Change happens

herminia ibarra

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.

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12 thoughts on “Change happens

  1. To play around with our thoughts and ‘to become someone else’ in an organic way. That is such an interesting idea! It certainly deserves a place on planet Genetic Fractals.
    I think we humans are a lot more flexible than we imagine, to be honest, I don’t believe in a fixed personality.
    One of the reasons why change might come from someone at the periphery of your network is, that the people who know you better have more ideas about who you are. They might even resist change for that reason.
    To a person who doesn’t know you all that well, you could still be many things. 🙂 And having said that, I think we don’t know ourselves all that well…

    1. Thanks Pipteinpteron! I am slowly beginning to believe that there is no self at all. It is a figment of our imagination that we have developed to give our mind substance. I’ll be blogging about that 🙂

      Without a self, there is no self to know. No self to cling to and we are free to evolve. Not having a real self is a very liberating thought 😉

  2. This is very interesting! From the experience of some (major) career changes I wholeheartedly agree! You cannot plan everything on your own without any feedback from potential clients – these should be people who know you, but who don’t know you too well for the reasons you have mentioned. I think you need to start out with sort of a “prototype” or “test version” of your service.
    It is not that easy to start presenting your ideas or “products” when they are still half-finished but I believe it is absolutely necessary. (I am self-employed so I think mainly in terms of clients and products/services to be sold, but I believe it is not that different to sell yourself on the job market)

    The hardest change I ever made was the one triggered by internal motivation only. In 2010 I have noticed that I had started to envy people who had been forced to change careers due to the economic crisis or health reasons – so I knew I had to trigger the change myself.

    1. Great! Your story is exactly the sort of story Ibarra bases her research on. People that discover their dissatisfaction with their career and that work slowly towards an entirely different direction.

      I’m current in between careers. I’ve left the corporate world in stages as I couldn’t face the laying off more people and spinning yarns about how that was fine. I then joined a startup that failed and am now getting much closer to doing what I am seeking to do (technology & business, self employed). It is a rocky road (and a long one yet) but ultimately the new identity, one that I feel good about, is the best outcome.

      I like your mention of clients as part of the process. I hadn’t thought of that (duh). How do you approach clients with an incompletely thought out product or solution?

      1. I never planned that strategically – probably I was lucky. But I always had pilot customers with whom I had worked before (though in a totally different context / field). They put trust in my abilities without knowing the final ‘product’ and I was able to fine-tune it based on their feedback. Probably in the beginning you rather sell your services (your ‘hours’ so to speak – you are not fully accountable for a final product created in a project) and later you carve out products or more standardized services and you dare to declare yourself more accountable for a complete ‘product’.

        There is one video of a successful entrepreneur I do always recommend when discussing questions like this (no clichéd mantras and very funny) – he talks about starting with working ‘odd jobs as a contractor’ and moving to a real product later: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofFrNTuSOtM&feature=player_embedded

      2. Thanks Elkement, that makes a lot of sense. I’m currently working with a young post startup company whilst trying get my head around my own offering. I recognize much of what you say and what the video shows, including the odd jobs and the client funding approach. Many thanks.

    1. 🙂 I started changing careers from the first day at work: there had to be a better solution! I wasn’t aware of much of this change to the working identity but I learned early on that making space for change will allow it to happen.

      I am still experimenting with this!

  3. The identity idea is key. Who we believe ourselves to be informs our actions and expectations. I agree with what Pipteinpteron said above about the personality not being fixed. The potential for change is always there. And fear must be the biggest thing that holds us back.
    Where fear dominates, new action doesn’t get a look in.
    As for Descartes, if Buddhist monks spend a lifetime trying to still their minds into a state of non-thinking, do they upon success cease to exist?
    Change, action, transformation, dynamic growth – we’re all just ingredients in life’s chemistry project. Test tubes, distillations and strange concoctions, it’s a wonder more of us don’t vanish in puffs of multicoloured smoke!

    1. I like life as a chemistry project – that suits me perfect. Lots of failed experiments and the odd explosions that requires me to rebuild the lab. But occasionally I manage to mix up a good dose of fun and joy.

      On buddhist monks… That is exactly what happens. If you meditate long enough, your self will disappear and what is left is nirvana. Only occasionally do I manage to reach a point of satori; enough to keep trying to lose the my homegrown self.

      Thanks for the visit!

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