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Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra

A few surprises and learnings

  • What seems like a small shift in actions can reveal a deep change within the mind.
    • The change of action may be quick and easy, but it takes time for our internal identity to transition.
  • We are social animals and can never do this alone. Relationships are important during the transition.
    • On the flip side, overly attached to old relationships can hinder our transition.
  • “Making sense” or telling the story is an important part of the process. It’s about surfacing what we feel in emotions to the rational brain that we can clearly articulate our stories.

Notes #

Introduction #

Two key ideas: 1) We don’t discover our true self, but rather there are many possibilities. Some are defined by the things we do, the company we keep, and the stories we tell about our work and lives. Others exist in future potential and private dreams. 2) We are many selves, so we don’t swap one identity for another but transition as we reconfigure the full set of possibilities. We achieve this through action rather than reflection, doing rather than planning.

Two main themes from the book

  1. “Identities in transition” — how our identities change
    1. Exploring possible selves: instead of asking “Who do I really become”, ask smaller, more testable questions like “Which of the possible selves should I start exploring and how?”
    2. In between: “long, chaotic period of transition” after we start testing. We’re still not sure about the new possibilities and not yet ready to give up old ones.
    3. Deep change: how we move from in between to a deep change
  2. “Identity in practice” — actions we can take to improve the odds of success for the transition
    1. Doing experiments
    2. Making new connections (and getting away from old ones)
    3. Telling stories of ourselves

Making important career moves and life changes requires us to live through long periods of uncertainty and doubt. We can learn much from the experiences of others to make these difficult passages easier to navigate.

Identities in Transition #

To reinvent ourselves means we live through a period of transition.

Change always takes much longer than we expect because to make room for the new, we have to get rid of some of the old selves we are still dragging around and, unconsciously, still invested in becoming.

Possible Selves #

Why do we have many selves? How do we discover those selves?

We learn in iterative, multilayered ways. This is why the plan-and-implement model often failed. It’s better to adopt the test-and-learn approach.

The kind of knowledge we need to make change in our lives is tacit, not textbook clear; it is implicit, not explicit; it consists of knowing-in-doing, not just knowing.
-> Schoen-1983 Reflective Practitioner

Management guru Henry Mintzberg contrasted “planning” and “crafting” strategies.

  • Planning - a person who “sits in an office formulating orderly courses of action derived from a systematic analysis that precedes implementation.”
  • Crafting - “not so much thinking and reason as involvement, a feeling of intimacy and harmony with the materials at hand, developed through long experience and commitment. Formulation and implementation merge into a fluid process of learning through which creative strategies evolve.”

Instead of asking “Who am I?”, ask in more open-ended alternatives “Among the many possible selves that I might become, which is more intriguing to me now? Which is easiest to test?”

True-self model vs adult-development theory: some of the latter theories claim that maturity—and progress—increases with each developmental stage; others suggest that as we age, we shift priorities, eventually attending to values and interests we had previously ignored. One argument goes that in early adulthood, we are all too often victims of other people’s expectations… If we examine which family or other pressures might have led us down the wrong track, we can transcend pressures for social and organizational conformity in order to become “our own person.” (p. 36)

  • 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.
  • Implementation consumes the bulk of our time and patience in career transition. What really happens in effective change is a necessarily “open-ended, tentative, exploratory, hypothetical, problematic, devious, changeable, and only partially unified” process. The allocation of attention, time, and energy suggested by the true-self model is exactly backwards.

Possible-selves model is based on the work of Stanford cognitive psychologist Hazel Markus: we all carry around, in our hearts and minds, a whole cast of characters, the selves we hope to become, think we should become, or even fear becoming in the future.

  • During a career transition, our possible selves spur us to find role models whom we’d like to become (and whom to avoid becoming) and help us to benchmark our progress toward those ideals.

Finding a new identity was not simply a matter of dropping one self in favor of another but a process of tinkering with a whole set of possibilities: imagining new ones, trying them on for size, elaborating on some, dropping others, getting rid of outdated images, coming to grips with the fact that some might languish. Only by testing do we learn what is really appealing and feasible—and, in the process, create our own opportunities. (p. 39)

Between identities #

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. (p. 46)

It’s more of a psychological zone “in which we are truly between selves, with one foot still firmly planted in the old world and the other making tentative steps toward an as-yet undefined new world.”

  • To be in transit is to be in the process of leaving one thing, without having fully left it, and at the same time entering something else, without being fully a part of it. (p. 54)

No matter how unhappy we may be in a job, most of us continue to revisit the possibility of making it work because the present role is necessarily tied to a possible self—an image, outdated though it may be, of whom we once wanted to become.

