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Changing Careers, Changing Self


If traditional career-change tools have left you still sitting unhappily at your same old desk, it's time to try some eyebrow-raising strategies that will shake up both your career and your life. Here's a surprise: There's no single "perfect career" for you. Rather, there are many possible "selves" you could become, and matching the right self to the right career is more experimentation than deliberation.
By: Herminia Ibarra
If traditional career-change tools have left you still sitting unhappily at your same old desk, it's time to try some eyebrow-raising strategies that will shake up both your career and your life. Here's a surprise: There's no single "perfect career" for you. Rather, there are many possible "selves" you could become, and matching the right self to the right career is more experimentation than deliberation.

Susan, a 39-year-old consultant in a major strategy consulting firm and the head of change management practice, had had enough of her job's constant travel requirements. She worried that she had no quality of life and no time to spend with her daughters. Luckily, Susan had developed a good network, one that allowed her to cushion the transition to something new and different with some freelance work. Building on her old skills as a consultant, she quickly earned her regular salary — while working fewer hours. With the surplus time, she took on extracurricular projects that she found personally meaningful, in particular, volunteering her expertise to a nonprofit organization. Eventually, she ended up working full-time in the nonprofit sector.

Susan is one of the growing numbers of people in the past decade who are making — or at least considering — major career changes. The problem is that many of these career options never materialize, in part because most career changers find it hard to justify giving up a good job. Friends and family frequently tell them, "You must be out of your mind" to even consider a radical move, especially in the current economic climate.

Other professionals share the experience of a sense of loss — leaving behind a work community, abandoning an image of whom they thought they wanted to become. But the single biggest barrier they face is not giving up the old but rather imagining a new and better alternative to their current situation. Studies show that it usually takes three years from the time you think about leaving to actually walking out of the door.

As a professor at INSEAD, an international business school, I have discovered through a two-year research project that successful career change is rarely planned and certainly not linear. In fact, many people find out what they really want to do by meeting someone they admire or by experimenting with different jobs or ways of working. Serendipity also can play a vital role.

Let's return to Susan's story. In hindsight, her transition looks easy. But it wasn't. Like most workers, she had taken a few years to gather up the courage to leave her job. As a single mother and hard-driving professional, she had had little time to think about what she wanted to do with her career and life. Within a week, though, an old client called her, offering what seemed like the dream job in a Fortune 100 firm.

"It followed the relentless logic of the post-MBA CV," Susan explains.

She took the job and thought that she had been very clear about what she wanted in terms of travelling and other issues, but when she returned from Christmas vacation, she found that her schedule was chock full of intercontinental flights. Bravely, she quit after only two weeks, with no idea about what to do next.

Harris, a regulatory affairs director at a major health care firm, has another career story. After a four-week general management program at a top business school, Harris was ready for change. He wanted bottom-line responsibility, and he itched to put into practice some of the cutting-edge ideas he had learned. His longtime mentor, the firm's CEO, had promised to give him a business unit, but on his return, a complicated new product introduction delayed this long-awaited transition. Harris was needed in his old role, and as always, he put the company first.

He still lacked confidence, fixating on his shortcomings in finance and cross-functional experience. But he was disappointed; the challenge was gone. Resigned to waiting it out, he created a network of mentors, senior members of the firm whom he enlisted to guide his development and to help him land the coveted general management role. Eighteen months later he was still doing essentially the same job. What was he doing wrong?

Considering the experiences of Harris, Susan, and dozens of others whom I have studied, changing direction clearly is very hard. To make matters worse, conventional wisdom, which says that we should begin by defining what we want to do next before using that knowledge to guide our actions toward the one "right" job, is erroneous. This method does not work in real life. There is no one perfect career waiting to be discovered. Instead, there are many possible selves we might become — and finding the one that fits is the result of doing and experimenting, of trying on possibilities through a process of trial and error.

Remember, major career transitions take three to five years. To break free from your old self and advance toward something new, try these unconventional approaches.

  1. Forget introspection. You must act your way into a new way of thinking and being. Start by changing what you do. Try different paths. Take action and then use the feedback from your actions to figure out what you think, feel, and want. Don't try to analyze or plan your way into a new career. Step out. Be attentive to what each step teaches you and make sure that each step helps you take the next. Stop trying to find your one true self; focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.

  2. Experiment. Most people in the study had a side activity before leaving their old job. This gave them a degree of safety and allowed them to compare and contrast how they saw themselves in different settings and to determine what they liked. Participants did many things to set up these experiments: freelancing, working on a side business, working pro bono, doing creative work, or returning to school. Easily 90 percent of people in the study had some parallel path that helped them clarify what the new career would be. Typically, the parallel path began as a small investment but at some point picked up steam. They left work earlier, took new materials with them at lunchtime, and thought about their experiment all the time. People who make blind leaps usually make mistakes, so it is vital to have hands-on experience first.

  3. Break into new networks. The people around us, although they mean well, have a historical view and cannot always imagine us doing something different. Thus, to change careers you also must change your professional relationships. Common tactics include the following:

    • Finding a new peer group of people who have been through career change, who will understand what you want to do, and who will confirm that you are not out of your mind;

    • Finding role models — people who have made changes like this before or who are at least in the new world that you are starting to define and who can mentor you through a transition;

    • Finding a new professional community through conferences, workshops, and other learning experiences.

    Coworkers of Harris, for instance, could no more let go of their outdated image of a junior Harris than he himself could. But luckily, a temporary stint at the helm of his division prompted Harris to modify his perception. This concrete experience — more than any amount of self-reflection — helped him reorient his career, and he finally left his organization. He now is president and COO of a growing medical device company and is very involved in setting the strategic direction of his new firm.

    Another example is Kathy, who started a nonprofit career as an associate editor at a conservation publication, then slowly moved into organizational programming and event planning. "I think my boss just assumed I wanted to stay in editorial work, even when I expressed interest in what the program people were doing," she says. "I admit that it took me a long time to tell myself that what made me happiest was being out in the field with our members, doing on-the-ground environmental work and working with scientists and land managers — not just writing about it."

  4. Tell a new story. To gather the courage to change and to convince others that you are serious, you must have a good story. This is difficult at the outset if you do not know where you are going. It takes some practice, and you must recognize that your story will evolve. The need to tell a story that makes sense is why we hang on to significant events, such as milestone birthdays, to explain our desire to change. Significant life events also help us justify taking time out to reflect and crystallize a better understanding of what we really want and why.

  5. 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 in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.

    Unlike the traditional approach of "know first what you want to do and then use that knowledge," the five strategies above will help you successfully change careers, not just jobs. We all learn through experience, so experimenting with various career possibilities is the key to real and happy change in your work life. You must stop overthinking things and instead reach out to get involved in projects, meet new people, and tell your story as often as possible so that a new self-image can emerge.

    My study shows that changing careers means changing ourselves, but since we can be many selves, it is a transition process in which we can try out a range of options. There is no substitute for constant exploration. We do not find ourselves in a blinding flash of insight. We learn by doing, and each new experience is part answer and part question.

Author Link: Herminia Ibarra is the author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business School Press, 2003) and a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, an international business school located in Fontainebleau, France, where she teaches in the MBA and executive programs. Prior to joining INSEAD in 2002, she taught at Harvard Business School for 13 years. Ibarra can be reached at


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