You can reach a point where your job makes you feel completely embalmed. Your favorite horror movie is everyday life. It would be an interesting dilemma if there wasn’t so much to be uninterested in. You need a career transition.
If it’s any consolation, a lot of people are dealing with this right now. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about “quiet quitting.” (Plenty of loud quitting too.) After the two most collectively stressful years in modern history, people are starting to reconsider their big picture priorities. It’s less about deciding where you’d like to work and more about who you want to be.
Problem is, thinking this big is scary and the road forward is uncertain. You hear a lot about “finding yourself” and “making life changes” but nobody ever gives concrete instructions on how to actually do that.
Well, somebody has answers. Herminia Ibarra is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. She poured over the research and studied 39 cases of successful career transitions to get insights. Her book is “Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career.”
Ready to learn how to successfully make that big change – or how to help someone you love get out of that rut? Alright, let’s get to it…
Conventional wisdom says you need to know who you are and exactly what you want before you get started.
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA – I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe — HAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Sorry, but that’s dumb. Cosmically dumb. Like being punched with a boxing glove fashioned from dehydrated dumb. Most people don’t know exactly what they want, what their strengths are or what other careers will really be like. And thinking about it doesn’t help much.
Introspection is often a brain trap. The only thing less reliable than my phone’s Bluetooth connection is introspection. Thinking usually just leads to more thinking. Introspection is the most potent paralytic agent on earth. This doesn’t work. So what does?
Self-awareness comes from action. Doing comes first; knowing comes second. You’re much more likely to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting. We learn who we are in practice, not theory.
You need to create opportunities to “try on” new identities. The process isn’t “reflect and act” – it’s “test-and-learn.” Sorry, it’s a messy trial-and-error process. But this is how you find a good fit instead of falling into something – which is probably what you did last time.
A lot of people wonder about the perfect job for them. And this is a disaster. No, you do not have a “career soulmate.” Instead of asking overwhelming questions like “What was I truly meant to do?” it’s far better to start with testable questions like “Which among my many possible selves should I explore now?”
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How do you get started?
We tend to only flirt with serious things like disaster and other people. Instead, you want to flirt with possibilities. Start with “What if…?” questions. Think about the different possible “yous” there could be.
At first, go broad. Don’t limit yourself or make too many assumptions. What’s something you’ve always been passionate about? Which jobs would you sell your family to the circus in order to get? Now think of ways to do an experiment to see if they’re reasonable.
Side projects allow you to test new identities without compromising your current job or overcommitting. You need a canary for your coal mine. Small, fast, low-cost experiments that give you a feel for what the new career really entails. (I’d like to be a YouTube influencer but turns out I’m not great at being histrionic in front of green screens. Okay, scratch that off the list.)
Choose one or two new activities and make sure you have a way to evaluate the results. Talk to people in your areas of interest. Offer to help them on the weekend. Or volunteer in a similar role. Take night classes. Use vacation days to do a bigger test. Anything that gets you direct exposure without giving up your current paycheck.
As you learn more, narrow your area of interest and your experiments. Then deepen your investment — or switch to a new side project.
Okay, this is when it gets harder…
Here be monsters.
While running these experiments you’re going to feel like you’re constructed of 80% impostor syndrome and 20% Cheeto dust. It’s going to be confusing and you may feel like it’s not going well, like you have a chronic luck allergy.
Living between two identities is tricky. You’ll find yourself in a confusing place you didn’t even know existed, like West Dakota or East Carolina. And you’re going to be very busy.
This is uncomfortable but necessary. You short circuit it at your peril. You’ll want to throw your hands up and just order the career version of omakase – just let someone else decide. But you don’t want closure too early. You didn’t do this work just to feel the same boredom and frustration but in a new building. The goal is to learn and make incremental progress. It’s not a straight path. And it’s supposed to be hard.
If you’re doing this right, it’s not finding a new job – it’s finding a new you. Your head is cluttered with ingrained habits and assumptions. With other people’s values, expectations, and perceptions of you. You need to expose yourself to a bunch of different things to break up that calcified image and change your notions of who you are and who you can be. Without that revising, you may feel you’re not capable of the New Big Thing.
You’ll know it’s working when you start questioning big assumptions. When you’re able to start admitting to yourself that what you valued before isn’t as important to you. Maybe you’re now willing to give up a higher salary to have more autonomy or more time with your family. When you see what attracts you, you’ll see the old values start shifting. New sacrifices seem reasonable and your old sacrifices feel untenable. Your central organizing principle becomes less central – and makes way for a new one. This is how big changes feel possible.
It’ll take some time. You’re still in your larval stage. If you don’t want to waste time in an unfulfilling job the only way to prevent that is to waste some time now.
Track small wins and progress so you don’t get discouraged. Notice what you enjoy. What new thing makes your tail wag uncontrollably just at the thought of it? And notice what you don’t enjoy.
