Identity Shift

Ever wonder why it’s hard to make sense of most career-change advice? Maybe it’s because the books and gurus have it all wrong.

For most mid-life professionals, the route to career reinvention is a well-marked path that’s lit with a slightly spiritual glow. Just check the career section at your local bookstore. It’s heavy with tomes promising to help you find your mission in life, urging you to “do what you are,” and vowing to teach you the “art of possibility.” What’s more, a whole industry of career coaches, motivational speakers, and worksheet-heavy seminars has grown up to guide seekers in their quest for a new beginning. Problem is, much of what those books and gurus have to say is plain wrong, says Herminia Ibarra, chaired professor of organizational behavior at the French business school Insead. Rather than bringing about true career change, she says, their advice too often leads to career paralysis.


A former Harvard Business School professor, Ibarra is the author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), a book that details her three-year study of approaches to career change. Ibarra’s findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom on how to pull off a feat that is difficult even in the best of times, let alone in a rotten job market.

What’s wrong with conventional career advice?

People whose first career came about in the usual way–through some combination of economic opportunity, parental prodding, and happenstance–often resolve to make their second act a more deliberate, thoughtful choice. Most advice aimed at these folks is designed to help them discover their “one true self”–the perfect career that will somehow marry inner longings with a livable wage.

That quest generally begins introspectively. It may start with something as simple as digging out that old dog-eared copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? and evolve into a more rigorous process involving self-assessment tests that are designed to gauge interests and values. With those results in hand, the career changer identifies a job in which his enthusiasms can be coupled with his experience. Next, he consults friends, family, and colleagues for leads. Finally, with luck and perseverance, he finds a job that dovetails with what his research has turned up on his own abilities and his professed passion. The theory is that we must discover what we want to do before we can act.


That “plan and implement” model, however, has several problems, according to Ibarra. First, it’s backward-looking, rather than forward-looking. “When it comes to changing careers, people can say what they don’t like about what they’re doing, but they have a very, very hard time defining what they’d rather do instead,” she says. “You don’t know what would be more exciting and more interesting, and you can’t find that out retrospectively because it’s not in your history.”

In this model, career change is also a one-shot deal: Decide on a new career, and execute. The hard work is in the long process of identifying the next big thing. If that career change doesn’t work out, you’re back to square one.

Finally, the conventional approach assumes that there’s one immutable thing that a person should do with his or her life, and the goal is to discover that calling and act on it. While it’s true that some people have a true vocation–to be a teacher, a doctor, a painter, a writer–most could find many careers rewarding. What’s more, those possibilities change with time and experience, so what might have felt like the ideal career at 22 (a rock star or a major-league pitcher), will likely have morphed into something quite different by the time you’re 35 (unless you’re Mick Jagger or Randy Johnson).


Figuring out how to bump into your next career

Ibarra proposes a different model, a “test and learn” approach in which action trumps introspection. It’s an admittedly crooked path: Knowing what you want to do comes from experimenting with various possibilities. In this strategy, the goal is to try on alternative work identities to find the most satisfying fit, and choices are constantly refined as the process evolves. This method has several advantages. The career changer acquires a tangible sense of the kinds of tasks a new field might involve and has a chance to get to know the types of people who would be colleagues. The idea is to ground the fantasy of a certain career in reality before making the high-stakes leap into that new field. “The only thing that can help you figure out your next career is bumping into it,” Ibarra says. “So the whole process can be distilled to this: What maximizes the chances that you’ll encounter it, then recognize it as a real possibility and develop it?”

Ibarra has identified the following three practices that form the basis of this strategy and provide logical underpinnings to what can sometimes seem like a messy and unfocused quest.

*Craft experiments: Devise ways to sample a new role without giving up your current job. Take courses, try freelancing, do pro bono work, or moonlight in a field that interests you. Use vacation time or take a sabbatical to experience some aspect of that field.


*Shift connections: Expand your network of contacts beyond your usual circles. Go to conferences in the industry that you’re considering, attend your college reunion, or reach out to people who do work that you’re interested in for advice and information.

*Make sense: Create a story that you can tell yourself and others about what you’re trying to do and how it connects the old you with the person you wish to become. Think of it as your own personal elevator pitch. Don’t be afraid to revise it regularly, based on your progress and your growing understanding of where you want to go.

The subjects in Ibarra’s study who used this test-and-learn approach had better luck changing careers than those who followed more-conventional approaches. But it can’t be done overnight. Most of her subjects took three years to find the work that finally quieted their gnawing sense of discontent.


Granted, it’s a daunting prospect. But, according to Ibarra, the biggest mistake made by would-be career changers is waiting too long to start the process. And with the current malaise in the economy, people are staying stuck even longer. “Because the job market’s been so bad, people say, ‘I can’t afford to dream now,’ ” Ibarra says. “But if you know it’s going to take three years, why not start preparing yourself? You might as well take advantage of the slack times, instead of waiting until everybody else is changing.”

In addition, career changers must be willing to endure a transitional period that’s often high on frustration and uncertainty. As Lesly Higgins, who made the switch from high-tech manager to executive coach, says, “You have to go through a neutral zone where your old career has ended, but the new career hasn’t yet begun. You’re neither fish nor fowl. It’s a very unsettling place.”

But if you’re not confused, you’re not engaging the problem, Ibarra says. You must be willing to live through the contradictions between identities in order to understand what you’re trying to change.


Needless to say, this process can be rough on a spouse or partner. “It’s hard to see the person you love go through these convulsions, where one day they want to be an investment banker, and the next a street musician, and the next a scuba-diving instructor,” Ibarra says. People with supportive partners had an easier time with transitions, and those who had an outside network with whom they could share stories–and angst–handled the inevitable frustrations of the process even more successfully.