Rarely does “becoming an ex” happen as a result of one sudden decision. Instead, it happens over a period of time, one that often begins before we are fully aware of what is happening.

  • Long before we start exploring alternatives, we also begin to disconnect socially and psychologically. (p. 56)

Don’t think this as unproductive middle period — “We need not feel defensive about this apparently unproductive time-out at turning points in our lives,” writes Bridges, “for the neutral zone is meant to be a moratorium from the conventional activity of our everyday existence. In the apparently aimless activity of our time alone, we are doing important inner business.” Part of that inner business is the task of ending one thing; the other part of it—which takes longer—is creating substitutes.

What’s happening during this period:

  • Trial activities — learning what kind of jobs and companies exists, also a feel for yourself in the concrete contexts and situations
  • Trial relationships — “Do I want to be like him?” And “Can I be like her?”
  • Trial narratives — A working identity also lies in the unfolding story of our lives. Throughout a career transition, the narratives we craft to describe why we are changing (and what remains the same) also help us try on possibilities. (p. 60)

Making the selection from the possibilities

  • We use information from two sources: our gut (our emotional reactions) and the people around us (their responses to our trials and efforts)
    • Internal gauge: Can I see myself in this? Does this feel right?
      • Discarding possibilities means progress: “Once she sat down to do a trial case, it became obvious that consulting was not for her. Working identity is not just who we are. It is also who we are not.”
    • External gauge: based on the feedback we get from those around us.
  • This variation and selection process is not in the least an intellectual exercise or an introspective procedure. It is a physical activity in which we try on, in real time, any number of provisional identities. With feedback and validation, we might discard any one of these—or we might select one for a closer look. (p. 63)

Change takes time — Living with uncertain identity can feel like “living inside a hurricane.” But premature closure is not the answer. People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. (p. 65)

Deep change #

In the reinventing process, we make two kinds of changes: small adjustments in course and deep shifts in perspective.

  • Trying to make a big shift in one fell swoop can bring us back to square one all too quickly.
  • If we interrupt the reinventing process prematurely, we jeopardize our ability to fully internalize this new self-definition.
    • Note: Internal state changes take time

Change one project at a time

  • Social scientists have argued that a strategy of “small wins”—making quick, opportunistic, tangible gambits only modestly related to a desired outcome—is in many instances the most effective way of tackling big problems. Part of the reason small wins can produce much bigger results than a grand strategy is psychological: Defining a problem as “big and serious” can make us feel frustrated and helpless and therefore can elicit a less creative (or more habitual) response.
  • One small win in itself may not seem like much; a series of them increases the likelihood of serious change by setting in motion a dynamic that favors a next step and makes the next solvable problem more visible. (p. 74)

Not just what you do matters, but also how you do it

  • In some cases, the issue is less the substance of the work than the lack of flexibility of the institutional structure in which the work gets done.

Unlearning / Drop your familiar tool

  • It often happens that we often stubbornly hold ourselves back — “What we see as feasible and appealing is always constrained by the limitations of our experience.” (p. 76)
  • It’s not just about finding a true passion, but also about “unlearning the assumptions that lead to the ‘next logical’ and absolutely wrong move.”
    • As we explore possibilities, we start to recognize, question, and eventually dismantle some of the basic operating principles that are at the foundation of our working identities.

Exposing the hidden foundations

“Seeing he was still drawn to high-prestige institutions and to projects that fueled his achievement overdrive brought him to the next question: ‘Why am I so driven?’”
-> I went down a similar path.

  • Levels of career decision criteria (pyramid shape, p. 83)
    • Level 1: job, industry, and sector
    • Level 2: competencies, motives, and values
    • Level 3: basic but implicit assumptions about what is desirable and possible in our lives and in the world
  • Many people in transition stumble onto the fact that they derive much of their sense of identity from their title and employer and that such over-identification with any institution can lead to stunted growth in other arenas. Far into our careers, we can remain the victims of other people’s values and expectations.
    • Becoming our own person, breaking free from our “ought selves”—the identity molded by important people in our lives—is at the heart of the transition process.
    • Even when we can honestly admit that the external trappings of success—titles, perks, and other markers of prestige—don’t matter much, we can hide from the need for change by telling ourselves how much the company needs us.
  • Since basic assumptions tend to exist in interlocking clusters, what may often appear to be a work-life balance problem, or an inability to extricate ourselves from unrewarding or overly political working relationships, is in fact our inability to separate our commitment to an organization from being the organization. Note: Like habits, deep change come from identity change -> Atomic Habits

“Work-life balance” has become a preoccupation precisely because it is so hard to achieve. Correcting the encroachment of work on personal life is a pressing concern for most professionals seeking change, whether or not they are conscious of it at the start. But Dan McIvy and Susan Fontaine found that correcting the imbalance is not such a simple matter because it is part of a larger system of basic assumptions that reinforce each other. (p. 87)
Note: this was my idea that when you don’t have time to do what you want, it’s rarely a time management problem, but a rather deep one.

