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Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

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How Successful Career Changers Turn Fantasy into Reality

Whether as a daydream or a spoken desire, nearly all of us have entertained the notion of reinventing ourselves. Feeling unfulfilled, burned out, or just plain unhappy with what we’re doing, we long to make that leap into the unknown. But we also hold on, white-knuckled, to the years of time and effort we’ve invested in our current profession.

In this powerful book, Herminia Ibarra presents a new model for career reinvention that flies in the face of everything we’ve learned from "career experts." While common wisdom holds that we must first know what we want to do before we can act, Ibarra argues that this advice is backward. Knowing, she says, is the result of doing and experimenting. Career transition is not a straight path toward some predetermined identity, but a crooked journey along which we try on a host of "possible selves" we might become.

Based on her in-depth research on professionals and managers in transition, Ibarra outlines an active process of career reinvention that leverages three ways of "working identity": experimenting with new professional activities, interacting in new networks of people, and making sense of what is happening to us in light of emerging possibilities.

Through engrossing stories—from a literature professor turned stockbroker to an investment banker turned novelist—Ibarra reveals a set of guidelines that all successful reinventions share. She explores specific ways that hopeful career changers of any background can:

Explore possible selves
Craft and execute "identity experiments"
Create "small wins" that keep momentum going
Survive the rocky period between career identities
Connect with role models and mentors who can ease the transition
Make time for reflection—without missing out on windows of opportunity
Decide when to abandon the old path in order to follow the new
Arrange new events into a coherent story of who we are becoming.

A call to the dreamer in each of us, Working Identity explores the process for crafting a more fulfilling future. Where we end up may surprise us.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2002

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Herminia Ibarra

29 books50 followers

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5 stars
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182 (17%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 111 reviews
Profile Image for Roxanne.
Author 1 book52 followers
May 13, 2009
This book wants to be a self-help book. In actuality it's more of a theory book, with little in the way of practical solutions or strategies.

Ibarra states in the Preface that this book is not for everyone--it's aimed specifically at "the mid-career professional who questions his or her career path after having made a long-term investment of time, energy, and education in that path." Great, right? Actually, probably half the case studies that Ibarra presents describe people who were to my eye quite high on the career ladder, possessing high-ranking titles and running entire divisions of companies. Ibarra seems to define "mid-career" or "mid-level" differently than I would. These individuals made career changes, yes, but mostly to consulting, or to doing similarly high-ranked work at a company in a different industry. Ibarra did present some other sorts of career changers--a psychologist and author who became a Buddhist monk, a Spanish literature professor who became a stock trader and financial advisor, a finance banker who became a sucessful novelist, all of whom are mentioned in the book description, but these sorts of people aren't the main content of the book; there's much more focus on the corporate types. Across the board, all of Ibarra's case studies are exceptionally well educated white-collar professionals, and mostly they are upper class people who can afford to take a sabbatical to explore their options. What about the plumber interested in a career change? Or the real estate agent or elementary school teacher? Those careers have "mids" too, but Ibarra doesn't seem interested in them. Ibarra also doesn't tackle race as an issue in career change, and she only deals with gender so far as the case study participants themselves discuss it (not wanting to downgrade to the "mommy track", or not wanting to settle for a submissive, or helping, "female" role).

The theoretical strategies are interesting, and it's clear that Ibarra has done her research--she's a professor of organizational change who taught at Harvard Business School for many years, so she's well-versed in how to do research. Many statements throughout the book are footnoted to relevant literature, and there's an appendix detailing her interviewing and data gathering methods (a little out of the ordinary for a self-help book, but necessary in a theory book). Her theories about career change make sense, but I just didn't feel that I could relate to a lot of the case studies, so it was hard for me to connect to the theory. I was hoping for more practical pointers, too. Most of the people I know couldn't conduct a career change the way the people in the case studies do.

If you're interested in theories of career change, and case studies of well-educated professionals who undertook successful changes, then this might be an good read for you. For practical advice on switching to a new career, I don't recommend this book--try The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine instead.
Profile Image for Adam.
193 reviews4 followers
June 16, 2012
Rings true, very interesting, slightly academic tone.

Author has interviewed a lot of people who made career changes, mostly around the age of 40. It's basically a critique of the classic "top down" approach, where you start by picking a long term goal, and move from there. She argues that the way career changes happen in the real world is through a series of small steps and experiments, and that people mostly learn through experimentation, not through introspection about "what was I meant to do?" Also, that the transition from one "life" to another is not a single aha moment, followed by wholesale change, followed by unalloyed bliss. Instead she talks about transition periods that last years, and which are often filled with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.