Some things will feel like a “no” and then clearly shift to a “very no.” You’re going to make mistakes. Some things will not work. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re learning and ruling things out. The only truly wrong move is no move at all.
Get more precise about the questions you need to answer to know if the current experiment will work long term. “Can I see myself in this? Does this feel right?”
Make sense? Good. Because, uh, we need to make this even harder…
So far it’s all been talk about “what” not “who.” Now that you have some insight and are spiraling closer to an answer, you need to find new people who are what you want to be so they can help you make the transition.
You current friends and contacts are great – but they can create a fence around your identity. They only know “old you” and can limit your vision of who “new you” might be. Your friends want to keep you safe. And they may not be able to let go of their current vision of who you are.
You need to reach past your immediate circle to get new, more relevant advice, opportunities, and help. You need a new community. It’s not just about the work. If you’re making a big change, you want to make sure you’re surrounded by people you respect and like. You want to evaluate a new career by whether you’re going to fit in. Do you want to become like the people in that arena? You better think about it because as Stanford MBA professor Bob Sutton notes, you will become like them.
You need feedback. (Pro tip: if you don’t have enough people criticizing you, by all means, start a blog.) People in your new industry know stuff, they’ve been there. They learned lessons the hard way that you don’t need to repeat. Their sclerosed wisdom can be your bouncy castle.
The benefits of a new community aren’t just concrete. They’ll give you the psychological safety to make the big jump when the time comes. And more than just advice, they’ll quietly provide the positive peer pressure you need to move forward and do what it takes.
Most of all, you want to find a new mentor. A role model. Someone who gives you a glimpse of who you can be once you’re further down the path. Look around and keep asking, “Do I want to be like him?” or “Can I be like her?”
You need someone who knows the territory to tell you you’re not crazy. To give you an accurate assessment of your potential in that new arena that they understand. It’s vital to have someone in those early stages of a transition who can provide emotional reassurance and tell you what you’re dealing with is normal – or, even more importantly, if something is a problem.
Next step? We need to go a little deeper…
How often have you thought about your story? The story you tell yourself about who you are and what you’re capable of. You probably think about it as often as people with electric cars get gas. Your story is out of date. You haven’t been that person since 1864.
Remember: you’re not just changing careers; you’re changing identities. You’ve been doing self-karaoke for a long time, telling yourself who you were then. But now you need to sing a new song. You need to unfreeze your vision of yourself to jump-start change.
You need to alter that story in your head based on what you’ve learned from your experiments and from your new community. As long as you cling to your old story, the new career will feel scary. You need to build a path from who you were to who you will be.
Look at your previous skills, interests and behaviors from a new angle. And throw in a little narrative legerdemain. If I only saw myself as a “blogger”, doing a book might seem impossible. But I’m not a “blogger”, I’m a “writer.” Broaden your idea of your skills in a way where they are more transferable. A little bit of personal-brand bonsai pruning can go a long way toward making the shift more emotionally safe.
Revise your story and try it out. Run it by others who know the field and update it. With time it will clarify. All this will pay off big later when writing resumes, cover letters and during interviews. It’s a lot easier to pitch yourself in a new role when you’ve given your new story thought and fully internalized it. This is what creates confidence.
Okay, this last part is easier, I promise…
Take a vacation, a weekend away, or even just a long drive to let yourself think. You need to detach a bit to emotionally metabolize all of these changes. An incubation period.
There will be a moment where it all jells. Like artistic inspiration, it will “click.” The cognitive will become intuitive. Your new story won’t be out there – it will be in you. You’ll ask yourself if you’re ready and you’ll hear a “yes.” And you haven’t been this thrilled about a yes since prom night.
Now you’ll be able to truly execute. Is there anything left that’s standing in the way of the big switch? You’re probably already more than halfway there. With your new story, you’ll have a better idea of where you’re at and what help you need to ask for. And others will no longer see you as unfocused because you’ve internalized your new story.
“Knowing yourself” isn’t the start of a transition. It’s the prize at the end.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn the biggest benefit of a new “you”…
Here’s how to make that big career transition:
You can’t rent out your soul. It always ends up as a sale.
One of the career changers in Herminia’s study said this: “There are two types of people. Some are always jumping. Some never jump—they settle down too easily and get stuck.”
Self-renewal is an ongoing balance. Now and then we jump. Other times we settle in. There is no final getting to “you.” We’re always changing. Always growing. “You” is a moving target.
Does that sound awful? Like a catastrophe? Don’t see it that way. We need change. We need challenges. You don’t want to be bored. That’s part of what made you want to make a change in the first place.
We need to keep learning and growing. To be someone else for a while in order to be a better you. It’s not a catastrophe. It’s what J.R.R. Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe.” It’s “a catastrophe that results in the protagonist’s well-being.”
You want a great adventure, Frodo. A series of adventures.
What feels like the worst can be a door to the best if we merely choose to see it that way.
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