Practice makes improvements

  • Learning happens in cycles. Early cycles focus on the most immediate (or surface) problems. Later cycles provoke the bigger questions: How do I put it all together? What other facets of my life do I need to adjust? -> The learning loop
  • We are simply not equipped to make those deeper changes until we come to understand what they really mean, not as concepts but as realities that define our daily lives.
  • Transformation, then, happens less by grand design or careful strategy than by the small wins that result from ongoing practices that enhance our capacity to change.
    • Note: Transformation feels like fast, but they’re just part of bigger and true transformation. It’s an ongoing process. We don’t remember those small things paved the road for bigger ones.

Identity in practice #

Reflection best comes later, when we have some momentum and when there is something new to reflect on.

During times of identity in transition—when our possible selves are shifting wildly—the only way to create change is to put our possible identities into practice, working and crafting them until they are sufficiently grounded in experience to guide more decisive steps.

Crafting experiments #

We don’t, as a rule, leap into the unknown. Instead, most of us build a new working identity by developing the girders and spans as “side projects”—extracurricular ventures that allow us to test possible selves without compromising our current jobs.

  • It’s not just a means of exploring known possibilities, but a way of creating unforeseen ones. (p. 92)

In his nonprofit work, he found a hungry audience for his expertise—designing effective organizational structures and facilitating decisions about how to change.

“Manworks had an inexperienced management team. That was going to limit what I could learn from them. Since I did not have a track record in managing, the absence of role models felt like a real drawback.”

Not all experiments have to be rigorously designed

  • Experiments come in many forms: Some are unintentional, others are conducted by design, some are exploratory, others, confirmatory.
  • An exploratory experiment is a probing, playful activity by which we get a feel for things. Exploratory experiments succeed when we are able to formulate more specific questions, or when they lead us to a hypothesis or educated guess.
    • vs. a more rigorous confirmatory experiment, in which the objective is to learn whether the hypothesis is supported or refuted by the evidence.
  • In the exploratory phase of any investigation, looking into not one but a broad range of options is essential. Variety allows comparison and, therefore, discrimination: “This resonates and that doesn’t”; “I like X better than Y”; “Even in the best of possible worlds, I really don’t want to do Z.”
    • This include projects, part-time ventures, limited partnerships that “set up as low-risk ways to diversity a portfolio rather than ‘big bang’ investments.”
    • Small wins may be scattered, but what counts is that they move in the same general direction—away from the stifling situation we are trying to escape.
    • Note: It’s much easier to compare (having options battle) than choosing directly
  • “Road-not-taken test”: when the situation forces upon you, the path you did not take gives you insight into a set of drivers you had been vaguely aware of.
  • One of the biggest advantages of going back to school, or taking any form of sabbatical, is that it makes room for play, allowing people “to experiment with doing things for which they have no good reason, to be playful with their conception of themselves.”
    • Note: It feels more of a mental security—“I can do whatever I want since I have a job” or “I’m a student so I can learn whatever interests me”—whether I’m actually in a school or not does not matter that much. But the benefits of school include a network of like-minded people.

Narrowing down after exploration

  • Avoiding the blind spots — Counterbalancing our natural biases requires a partnership of emotion and intellect—working with our subjective and emotional responses (our gut) as part of the analysis, yet submitting those responses to thoughtful challenge and criticism. (p. 107)
  • Only being rational is not enough — Natural subjectivity can lead to what researchers call the “negotiating with yourself and losing” phenomenon. This is the all-too-familiar experience of having two versions of ourselves, one “emotional” and one “rational”; one that knows what we “want,” the other that knows what we “should” do.
    • The lesson is not to throw reason to the wind. It is to trust emotional information, even when we can’t articulate what our gut is telling us.
      • Note: because motivation comes from emotion
    • In Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio showed just how rational it is to treat our emotional reactions as information… Damasio’s studies show that emotional biases, the compass of the gut, guide behavior long before conscious knowledge sets in.
      • Note: Probably the most important thing this book taught me is to look after the emotions – sometimes it knows very fast, other times you have to allow time for it to grow (identity)
  • How to stay calm during the in-beween period

Experiments are inherently dangerous, though necessary. Like Mark, when we follow our passions, we also risk escalating our emotional commitment to a new course of action before we have evidence that it will be doable. On the other hand, the perpetual dilettante dabbles in a great variety of possibilities, like our would-be history professor, never committing to any and never crossing any off the list.