Definitely worth reading if you have an interest in the subject. She gives lots of examples, and her thesis definitely rings true. One problem I have is that most of the subjects were highly successful to begin with, have plenty of savings, still relatively young, and basically have very few barriers and limitations to deal with. If you're not in that situation, the book can leave you feeling just slightly hopeless.
Profile Image for Iulia.
113 reviews
January 11, 2021
A really great and insightful book with a modern approach towards career.
Profile Image for Bogdan Alexa.
19 reviews22 followers
March 9, 2020
I've found this book to contain valuable and pertinent ideas/advice, all the more maybe because I'm going through a working-identity crisis and job-frustration.
It gave me some comfort, validating my feelings, reading about the case studies the author pursued and it was just comforting to know the simple fact that these things are normal and that many people are likely to go through them and that it's not the end of the world, as well that there are people with a more complicated personal life that managed to make a shift.
I've found the advice given by the author sound. The 9 Unconventional strategies for career change are solid and backed by good research.
12 reviews
November 11, 2021
If you think you can think your way through a major career change, you'll think twice after reading this book. Its premise actually is that career changes are primarily a result of action, less of thinking, and often are a result of iterative testing and experimentation with different selves, that ultimately are rearranged to form a new identity. Plenty of relatable examples for the knowledge worker that give concrete credence to the premise.
Profile Image for Patty.
369 reviews10 followers
May 27, 2021
Want to find your next career move? Experiment. Apparently. And skip this book unless you like fluff with case studies mixed in.
Profile Image for Kate Arms.
Author 6 books6 followers
September 28, 2017
Considering a career change - read this first

One of the best books on career change I have read. Ibarra does not set out a neat and tidy, step-by-step to do list because everybody's path will be different. Instead, the reader is through the process of change with a variety of research subjects and given a theoretical model that explains why some of these subjects were satisfied after the change and why others failed to make a fulfilling shift.

And then, the book ends with a few principles that will guide a search to a more fulfilling job or career.

In a world where career advice is mostly still given based on the old model of understanding personality type as fixed and rational decision-making as infallible, this approach based on neuroplasticity, human development, and whole-self functioning is a welcome addition to the career change market.
158 reviews
August 31, 2019
Boring and a little unrelateable. All the examples seemed to be of extremely successful people with an excellent network to exploit. There wasn't much for Joe the Plumber to learn about changing his career. It was occasionally interesting to learn how these kinds of changes usually progress and pick out those behaviors in myself - testing the waters, finding a new network, exploring different identities. Still, it felt like it could have been a HBR article instead of a whole book.
Profile Image for Joe.
56 reviews
June 4, 2011
Pretty short and dry, but in general a good survey of what people actually go through when changing to a different career. In short, the way to do it is to try different things and iterate.
1 review1 follower
June 5, 2017
It could have been summarised in half a page in my view and I didn't find any breakthrough-type insight
Profile Image for Stephen Topp.
336 reviews6 followers
March 23, 2021
This is a brilliant book, which gets to the root of the problem at the heart of making a career change: the idea that you're meant to have an epiphany, and wake up a new person with a clear direction.

Life is messier than that.

Ibarra explores what a mid-career shift looks like, exploring many different permutations around feeling out and making a change. It's a brilliant exploration of the topic, and I would recommend it to anybody thinking of making a change.

My main gripe is one that actually made me scoff at a statement in the final pages of the book. Ibarra writes "So can anyone, regardless of education, social class, or gender, make a major change at midcareer? The [examples contained in this book] suggest that the answer is yes."

Ibarra's case studies are typify a common flaw in this type of book. Everybody has a post-graduate degree and/or is in a place where they get offered CEO roles. Nobody struggles to pay the mortgage, nevermind the rent.

It leaves a taste in the mouth that suggests that "finding yourself" and making a change out of an unsatisfying career is only something available to the privileged and wealthy.

Is that true? Maybe - but Ibarra doesn't seem to think so. It would have been nice if she included evidence of this.

That said, as someone who (despite being deeply privileged) lacks both a graduate degree and Chief Executive opportunities, I found the book hugely illuminating, and believe the insights within will play an outsized role in determining the direction of the second half of my career.
Profile Image for Ershen.
70 reviews18 followers
March 20, 2022
While the subheading of Ibarra’s book is “strategies to reinvent your career”, I picked this up because I was drawn to the concept of a working identity: identity in progress. Even if you (like me) are not contemplating a career change, I think there are worthy insights to be found here.

As I grow into my career I find my identity and beliefs shifting and sharpening — and while my work informs my identity, I sometimes find myself thinking about over-identification and its consequences. Our identities are informed by many different streams, and “we are not one true self, but many selves. Those identities exist in the past, present, future.” Ibbara warns that over-identification to one particular identity can lead to a lack of growth in other areas. She retells a parable of a woman swimming across a lake with a rock in her hand — as the woman nears the centre of the lake, she starts to sink under the weight of the stone. People watching from the shore yell and urge her to drop the rock, but she keeps swimming, sinking more and more. As she sinks, they hear here say “I can’t. It’s mine.”

