Working Identity : Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career by Herminia Ibarra (2004)

, 6 Dec 2018

I've had an odd experience with this book. I first bought it when I was informed of my near lay-off after years working for the same company; I got irritated with the theoretical business academic approach to the subject and the fact that most examples were of high-profile business or finance people. So I stopped reading it. I retook the book a couple of weeks ago, a few months after I first started reading it and after going through the process of  transition on my own. All of the sudden, bingo!, Ibarra's words clicked with me, because I've found that many of the things that Ibarra mentions are really also part of my process of transition as I am experiencing it.

Working Identity is structured in two parts. The first discusses the process of questioning and testing our work identities, and the second describes the actions that increase the likelihood of making a successful change. Chapter 8 is a summary of the whole book and really the part where I recommend you to start because it goes through the main points discusses throughout the book minus the fillers. The appendix is quite academic, but not too dry, and it was necessary to understand Ibarra's methodology and theoretical approach to the research that produced this book.

Ibarra states that her objective was to generate rather than to test theory; also that her objective wasn't to predict who will or won't change careers, but rather to identify the basic tasks of reinvention. I think she succeeds at doing both things. Ibarra has a great insight into the process of change itself, which she describes with accuracy, and she's able to distil lessons from the many study cases and real life people mentioned throughout the book. Looking at my own experience in  transitioning, I find that many of the things Ibarra says are really true for me, too, even though I am not, by any means, a high profile finance guy.

Working Identity debunks the fallacy that our professional identity is one, and that our personal identity fits just one job identity. Regardless of whether the transition is voluntary or forced, and assuming that you want to change careers (otherwise you are wasting your time on this book), the core of the book is that our professional identity is as much a psychological construction as it is a social construction, and that transition takes us to roads that might be an extension, development or jump off the cliff from those things we are familiar with. The process of career transition is a long road of personal trial and error until we find something that it's just right and fits us perfectly. One thing is imagining ourselves  doing whatever, and another thing doing it; one thing is learning how to do something new and then enjoying it; one thing is imagining our life-long hobby for X being our profession and another seeing that this won't give us the life, money or fulfilment that we crave. However, if  we don't try those paths, we'll never know. Trying means learning on the spot, experiencing the challenges and chaos, and how we feel about the reality of the new 'thing' emerging, whether it suits us or not and whether we want to stay or move on. The process is intertwined with passion, drive, and our natural talents, but it needs of patience and perseverance.  Sometimes the career transition will take us to places that we never considered ours, or thought we would be good at, or thought possible, and yet, if we have the determination, persistence and drive we might end just doing something totally 'unlike us', which is very much us.
Ibarra's reasearch unearths 9 unconventional strategies for reinventing our careers:
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 on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.
3/ Allow yourself a transition period in which it's OK 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.
5/ Identify projects that can help you get a feel for a new line of work or style of working and do these as extracurricular activities.
6/ Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. They won't be in your same old social circles.
7/ 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 for a little while.
9/ Change happens in bursts and starts.

If you have read a bit about change and transition possibly you won't be wowed by the list overall, and you have already heard/read some of the things in the list in other books. However Ibarra's focus on doing before thinking and her exploration of personal and professional identities, the many selves that we carry inside us, and how those selves morph during the period of chaos that goes from starting a career transition to really transitioning, as well as the importance of our personal 'myth' or story are excellent, enlightening and something that not everybody speaking about career transition will spend much time discussing, even though they are important, or so I feel. This was, as a matter of fact, what resonated with me the most.

The first downside of the book to me is that the case studies, diary records and summarising of personal stories go forever, for pages. Those would have been necessary if this was a thesis presented in academic circles. As this is a book directed to the general public the need to be so exhaustive is not an issue. I understand the need to provide examples and real cases, but those occupy a good part of the written book. Was that necessary to convey Ibarra's point? I don't think so. She could have provide details of cases, without the need to go to the extent she does.

Ibarra says "It is better to start by trying out a possible new role on a small scale—in our spare time, on a time-limited sabbatical, or as a weekend project. And as we will see in the next chapter, an added—and necessary—advantage of experimenting is that while we are trying out new roles, we meet people who will help change our lives." (p. 113).  Most of the study cases are of financially stable people, quite well-off, who had the luxury of expending the time necessary to switch careers, juggle two things at the same time or take a sabbatical to work on their career reinvention. However, most people coming to this book, won't have that luxury. Ibarra itself explains that people who lose their jobs are at a great risk of short-circuiting the process as they can't stagger their time out because basically, for the transition to flourish, it needs of a basic level of security, personal, economical and psychological. However, she provides little evidence of this because his group of study basically has no person who is transitioning in that way, or is in their mid 50s, or unmarried for example. This being the case, many of the people who will get this book looking for help and inspiration will find that there is little for them in those examples.

The group of people focus of the book are college-educated population, professionals and academics, most of them are related to the world of economics, finances and business. I'm a professional and I could barely relate to most of those examples except for one case. If you are one of the Harvard School guys, you will certainly enjoy the examples and find them meaningful to you. Otherwise, you will find those people and their stories are nothing you can relate to. It would have been great if Ibarra had chosen a more balanced mix of people, people from different backgrounds, people in their mid 50s, people who transition after being laid off, and people who are not so businessy. 

If you read the book after your career reinvention, it will make great sense. If you do so at the beginning you might get irritated at the lack of how-to (because her how-to items of advice are too generic to be of any use), and, as Ibarra herself states the how-to varies from person to person and their circumstances. So, that's what I call a how-not-to-do a 'how to do". Overall, a very well-researched book, with great insight of what professional identity is.

At least on Kindle for PC and in my android, there are repeated cases of lack of hyphen in cases where a word seems it was. Perhaps a space is what's is missing. I don't know. See for example:
> twoyear period (p. 100)
> a highprofile legal dispute (p. 106)
> thirtytwo (p. 178)