Those who have toughed it out say the rewards are worth the turmoil. As Sandra Comas, a literature professor who became a financial consultant, says, “If I felt indifferent about life, I would never do this. It’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to care. But if you love life and have high expectations of what it can bring, it can be very enriching and rewarding.” nFC

Sidebar: Inch by Inch

Tiny experiments lead to a new life


Five years ago, Lesly Higgins had a top job with Commerce One, a hot pre-IPO software company in Pleasanton, California. As VP of software engineering, she had just shipped her first project and was debating which part of the company’s product line she wanted to supervise following a major acquisition. By any measure, she had one of the Bay Area’s dream tech jobs.

Then her husband asked her if she was really happy.

“I went to the gym the next morning and thought, Why am I doing this?” Higgins says by cell phone as she tools through Silicon Valley. “I told myself I had to stay until we go public. But then I thought, ‘I’m miserable. And I’m not willing to trade another year of my happiness for more stock options.’ “


In the late 1990s, that was a radical statement. To step away while the boom was still thundering through the West Coast was, to most people, unthinkable. But for Higgins, the deep-seated discontent that had troubled her for years had finally become unbearable.

Twenty years earlier, Higgins had fallen into high tech when a mentor saw her potential and encouraged her to become a software developer. Logical and detail- oriented, she quickly excelled. But a little voice inside kept saying, “I hope I’m not still doing this 10 years from now.” Yet, as promotions and raises kept coming, the prospect of change became too confusing to contemplate.

Trouble was, Higgins didn’t really love technology. Unlike a true code warrior, she viewed it more as a means to an end than as a product to be loved for itself. She knew she wasn’t happy, but she also knew she was baffled when it came to articulating what she should do instead.


While in a leadership training session, Higgins began to focus on the parts of her job that she found rewarding. “If I had to be honest with myself, I had to say it wasn’t about the technology; it was about the people,” she says. She realized that she enjoyed managing projects, setting goals, and motivating workers to achieve them.

Over the next year-and-a-half, Higgins set about experimenting with possible new careers that would be more people-focused. She took graduate courses in organizational development to learn the skills that she would need. She signed up for a conference led by organizational learning guru Peter Senge and discovered that she liked the field and felt instant rapport with the people in attendance. Feeling more confident, she finally quit her job at Commerce One and took part-time software consulting gigs while getting her new business up and running. That let her keep one foot in her more secure past. Still, the transition wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fast. “The hardest part was leaving the old job and not having the new thing be clear,” she says. “I thought about it as a leap of faith, believing that if I jumped off the cliff, the universe would throw out a safety net for me.”

Eventually, she found a way to blend her previous business experience with the more people-centered work that she had come to love. She now has her own practice as an executive coach for high-tech companies, with an impressive and growing client list. “I have credibility in high tech because I can speak the language, and I know all the challenges because I have the scars to show from similar battles,” she says. “Plus, I’m now making as good a living doing what I love as when I was doing what I hated.”


Sidebar: Contact High

New connections spark big ideas

If Sandra Comas were to cast her life story as a myth, she’d be the female version of Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways, whose two faces look in opposite directions. Comas, holder of four master’s degrees and a PhD in literature, spent 10 years teaching humanities with a specialization in Latin America, most recently at an Ivy League university. She’s now in her third year as a financial consultant at a top Wall Street firm. It’s hard to imagine two more-disparate cultures. To make the transition from one world to another, Comas knew that she needed a totally new network.

Her leap was neither logical nor easy. Disillusioned with academic politics and wages, she thought her skill as an amateur investor might indicate an aptitude for business. She began sampling courses at her university’s management school. “I got excited all over again,” she says from her office in Wilton, Connecticut. “I felt like I had at the outset of my academic career.” She excelled in class, but she was savvy enough to know that this leap required contacts even more than it demanded a facility with financial instruments. While at the business school, Comas took advantage of the opportunities offered to MBA students to land interviews with Wall Street firms. “Mobility in your career is often related to your contacts and your ability to enlist them to find out about possibilities and get in the door,” Ibarra says.


Comas, who confesses that she still misses her former intellectual life, “as you miss your best friend,” is now seeking a way to connect her two careers. An acquaintance at a college reunion recently told her of his job investing in Latin American companies. She was instantly intrigued. Now she’s exploring ways to work with nonprofit organizations that raise money for similar programs. “How cool would that be?” she says. “I could do something I love, believe in, and have a facility for. It would engage all my interests.”

Sidebar: Full Circle

Making sense of a career choice yet again

After 15 years in a medical specialty that had become increasingly frustrating, Juan Sanchez, a cardiac surgeon in Bridgeport, Connecticut, seriously considered throwing away his hard-won career. Feeling burned out, he spent a year pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, eager to see if the switch would engage him more.


After a year with fellow students and professors, Sanchez discovered that the stresses he had been feeling were not so different from what others were experiencing. As the year drew to a close, Sanchez just couldn’t imagine himself really leaving medicine. In Ibarra’s terms, the story of his transition just didn’t ring true. “A story should connect who you used to be with the person you want to be in the future in a way that has continuity,” she says. But, Sanchez realized, he already was who he wanted to be.

As he wrote in an email one evening, “My one year ‘time-out’ was a sort of refuel-ing station to reenergize and refocus. I wanted to be sure there wasn’t something else I’d rather do. There isn’t. For all its difficulties and obstacles, the satisfaction of saving lives and making people feel better still beats anything else. How could I have thought otherwise?”

The story Sanchez tells himself and others about his odyssey now has logic: He’s tested his calling and returned to his profession with a renewed passion for the career he chose as a young man. “I’ve validated my original decision,” he says.

Linda Tischler ( is a Fast Company senior writer.


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.