Besides the talk of careers and identity, I was drawn to Ibbara’s discussion of departures. While she talks about it in the context of the workplace and career changes, it‘s poetic in other ways. Departures from our ‘ought-to-be’ and old versions of self are sometimes hard to recognise. She offers advice on how to act on these signals for departure, and to have the courage enact other versions of ourselves which might be struggling to surface.
Profile Image for Michael.
185 reviews28 followers
March 21, 2017
Explore! Try! Action!
These are the key words that shake up the paradigm that I've been taught to thoughtfully, logically and methodologically figure out next career steps.

The author focuses on how to go about acting and trying your plans first and learning oneself that way. She "reverses the conventional 'thinking before doing' logic to successfully change careers".

It's refreshing. Similar to the way the education system is flipping how to learn. Instead of going to class for a lecture and doing "homework" at home, they are now focusing on watching lectures at home and then doing the work in groups at school.

In one's life and career, instead of focusing on contemplating what to do ...."only by our actions do we learn who we want to become."

I also liked the parable about a woman swimming across a lake with a rock in her hand described in the book. "As the woman neared the center of the lake, she started to sink from the weight of the stone. People watching from the shore urged her to drop the rock, but she kept swimming, sinking more and more. To the gathering crowd, the solution was obvious. Their "drop the rock" chorus grew louder and louder with her increasingly difficulty staying afloat. But all their yelling did little good. As she sank, they heard her say, "I can't. It's mine".

128 reviews4 followers
January 22, 2023
In our work-obsessed society, changing jobs can be tantamount to reinventing your identity, even your worldview. In this semi-academic exploration, Ibarra embraces this idea and expounds on it, encouraging readers who have become tired and frustrated with their worklife to dig into deeper questions about what would make you happy, to resist settling for easy, shallow shifts (that can result in taking you from the proverbial frying pan to the fire), and to investigate and create novel opportunities by developing new networks of colleagues and experimenting with unfamiliar potential identities. Using the experiences of individuals who have made successful, often dramatic changes in their careers, she illustrates commonalities in how each approached the process.

Ibarra's interviewees lean heavily toward the high-earning tech and business elite, however... in essence, those who are more likely to find their skills in demand. The book could greatly have benefited by including a few examples of career transitions outside elite circles and highly privileged workers, but I suppose that was not the stated aim of most of her studies.
Profile Image for André Henriques.
69 reviews1 follower
January 30, 2020
As the author so clearly mentions, if you are expecting a 10-point plan for career transaction, this might not be the book you want.

However, in what might be missing in practicality, in my view, the author clearly hits the nail in the head with an incredible framework based more in experimentation that introspection, that might help the reader make sense of some of the confusion of the transaction he might be going.

The examples and stories the author showcase in the book, are great and insightful, and although for some people might not be easy to relate with them - in my opinion, the population studied is quite homogeneous which might difficult some intended comparison - I found it some of the takeaways transversal to my own story.

All in all, if you are someone that is going through a period of questioning your current self and looking for some other possibilities, this should be mandatory reading.
Profile Image for Lavanya Madhusudan.
16 reviews4 followers
March 9, 2022
Mostly the results of the author’s study of professionals (mostly in business careers) who have considered and navigated career transition/reinvention. It reads like the results of a qualitative study and seeks to convey the main themes of how people actually end up changing careers (by trying out new things rather than thinking/planning and then doing) to combat the popular idea that we need to figure ourselves out first via introspection before we jump into something else. Was a bit academic/overt detailed at times but overall worth the read. I found that it helped validate things I’ve been feeling and how my journey in making a major career is going. I do think introspection is valuable, to help folks determine what options align with their values and narrow the list. But I appreciate the author’s emphasis of career change being an iterative process of trying, learning, modifying and trying again.
Profile Image for Margot Note.
Author 9 books55 followers
July 19, 2021
"'Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting.' We rethink our selves in the same way: by gradually exposing ourselves to new worlds, relationships, and roles" (2).

"Change always takes much longer than we expect because to make room for the new, we have to get rid of some of the old selves we are still dragging around and, unconsciously, still invested in becoming" (13).