In between lies a stance of “committed flirtation,” in which we hold ourselves to a rigorous search while withholding allegiance to any given alternative until the evidence that it will work is in.

Shifting connections #

Mind your old good friends —

When it comes to reinventing ourselves, the people who know us best are also the ones most likely to hinder rather than help. They may wish to be supportive but they tend to reinforce—or even desperately try to preserve—the old identities we are seeking to shed.

Shifting connections refers to the practice of finding people who can help us see and grow into our new selves, people we admire, would like to emulate, and with whom we want to spend time. All reinventions require social support.

The value of weak ties

  • In the mid-1970s, a Harvard sociologist named Mark Granovetter published what became the landmark study of how people get jobs. What he found and others have confirmed, is still true today: Most people find their jobs through personal connections.
  • What makes a contact useful for a job change, argued Granovetter, is neither the closeness of our relationship with them nor the power of his or her position. It is the likelihood that the person knows different people than we do and, therefore, bumps into different information. (p. 121)

Changes happen easier when you’re in a different environment

In brainwashing studies—obviously one of the ultimate forms of identity change—standard operating practice is to separate subjects from all those who knew them previously, so as to deprive them of grounding in the old identity. Brainwashing tends to fail when subjects are allowed to return at night to their fellow prisoners (who knew them before) after a day of indoctrination. We are all more malleable when separated from people who know us well. The same dynamic explains why young adults seem to change when they go away to college and interaction with family members and prior friends is necessarily reduced.

In the difficult days of the in-between period, a desire to move on must be coupled with a drive to find strength, wisdom, and emotional support, if only on the outer boundaries of our social world. (p. 123)

Not just support, but reinforces the transition —

As our points of comparison shift from inside to outside our organization, and as we encounter more and more people who have changed careers, a “tipping point” occurs. Our actions become self-reinforcing: We start to feel more determined to make a change and seek out others who have already done so.

Find your guiding figures —

Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson, whose book The Seasons of a Man’s Life explained the midlife crisis, emphasized the importance of guiding figures: people from whom the person in transition gets encouragement and learns new ways to live and work.

  • How do you find it? “In many cases, it is a simple matter of serendipity.”

Look for a community —

Since apprenticeships and internships typically exist in institutional form for only the young, at mid-career we are left to our own devices when it comes to picking up the tacit knowledge of the new work we wish to do. It is up to us to create or find our own community.

Get a secure base —

In the 1950s, psychologists showed that baby animals could become so highly attached to mother substitutes like brooms and wire figures that they would ignore their actual mothers. Such studies formed the foundation of a more general theory about the sort of human attachment that is critical for any risk taking. These “imprinting” studies pointed to the paradoxical nature of self-reliance and paved the way for the notion that people, like baby monkeys, are only capable of being fully self-reliant when they feel supported by and attached to trusted others.

Note: meditation can serve as (one of) the secure base

  • What kind of adult relationship provides such psychological safety?
    • In developmental theory, a “good-enough mother” neither stifles nor ignores the child, neither intrudes nor abandons, but rather gives the child enough rope for discovery, all the while conveying that she is nearby if needed. Likewise, a guiding figure is neither unresponsive when we need help while in transition nor overprotective when we need to operate and explore on our own.

Making sense #

  • Making sense refers to the practice of putting a frame around experience: interpreting what is happening today, reinterpreting past events, and creating compelling stories that link the two. A life story defines us.
    • Consider how we come to feel that we really know someone: We might know them well enough to predict their behavior; but we only really know them when we know their stories—the underlying narratives that lend meaning, unity, and purpose to their lives. (p. 134)
    • Note: also related to how to cultivate a deep relationship. Just talking about things feels too shallow. I feel like I really understand someone when I know their motivations.

