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Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra - Book Review by John Ainley

By John, Feb 11 2014 10:20AM

Two key ideas form the core of this book: that we should determine our career steps by trial and error and that we should accept our ‘myriad possible selves’ rather than view ourselves as constant.


Professor Ibarra’s researched those that have achieved much in their working lives and are happy with their work. She concluded that such people did not achieve their state of satisfaction through the pursuit of a traditional planned career development route.


Through her research Ibarra identified key successful career strategies:


• Act your way into a new way of being; one does not discover oneself through introspection. It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting.

• Stop trying to find your ‘one true self’. Instead focus on which of the many possible selves you want to test and learn from

• Take a transition period and oscillate between holding on and letting go

• Resist taking a big decision that changes everything at once, use a strategy of small and incremental steps

• Find people who are already doing what you want to do and talk to them

• Don’t wait for a revelatory moment; use everyday events to find meaning. Practice telling your story, overtime it will clarify and become real

• Step back…but not for too long

• Change happens in bursts. There are times when you are open to change and times when you are not, seize the opportunity presented by those times.


The book caused me to consider the work in the context of Rooke and Torbert’s ‘7 transformations of Leadership – Harvard Business Review Magazine, April 2005’. This research argues that in order to make significant change the individual has to have progressed their development to a Kohlberg ‘Post conventional’ stage, i.e. to live by their own ethical principles that typically include such basic human rights as life, liberty, and justice. People who exhibit post-conventional morality view rules as useful but changeable mechanisms. Ibarra’s research has real merit, but is it a ‘post conventional’ approach to change? and as such it may not be available as a way of thinking to those earlier in their personal development journey. The danger of trialing and experimenting in someone who gains their joy at work from achieving or pleasing their superiors could be considerable.


As one individual who has recently changed my career significantly, I did find Ibarra’s thinking useful and would counsel those who are considering a significant career change to read and consider it.


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