Working Identity, by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business School Press, 2004, 199 pages, $16.95)
Countless self-help guides to switching jobs or careers assume you’ve got just one true identity in life, and therefore, just one true purpose. Your task is to look so deep inside yourself that you discover this purpose. It’s a little like the old notion of a soulmate – that out of all the billions of people on this planet, only one can be our true love. You plow through these sorts of books doing endless exercises, ranging from the conventional (Briggs-Meyers) to the unconventional (list your top 10 most enjoyable memories). Once you nail your personality type, or your “genius,” or whatever it is that supposedly makes you unique, you’re home free – or so the books assert.
“Working Identity” is refreshingly different; one might even say refreshingly adult. Ibarra, formerly on the faculty of the Harvard Business School and now a professor at INSEAD, a business school in France, notes that the real way most of us change careers isn’t through introspection, but experimentation: going back to school part-time, for example, or slowly building a freelance practice on the side, or hanging out with people in the line of work we’re interested in to see what it feels like. This sort of dabbling and detouring, says Ibarra, is a healthy reaction to our possessing not a single “true” self, but many selves, among which we’re constantly choosing:
… our working identity is not a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered at the very core of our inner being. Rather, it is made up of many possibilities: some tangible and concrete, defined by the things we do, the company we keep, and the stories we tell about our work and lives; others existing only in the realm of future potential and private dreams.
As Ibarra sees it, the real work in changing careers isn’t to reject what comes naturally, but to welcome it and refine it. We can learn to take small, definite actions, not just accidentally but deliberately as well; we can then assess feedback from the outside world, along with new insights and emotions as they occur to us, and adjust course to suit. Introspection still matters, but it plays a different role: we learn to cross-examine old assumptions, for example, or even the assumptions of those closest to us, who in spite of themselves may not see how we can change. In describing how we process our experiences and make difficult decisions, Ibarra demonstrates a reasonable knowledge of actual psychology; this is welcome, given how many self-help authors rely on folk psychology or worse.
Unsurprisingly, the book is also different than many in offering no exercises whatsoever. Most of the text is built around real-life case histories of academics, bankers, management consultants, and other professionals, as they struggle to shed the skins of jobs they’ve outgrown, without being quite sure what it is they want to do next. Many of the most outwardly surprising changes are viewed in hindsight by those who underwent them as natural evolutions: a psychiatrist becomes a Zen monk; an investment banker quits his firm to divide his time between writing thrillers and founding a boutique bank of his own. Ibarra uses these stories to suggest broadly useful strategies and techniques. For example: allow a transition period; seek small wins rather than a huge sudden change; find people you want to be like and spend time with them; practice telling and retelling your story as you learn and change; avoid setting yourself up for a losing battle between “wants” and “shoulds”; and so on.
Such thoughtful advice is most likely to be helpful if you’re already conducting your own career experiment, and just want to tinker with the parameters. Beyond that, though, the book seems intended not as a step-by-step guide, but as a validation of how change really works in an adult life. If you’re reading a lot of career books and feeling frustrated at their insistence on treating you like a puzzle to be solved, “Working Identity” is the perfect antidote.