Book Recommendation: Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra

March 22, 2019

A must read for anyone considering a career transition

While I was reading Working Identity I found many of the points that Herminia Ibarra, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, resonated with my experiences of changing careers. I have made several career transitions to date, in search of the "perfect match" and I wish I had Ibarra’s "unconventional strategies" for a successful transition in mind!

The book is laid out in a series of narratives of people’s true career transition stories. The examples given are varied in terms of people’s careers, personal circumstance, transition timeframes, etc. However they all have some similarities in terms of the strategies used to make these transitions. I thought that these personal stories made the book easy to read, given that they were very carefully chosen to reflect and back up all the research that has been done around this topic by Ibarra. 

“All good stories hinge on turning points.” 
“A small symbolic moment, rather than an operatic event, jelled awareness that the time was ripe for change.” 

Ibarra states that the only way to create change is to put our possible identities into practice, "working and crafting them until they are sufficiently grounded in experience to guide more decisive steps". Change will not come about if we just stick to looking within and soul searching.

In the first part of her book, Identity in Transition, Ibarra describes the process of questioning and testing one’s working identities, moving on to talk about the need for breaking down our more long term question of "who do I want to become" to more testable questions which can be tested. Ibarra also talks about the uncertain period of transition between our current identity and the one that we are trying to adopt. Her view is that even if this period seems quite chaotic and unsettling, we need to embrace it and let the transition happen. Our sense of identity will inevitably shatter before it reconfigures.

The second part of the book describes which actions throughout the transition period will increase our chances of making a successful change. In the last chapter, BecomingYourself, there is a summary of all the unconventional strategies described in the book. These are as follows:

Unconventional Strategy #1: Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection. 

Ibarra advocates to not rely on self-assessment manuals and looking inside you for the answers. Instead, it would be much more beneficial to step out and be attentive to what each step teaches you, making sure that each one helps you take the next.

UNCONVENTIONAL strategy #2: 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.

Conventional methods of planning and implementing a career change often offer some logical steps (research career fields; develop at least two different tracks or lists of ideas; go out into the market for a reality check; home in on a career target and develop a strategy for getting there). However they do not take into account that we learn in multi-layered, iterative ways and that as we search, the new information we acquire might lead us into different paths.

“Do not try to analyse or plan your way into a new career”.

UNCONVENTIONAL Strategy #3: Allow yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go. Better to live the contradictions than to come to a premature resolution.

During the transition phase, people need to watch out for decisions made hastily, especially when it comes to unsolicited offers. By trying to short-circuit the process, the most likely result is that it will take longer. 

UNCONVENTIONAL Strategy #4: 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.

Small steps lead to big changes, so don't waste time, energy, and money on finding the "answer" or the "lever" that, when pushed, will have dramatic effects.

Almost no one gets change right on the first try. Forget about moving in a straight line. You will probably have to cycle through a few times, letting what you learn inform the next cycle.

You will know that you are learning at a deeper level when you start to question what aspects of your life apart from your job also need changing. 

UNCONVENTIONAL Strategy #5: Identify projects that can help you get a feel for a new line of work or style of working. Try to do these as extracurricular activities or parallel paths so that you can experiment seriously without making a commitment.

This is a low risk strategy as you can take on these projects or activities alongside your existing job/career.

Even though these projects are extra-curricular, they need to be taken seriously; they should also be varied so that you can try different things. 

UNCONVENTIONAL Strategy #6: Don’t just focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles. 

When networking, we need to try and break out of our usual social circles and try to meet people that work and live their lives in the way we aspire to do as well. 

UNCONVENTIONAL Strategy #7: Don’t wait for a cataclysmic moment when the truth is revealed. Use everyday occurrences to find meaning in the changes you are going through. Practice telling and retelling your story. Over time it will clarify.

Major career transitions take three to five years. If there is a big "turning point," it tends to come later on.

In the interim, you need to make use of anything as a trigger and not to wait for a catalyst. What you make of events is more important than the events themselves.

Take advantage of whatever life sends your way to revise, or at least reconsider, your story. Practice telling it in different ways to different people, in much the same way you would revise a résumé and cover letter for different jobs. 

But don't just tell the story to a friendly audience; try it out on sceptics and don't be disturbed when the story changes along the way.

UNCONVENTIONAL Strategy #8: Step back. But not for too long.

When you get stuck and are short on insight, take time to step back to reflect on how and why you are changing.

But don't stay gone too long, or it will be hard to get yourself back in. We are able to discover ourselves only through interaction and active engagement in the real world. 

UNCONVENTIONAL STRATEGY #9: Change happens in bursts and starts. There are times when you are open to big changes and times when you are not. Seize opportunities.

Windows of opportunity open and close back up again.

We go through periods when we are highly receptive to major change and periods when even incremental deviations from "the plan" are hard to tolerate.

We have to take advantage of any natural windows (e.g., the period just after an educational program, a milestone birthday) to start off on the right foot.

It’s good to communicate to others that you have changed (and will be making more changes) and watch out old routines that might start creeping in.

Progress can be served by hanging in limbo, asking questions, allowing time and space to linger between identities. But you have to not let unanswered questions bog you down; move on, even if to an interim commitment.


It was interesting to read that from her research into career transitions, Ibarra found that the biggest regret usually comes from those who fail to act as opposed to the people who made a move that was "wrong".

“Once you make the first step it is easier to adjust your course based on your experiences”.

Ibarra’s advice is invaluable and should be taken into consideration by anyone who is contemplating a career transition, or any other major transition in their lives.

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