I am halfway through a book recommended to me by Catherine Lombardozzi called Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, by Herminia Ibarra and it is really helping me recognize the role that experimentation and action plays in exploring new career roles and identities. It is also reminding me of how messy the process can be.
Ibarra's premise is that while there's a place for self-assesment and understanding of one's self, too much assessment and reflection (as recommended by many career counselors) can paralyze us and tend to limit our options. Our assessments are based on what we already know about ourselves, rather than on what we know about who we could be. This ties in with my post earlier this week on getting caught in the reflection cycle of Acting/Reflecting.
Ibarra deconstructs the career change stories of a variety of mid-career professionals, showing how they "tried on" various new identities over a period of time, exploring different options while still holding on to their former work selves. From these stories, she extrapolates some key points about the career transition process that I think are critical.
When I was 13, I had to take "Confirmation classes," which taught me all about what it meant to be Catholic, prior to going through the Confirmation ceremony to commit myself to being Catholic for the rest of my life. I found this interesting, since I'd spent the previous 13 years going to nothing but Catholic churches, so how did I know that some other religion wasn't better for me? It seemed to me that prior to Confirmation, we should have spent a year visiting other churches so we could make a more informed choice. Needless to say, this did not go over well with either the priests or my parents.
At any rate, I bring this up to illustrate one of Ibarra's main points--that in order for us to decide where we want to go next in our careers, we need to begin experimenting with the new potential options. Thinking about our strengths, skills, past experiences, etc. is only going to take us so far. And in fact it may keep us in a spiral of confusion for some time.
It is the act of enaging in experimentation and trying out new possibilities that gives us the information we need to begin evaluating and honing our choices. And this process of experimentation can take many forms and last anywhere from a few months to a few years.
Expand and Change Your Networks
Another key point in Ibarra's book is the idea that as we begin to consider other career options for ourselves, we start to look at ways to make new connections. Our current networks will tend to hold us in the same place. New networks expose us to new ideas, new thinking and new people. Ibarra points out that many of the people she features in her book found their way to new opportunities on the strength of weak ties--by making connections to people on the peripherary of their networks, not those who held a central place.
Just as career changers need to experiment with new activities, they also need to form new connections and partnerships. These can help them change and hone their thinking and expand beyond their current sense of what's possible. It can also provide them with new opportunities for experimentation and learning.
Accept that the Process is Messy
This may, in fact, be one of the most important take-aways from Working Identity--that the process of moving from one work identity to another is a messy, challenging process. It is not a simple matter of identifying some interests and skills, neatly matching them to occupations and then following a straight line to your next experience. It is a process that is much deeper and more chaotic.
So much of who we are is tied up in who we are at work. When we make changes to this persona, it necessarily changes many other things--our relationships, our experiences, how we see ourselves and how our values and work lives intersect. Working through the process of serious career transition will challenge us at all levels because it is truly asking us to shift our sense of who we are, which can cause ripple effects that further complicate our lives.
Although ultimately rewarding, this process can generate a lot of anxiety and confusion. But it's through taking the next step and then the next and reflecting all along the way on our experiences that we ultimately make our way through this forest.
Anyone who is currently going through a career transition or who is beginning to feel the first stirrings of dissatisfaction would benefit from reading Ibarra's book. Lots of great information and stories to help inspire and move you along the path.