How to reinvent your career

I like to say that I function at the junction of payroll employment and solopro-ing (freelancing / consulting). So I observe trends in pursuing both types of work.

Lately I have been intrigued by a book that presents an unusual take on how midlife professionals reinvent their careers.

Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business School Press, 2003) is based on years of research consisting largely of in-depth, open-ended interviews of professionals, usually between the ages of 38 and 43, who are considering major career changes.

Ibarra’s observations overthrow traditional advice to understand yourself, then understand the environment, by instead recommending a first-act-and-then-think sequence in career reinvention. Self-assessment, especially when conducted at length, is not the starting point for change, she argues. Instead, temporary assignments, education, networking with others, etc. precede self-analysis; we act and then we process what happened. In retrospect, her subjects found that the only wrong move is to make no move at all.

Additional findings include:

  • Career reinvention involves turmoil. It is messy. Attempts to short-circuit the disarray can actually make the process even longer due to mistakes along the way. In fact, the entire process of reinvention typically takes years, as in three to five years!
  • Start with small decisions and small projects. Ibarra recommends searching out small steps to test new paths so that we do not burn our bridges and abandon secure jobs too hastily.
  • Don’t expect a single cataclysm to reveal your truth. Everyday occurrences tend to add more clarity to our decisions, and their importance may only be recognized retrospectively.

One aspect of the book bothers me. The renewal process is similar regardless of the state of the economy, Ibarra claims. Still, the case studies are by and large about people playing an amazingly strong hand with impressive educational credentials, important career titles and access to prestigious mentors. Largely they are calling the shots in their own lives, threatened with neither massive layoffs nor solo disciplinary action—even though their commitment to their job may have been waning for years.

Take the university professor in the humanities who turned her back on college employment to become a stockbroker, having built confidence in her analytical skills and financial acumen in a soaring bull market. Wonder how she and her clients have fared more recently.

What most excites me about this book is how Ibarra’s teachings mesh with my own experiences as I explored alternatives to freelance writing and came to launch Stand Up 8 Times. I tested many choices without abandoning the practice I had developed and searched out (and found) diverse opportunities and mentors.

Equally exciting is how my Stand Up 8 Times system for quick-starting a freelance or consulting practice lines up with Ibarra’s recommendation to start with action over thinking. While many books on how to freelance suggest extensive thinking and planning up front, the alternative is to jump in with action—in this case quickly selecting a starting niche and then contacting people who may give assignments rather than laboring over extensive, but unproven, plans.

I heartily recommend this book for its interesting insights into how to remake your life. How does the book (or this summary) support (or contradict) your life lessons?

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4 responses to “How to reinvent your career

  1. It’s like Michael Masterson says, Ready, Fire, Aim!

  2. It’s kind of like the “agile” software concept applied to careers. How do you expect to plan your whole career when the underlying conditions change constantly? The best way is to think long-term, but implement a little at a time.

    Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well for career paths that take a lot of dedicated training. Nobody pursues a medical career a little at a time, trying a few steps and seeing how it goes.

    But for professions and trades that don’t require a tremendous amount of up-front commitment, informed experimentation is the best way to test your ideas.

  3. Mark, yes, the book’s author would agree. The people she interviewed transitioned out of fields that take years of preparation but did not transfer into such fields. There were some examples of further education, but at most it was a year or so for an MBA. The education was undertaken more to test the new career before wholeheartedly jumping in than to gain necessary qualifications after the change decision was made.

  4. My drsweetie started college (undergraduate) really wanting to be an environmental or civil rights lawyer. She took about two pre-law classes and said… nuh-uh. Boring.

    She went for the double B.A. in English and History, then the English M.A., then the English Ph.D., and loves her full-time lectureship, all at the same university.

    Good thing she didn’t get stuck in law school first.

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