What seems like a revelation is actually a long running under current

  • In an essay about how we change our opinions, novelist Nicholson Baker argues that most of the time, we are in some inconclusive phase of changing our minds about many things, without being consciously aware that we are doing so. Events intrude and interrupt, occasioning what he calls alert intermissions.
    • All of us hope for those moments and mistake them for coincidences or rare occurrences. In fact, we create alert intermissions.
    • It had a big impact not because she revealed something he did not know (if that were the case, she could not have catalyzed a change) but because all the experiences he had been having suddenly made sense in this new light. That encounter lent coherence to all the bits of knowledge, information, and feelings he had yet to put together.
  • Facts and intuitions, reason and emotion come together, and we feel ready to seize the moment. These moments of crystallization tend to occur much later in the transition; most often they are an effect, rather than a cause of, change. (p. 147)

Moments of insight—the culmination of meaning in a brief time span—tend to occur when we change contexts, when we are relaxed, when we put aside our problem for a while, or when we are doing something out of character. -> Why it’s important to Have free time * More: “The full emotional and cognitive complexity of the change process can only be digested with moments of detachment and time for reflective observation. In the same way, time away from the everyday grind creates the “break frame” that allows people in transition to articulate intellectually what they already knew emotionally.” (p. 149)

Such insights on their own cannot drive a career transition to its culmination. They have to be worked into a compelling story. Why? Because we define who we are by our life stories. And stories about change, by definition, require a “before” and “after.” Events are merely occasions for retelling, reworking, and reassembling our experiences. We are literally reinventing the past so that it flows into a future we desire. -> As The Second Mountain argues, calling only makes sense when looking back.

Stories are shaped by the end —

One of the most interesting things about reinvention stories is how much they change along the way. Since a good story is defined by a narrative structure—a beginning, a low point, a climax, and an ending—the end point helps determine the beginning and the low point. (p. 140)

  • “We must not overlook sudden conversions and wrenching insights, but usually we fasten onto these only in hindsight, and exaggerate them for the sake of the narrative.” As Nicholson Baker writes in The Size of Thoughts

The practice of making sense consists of three parts:

  1. taking advantage of the events of our lives to reconsider our selves
  2. stepping back periodically to allow insight to jell
  3. and using both the events and our interpretations of them to work and rework our story.

Windows of opportunity effect

  • MIT researches discovered that managers have only a discrete time period in which to effect a real change after introducing a new technology.
    • Research on leaders newly taking charge of organizations shows the same effect: New leaders have a fixed time period in which to make changes; after that, it gets harder.
  • Windows of opportunity open and close back up again. Take advantage of it.
    • What we do in the period immediately following a time-out determines whether we will be able to use that experience to effect real change or whether, instead, old routines will reassert themselves, leaving basic problems unresolved until urgency builds the next time around.

Self-report is usually unreliable —

People devote considerable energy to developing their stories—what key experiences marked their path; what meanings they attribute to those experiences; and, more importantly, what common thread links old and new. Precisely for that reason, some academics argue that interviewing people about why and how they are changing is a flawed approach. Interviews, the argument goes, just yield a self-presentation: the cleaned-up identity a person puts on for the outside world. They can never unearth the “truth” because, as any good social psychologist will tell us, people can’t resist embellishing their stories, making themselves look braver and smarter than they really are and coming up with logical explanations for events that are really random. So our stories never reflect objective reality.
That is why revising our stories is a fundamental tool for reinventing ourselves.

-> Use it to our own advantage. But I wonder if this can be consciously invoked though. Maybe it’s about gathering evidence?

To be compelling, the story must explain why we must reinvent ourselves, who we are becoming, and how we will get there. Early versions are always rough drafts.

Stories gather support from others —

Until we have a story, others view us as unfocused… Equally important is having a good story to tell others, putting it into the public sphere even before it is fully formed. By making public declarations about what we seek and what common thread binds our old and new selves, we clarify our intentions and improve our ability to enlist others’ support. (p. 186)

  • Practice deliberately: Sometimes it takes many rehearsals before it comes out just right. What happens in the retelling is not just a more polished story; we finally settle on a narrative that can inform the next step.

Set the stage for change to happen —

Insight is an effect, not a cause… There is not much we can do to manufacture the turning points that lend dramatic form to our stories. But when events happen that serve our purposes, we can weave them into the fabric of our reinvention narratives to use them to explain—to ourselves as much as to others—why we are changing.

Becoming yourself #

The oft-cited key to a better working life, “knowing yourself,” turns out to be the prize at the end of the journey rather than the light at its beginning… We learn by doing, and each new experience is part answer and part question.

Taking actions —

I heard great regret only from those who failed to act, who were unable or unwilling to put their dreams to the test and to find out for themselves if there were better alternatives. The only wrong move consisted of no move.

Summary of strategies

  1. Act, then reflect
  2. Flirt with your selves
  3. Live the contradictions
  4. Make big change in small steps
  5. Experiment with new roles
  6. Find people who are what you want to be
  7. Don’t wait for a catalyst
  8. Step back periodically but not for too long
  9. Seize windows of opportunity
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