete alternative materializes, as we start creating and testing possible selves.”
Transitions take time. The in-between period where we shed old identities and embrace the possibilities of new ones is an uncomfortable but a necessary step in shifting into a new working identity.
3. Transformation Hurts.
Studying the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly is helpful in understanding the transformation of our own working identity. As the caterpillar hangs itself up to begin its transformation, its skin begins hardening into a chrysalis. Inside this chrysalis, deep in the caterpillar’s body, tiny ‘imaginal cells’ begin to form.
Here’s what happens next, from the book Nature and the Human Soul:
“The caterpillar’s immune system believes these imaginal cells are foreign and tries to destroy them…Once in the cocoon, the buds link up, the caterpillar’s immune system breaks down, and its body literally disintegrates. The buds — essentially, stem cells — then build a butterfly from the chrysalis fluids. The caterpillar and butterfly are not really opposed to one another; the butterfly is not an alien organism within the caterpillar. They are, in fact, one and the same organism, with the same genetic code.”
As the caterpillar’s immune system combats the imaginal cells, the caterpillar thinks it’s dying. In a way it does–it liquefies and becomes virtually unrecognizable. The point here is that transformation can hurt like hell. Maybe not so extreme like for a caterpillar, but sometimes it can feel like a part of us is dying off in order for something new to be born.
4. Transformation Defies Logic.
When tackling any sort of project or problem, we tend to gravitate to the Define → Plan → Execute mindset. That may work for projects when we’re sure of our target outcome or goal. For situations like career transition where the destination is largely unknown, the plan and execute method doesn’t work. Our brains want to think in linear patterns, but career change doesn’t follow such straightforward arithmetic.
A more helpful tactic is to apply a “Test and Learn” approach. From Working Identity:
“The test-and-learn model for making change is based on theories suggesting that learning is circular, iterative: We take actions, one step at a time, and respond to the consequences of those actions such that an intelligible pattern eventually starts to form.”
Transformation, therefore, is about exploring a wide range of possibilities, then beginning to test those possibilities out in the real world to see what you discover about yourself and your potential direction.
Exploring and Testing New Possibilities
Growing into a new identity is not as simplistic as dropping one in favour of another, but a process of exploring a wide range of possibilities. A good first step is to think broadly and ask yourself: “Whom might I become? What are the possibilities?”
While imagining possibilities for yourself, nothing is a bad idea. Start big and broad. Put down anything you’re considering or any ideas tugging at you. No judging. No idea is a bad one right now.
Write down a list of the possible selves you may want to explore right now. This list could include anything from concrete offers to vague interests; from sensible jobs, you could find on a job board to wild childhood interests you’ve dreamed of engaging with once again; from a new project you’re testing out to the collection of ingredients you’ve uncovered over time.
After coming up with a range of possibilities, the next step is to test some of these selves. Ask yourself: “Among the many possible selves that I might become, which is most intriguing to me right now? Which is easiest to test?”
Shedding Identities That No Longer Serve You
Part of the process of transformation might include shedding identities that no longer serve you going forward. This could include, but is not limited to:
Outdated Identities: Roles you’ve outgrown and that no longer fit who you are. Do you still identify yourself as an engineer even though you haven’t worked as an engineer for years?
Should Selves: Selves you think you should be or feel expected to be by others but are beginning to doubt. When addressing Should Selves, it may be helpful to ask yourself “when weighing up a decision, whose voices are chiming in?” Are these voices yours? If not, whose voices are they?
“We are too often victims of other people’s expectations. As we mature, we realize that our career choices were based on desires of parents, teachers, spouses, peers, or institutional loyalties.” (Ibarra)
Feared Selves: These are the worst-case scenarios of whom you might become if you chose not to change and stay on the same track. When you project your current self 5 years down the road, what do you see? 10 years? 20 years? Projection of a feared self––who you do not want to become––can be a strong motivator.
What’s the Cost of Staying on Your Current Path?
It’s normal to worry that if you change course in your career, you’ll sacrifice much of what you’ve spent so much time, energy and money building up. It may feel “ungrateful” or “foolish” to turn your back on these things, especially when you think about what your friends, family and colleagues around you will say.
It’s easy to listen to those voices. They sound rational. But the reality is that there are always sacrifices made on the road toward more fulfilling work. Most escapes we’ve witnessed involve taking some sort of step that feels and looks backwards. You must sometimes risk a step backwards in favour of the possibility of moving forward in a direction and on a path that’s right for you.
Another question to ask yourself is “What’s the cost of not changing?” And what have you sacrificed so far on the path you are on? Instead of being concerned about the short-term cost over the next one, two, or three years if you make a big change––what about the next ten, twenty, or thirty years if you do not? Every path has a cost. The cost to change appears high. But the cost of not changing may be higher.
Jeff Bezos and the Regret Minimalisation Framework
In 1994, Jeff Bezos was deliberating about quitting his high-paying hedge fund job on Wall Street to start a crazy concept called Amazon.com. As Bezos was weighing his big decision to quit, he ultimately wished to “minimize the number of regrets” he’d have. He dubbed this thought process his Regret Minimization Framework:
“I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. And I knew that if I failed, I wouldn’t regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. And I knew that that would haunt me every day. So when I thought about it that way, it was an incredibly easy decision.” —Jeff Bezos
This fear of regret echoes what a hospice nurse found when she interviewed her dying patients in the article Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. The #1 regret? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Change Is Not Easy, But You’ve Been Here Before
It is scary to step out of your comfort zone. When you feel this discomfort, remind yourself that you have already undertaken significant life or career changes in the past. Take comfort in knowing that while it may feel new and daunting, in many ways, you’ve been here before. Be it leaving home, getting your first job, getting your second job, moving country, ending a relationship – you know what stepping into the unknown looks like. You know that come good or bad, you are able to cope with change. Change is a natural and necessary part of life.
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.” Dan Gilbert
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