Experimenting with Identities @ Work

The worst question you could ask a child or really anyone is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This assumes that we will end at a final destination or that there is only one possible outcome for work. In our professional lives, I think we are always “becoming” — that is, we continue to evolve who we are, what we are doing, and where we want to go in our career. Lately, I have been thinking more about the transitions folks make in their working lives, and how this changing of careers also challenges our own identity. Our professional identities do not just evolve over night. Changing a career path is more than just finding a new job in a different industry or stepping into a new role in your organization. The process of reinventing is a more unconventional challenge and the transition process takes time to sort out how to “be” in a new world of work.

“… changing careers means redefining our working identity – how we see ourselves in our professional roles, what we convey about ourselves to others, and ultimately, how we live our working lives. Career transitions follow a first-act-and then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are so tightly connected. The tight connection is the result of years of action; to change it, we must resort to the same methods.”

Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

I think running small experiments and testing new possibilities helps us think more about our professional identity and the work we might want to actually do. Exploring career options and trying out future possible selves helps us bridge the work experience we’ve done in the past with who we might want to become in the future. These small experiments might be learning a new skill (e.g. coding in Ruby Rails, video editing, starting a podcast, etc.) or interacting with professionals in the future world of work you want to join (e.g. LinkedIn Groups, virtual meetups, conferences, etc.) Trying something new might be scary, but dipping your toe into the waters of new ways of working in practice (not theory) and meeting peers in your future occupational space might just help to ease your career transition.

“Our insight into ourselves is constrained by our roster of previous experiences. We learn who we are in practice, not theory.”

How To by Slate, “How To Start Over at 60” BONUS: “How to Find a New Career before It’s Too Late” with Jessi Hempel. P.S. It’s never too late.

Ibarra (2004, p. 18) offers ways to “practice” this idea of experimentation to promote successful career changes, when reworking a professional identity:

  1. Crafting Experiments: Trying out new activities and professional roles on a small scale before making a major commitment to a different path
  2. Shifting Connections: developing contact who can open doors to new worlds; finding role models and new peer groups to guide and benchmark our progress
  3. Making Sense: finding or creating catalysts and triggers for change and using them as occasions to rework our story

These seem like small steps — but it not always that simple. Some of the work/career experimentation process is going to not be fun. You might have to sit with not knowing, ambiguity, and not being that great at the new thing. Being a beginner in a new space is going take some time and work, and sitting in the murky middle of a life/career transition will not always be easy. That being said, small tests and trials can help you figure out how you want to evolve your own professional identity and find a new working self you want to be. The flip side to this process, if figuring out what you have to let go for who you want to become. Your future work self will have to let go of the career path to draft a new narrative of where you might go professionally.

During my year of “figuring it out” before I leaped, I spent a lot of time asking questions, learning from others, and connecting to peers to understand the skills and practice in their profession and the challenges they faced in their own career pivots. In talking to others who have experimented with their work identity and redirected their own career paths, like Kristin Powers, Season 2: Career Changers, and interviews from women on the #InVinoFab podcast, I’ve gained so much from these conversations to support my career transition. Here are my lessons learned that might support your own professional journey and exploration if you are considering a career transition:

  1. Find organizations that will help you to learn, grow, and thrive.
  2. Align your career with your personal and professional values.
  3. Build your community and expand your connections to support.
  4. Be open to new opportunities, identify fit, and know this journey may not always direct.
  5. Consider how your collaborations and creative ideas can shape your body of work.
  6. Assess, know, and play to your strengths to find ways to kindle your passions in work.
  7. Reflect on the “things” (the verbs) you enjoy doing daily: activities, tasks, and projects.
  8. Always be learning and be a curious learner throughout your working life.

I have also learning the value of “casting out lines” or trying on different possibles selves — specifically by reflecting on my own working identity with these powerful questions:

  • What activities and challenges will engage you most at work?
  • What professional groups do you want to belong to to support your career growth?
  • What working relationships are you building to support your career transition?
  • What events, work experiences, and past stories of your professional life can you link and transfer into the working identity you want to develop?

How are you experimenting with your work identity these days? How are you testing ideas to bridge who you are now with where you want to be in your career?

2 thoughts on “Experimenting with Identities @ Work”

  1. thanks for sharing Laura. Like you I “jumped” and have been carving out a new independent identity within education and a separate one as an artist. It can be hard to juggle at times, particularly on some social networking sites, however I am finding my own path I think!


    1. In reading this, I realised that I might still be in that murky middle of figuring out my space and place for my professional self — both online and in the working world. I wanted others to know that this takes practice and actual work to transition to the next thing. It won’t just be a new job, but a way you want to live, work, and be. I appreciate hearing your thoughts, Sheila!


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