"The hard work of making a career transition includes finding reason behind the emotions, digging deeper to understand our intuitions so we can use them as data, and, if still confused, crafting additional experiments. Thi is especially critical when we are using traditional routes, such as headhunters and outplacement centers, as well as the methods described here to take use to uncharted territory" (108).
63 reviews
April 8, 2020
I have been in the career change mode for about 6 months now with ups and downs. My initial approach was also to plan everything in advance and have my perfect job written down so it is just a matter of searching and applying for the right job.
This book has taught me different and that action and experimentation is the right way to go. Ofcourse you need to have an idea of what the next step will be but the disciplne and the action is the main thing that counts. Also the time we need to take to make the career change should not be underestimated. This book has acknowledged Zach current approach is in line with what others do. I hope other people can also find this encouragement by reading this book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
1 review
January 11, 2023
Herminia Ibarra gives a fantastic insight on reinventing your career. She describes the process and the different stages one needs to go through. Very helpful were the stories of study participants who experienced change but also errors.
I specifically enjoyed the part when she was talking about “alert intermissions“ or also known as the pivotal events that we are secretively waiting for because they give us this one meaningful sign or impulse to confirm that we are on the right track. Last but not least, I was positively surprised over the unconventional strategies at the end of the book. This book was everything I wished for.
37 reviews
November 12, 2019
If you are like me going through a career/identity phase, you need to read this book. Very unbiased analysis of people who have been going through the career change laying out their doubts and the dilemmas. what I enjoyed about this book was Herminia Ibarra's tone and the use of research and data to prove a point and not just support her point of view. I took notes all through the books and have been going back to my notes again and again, Very useful, very easy to read and not a "pop-psychology".
Profile Image for Shauna.
30 reviews7 followers
March 28, 2020
Some good nuggets to pick out but too long winded and boring.

Key takeways for me:
- In career transitions, act NOT think your way into a new identity, because you will be a different person at the end.
- Run small experiments with many possible selves to explore new identities in the process of becoming vs looking for your “true” self
- Don’t rush out of the transition stage of contradictions between your current and future selves
- Find people to connect to (these are likely not “strong” connections since those might likely be invested in keeping you in your current identity)
April 5, 2020
A good book that is both a wake up call and a self-help guide to navigate the process of redefining one's professional identity. The book is built on nine core principles (summarised in chapter eight of the book), and several long-form examples. Herminia provides an actionable roadmap that can be arranged in five macro steps. A good driving tone of the book and call to action are very helpful not to get stuck in the process, yet some of the long-form examples and analysis tend to reiterate the same principles... Probably for better comprehension and retention.
Profile Image for Sequoia.
106 reviews
November 15, 2020
career transition book -- but good for any (middle-life?) transition. Broke the good old formula "find your passion --> have a great nice plan --> follow the plan and everything works just beautifully"... This is more like the coherent after-story we made up for ourselves. The process actually is way more messier; you trip and stumble, run back and forth. It also takes longer than one may have thought. But, let's say, it's hopeful. People have done it. By talking to more people, explore and experiment, fail and continue.
307 reviews
October 17, 2018
Someone I met recently recommended this book to me. I would have liked more concrete tips, though I do understand the basic message of the book. Rather than spending time figuring ourselves out, we should just start doing things - taking action, and making little experiments. She also talked about portfolio careers, where you have a few different things you work on at the same time. I liked that concept. It's good for those of us who don't know what we want to be when we grow up!
60 reviews
April 11, 2021
This was a good book on how to approach career transitions. Near the back of the book, the author provides outlined summaries to follow to guide you through the testing and experimenting phases of the transition process.

I feel like this is one I need to reread to fully absorb. She uses real people examples throughout the book and you learn key takeaways throughout the chapters. I believe that in re-reading it, it would be more easily to absorb and comprehend than the first time through.
31 reviews
August 27, 2022
A retired American Express executive recommended this book to me. I learned we are many selves, not just the self-defined singular version established early in the career journey and reinforced over time.

Working Identity shares real examples of individuals who explored, experimented and tested interests and long-held hunches to define a new path for themselves. In my view, the insights shared in this book are powerful because they are practical and tested.
March 23, 2019
unconventional book about mid-life or career changes, thought provoking

this book give real life examples of transition and provokes one to think about how to apply it to self.... less structure than other similar genres, however a great read to get ideas and also identifying oneself.
Profile Image for Paul Menezes.
7 reviews4 followers
December 14, 2019
Very well written and based on the premise that finding your "true self" should come at the end of your journey, and not at the very beginning. Finding non-committal opportunities to flirt those different selves will assist in identifying a new desired working identity.

Would have given it 5 stars if the interviewees varied more.
Profile Image for Anna Fedusiv.
50 reviews5 followers
October 26, 2022
Fantastic book which should read anyone undergoing professional transition. What I particularly liked about it is a science- based approach which the author uses to showcase different strategies of a career transition. Multitude of transition scenarios allowed to have a broader overview on what phases transition might take. All in all- a good one
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