I was re-reading Herminia Ibarra’s “Working Identity”, a book on unconventional but real-worldly strategies for career reinvention when I came across an interesting quote from Richard Pascale:
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.
Herminia Ibarra, who is professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD, proposes that significant (career) change is a process of trial and error that slowly leads us into new directions; directions that we could not have anticipated had we set out to plan it the old fashioned way with objectives and milestones. In fact, such traditional plans for change are bound to fail for good reasons.
As I read this, it occurred to me that this was very much what I concluded in my blog post Your anti-Cartesian life in which I set to out explain why Cartesian thinking with its artificial dualistic roots will get you stuck. Pascale’s and Ibarra’s assertion that objective planning will get you nowhere either is a nice sequel to that post. Although the book’s context concerns career change, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that the need for significant change in life follows the same route. What is that route? Although deliberately planning such change is out of the question, there is a process for bringing it about.
How does change start? According to the business guru and Harvard professor John Kotter, the first step is known as the “burning platform”. The idea is that people are typically very resistant to change and won’t get the butts moving until the flames are at their feet. Sadly in the corporate world this is often interpreted as “let’s set the shop on fire and see what happens”. This heavy handed approach certainly triggers change … and a lot of casualties.
Ibarra has a slow-boat approach. When someone begins to have a nagging thought that it may be time to make a change, this person should go with the flow and play with that thought. More importantly, that person should experiment with change without burning any platforms or bridges. The reason is not that we shouldn’t be courageous but that at this stage we have no idea where we are heading. She calls this “doing experiments”. Enrolling for an evening class in a subject of interest is an experiment, as is volunteering for some cause. Making a business plan for a business we have dreamt off is another good experiment. Meeting people from different professions may also start the road to change.
Just to be clear, we’re talking big change here. As in, psychiatrist becoming a Buddhist monk, investment banker turned writer and tenured professor becoming a counsellor etc.
Ibarra tells the story of change from a perspective of “change to our identity”, i.e. before we can change our life or career, we must become someone else. We have to embrace a new identity. In my experience you can take that one step further. Once we have embraced a new identity and have become someone else, it is inevitable that life and work will arrange themselves neatly around that new identity. No New Age magic or godly powers are needed for this; change is set in motion simply because we will recognise new opportunities and meet new people that will help us on the way.
Other people play a central role in our process of personal change. Real change, which involves our identity, requires us to meet new people, new networks. People that can inform us; people that we will hang out with and people that can give us what we are seeking.
One curious and important learning from this research into change is that in the majority of case studies, the final catalyst to change, i.e. the person that calls you up with a job or knows someone that also wants to sail around the world is invariably someone at the further edges of our networks; someone we barely know and only met fleetingly in our past. The reason is that people close to us pretty much know the same people as ourselves and nothing new will come through them. It’s the remote connections that can expose us to the new life we seek. Another problem with those close to us with our best interest in mind is that they will typically hold us back, preferring the safety of the status quo over the risk of the unknown.
At some point along the process of change comes the realisation that the change has to happen. Interestingly, this typically happens with hindsight. We don’t wake up one morning and notice that the sun shines particularly brightly and we have an epiphany about our new life.
Instead and in practice, whilst we’re well on the way to finding a new life or career, we look back and say:
“That’s when I knew! When Amelia said to me, Did you ever finish that course in instructional design?, that I slapped myself on the head and thought, my God, it is so obvious!”
Similarly, I have noticed that with virtually all success stories of the likes of Michael Dell or a Bill Gates, when they tell us what the secret of their success was, their success story was created after the fact. They never planned or anticipated it.
We can always reconstruct the path we took in life but it happens rarely by design. This is why you can never replicate such a success formula. They make great stories and they are inspiring but that’s all. Our own life story will unfold as it will.
Our actions will and must precede our stories of change.
There is nothing wrong with fantasizing about a new life or career and is fine to craft clever plans and schemes as long as we realise that they will most likely maintain the status quo. The only way forward to change, self deployment and reinventing our lives is through action. Doing anything is absolutely the best next step. It will expose us to an incremental new experience, put us in touch with new people and allow us to discover something we like or something we do not.
I’m not sure that this post has its place on planet Genetic Fractals but the book made me think good thoughts, so, why not. Let’s cross a boundary and see what comes back.