Identity and Experiments

A professor of organizational behaviour at INSEAD, Ibarra tells the stories of people who changed careers and provides some gems of insight in her book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. She observes how difficult it is to shed your old working identity and create a new one. We're so defined by ‘our internal states-our talents, goals, and preferences’ in the Western world. She spurns ‘careers experts’ that so often state ‘’[our] “true identity” is inside, deep within ourselves, [and] only introspection can lead to the right action steps and a better-fitting career.’

This is truly dangerous advice. So many people get stuck in their head searching for the illusory ‘dream job’. Worse still, they fall foul of the cognitive bias of the introspection illusion, which often arises when people mistake unreliable introspection for genuine self-knowledge and disregard their own behaviour when assessing themselves.

We are what we do much more than we allow ourselves to believe. We need to do more and experience it for ourselves in order to try on a host of “possible selves” we might become. According to Ibarra, by far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers is to think you need to know what you want to do before taking action. Too often we are told to find the one ‘dream job’. It is complete rubbish that there is just one perfect working identity for each of us. Our working self-image is a collection of the thoughts we have about ourselves in the past, present and our aspirations for our future. We create our future and the aspirations we have for it by the actions we take day to day.

Finding our best possible selves

Ibarra suggests we start to make change as ‘we start doing new things (crafting experiments), interacting with different people (shifting connections), and reinterpreting our life stories through the lens of the emerging possibilities (making sense)’

According to Ibarra, the most successful people make ‘increasing investments of time, trying out new things on an experimental scale’. The use of the word experiment alludes to the scientific method that that will help to test things out quickly, reflect, learn and retest.

The right balance between reflecting and doing

Yet in her efforts to overturn misleading careers advice and get career changers out of their heads, in my opinion Ibarra has gone too far.  She says ‘reflection best comes later, when we have some momentum and when there is something new to reflect on’. I believe there is still a place for upfront analysis even when we are entrenched in our daily activities, strong relationships and life stories. If career changers try to short cut this phase, many are unfocussed and go through a ‘trigger happy’ period applying to a lot of jobs that could take them in very different directions only to later evaluate that they’re wasting their time and confusing themselves with many of them. Before I got clarity, I applied to anything that looked perked my interest. Many I was vastly under qualified and never heard back from, some I got to interview and was actually distinctly unmotivated by the role when I got there and most were not right at all. Don’t waste your time searching for things that are wrong! Even when we are out of kilter with our values and our strengths, we can still find out what these are by reflection and uncover important ideas and insights of who we could be up until now. To get it right you will spend the majority of your time actually doing stuff rather than reflecting. In that way, career changers devise better experiments, fail less and get to where we want to be more smoothly. Getting the right balance between being in our heads and doing stuff is the important thing at each step of the journey.