We all have heard stories about those who made a career change and was immensely successful and those who failed at it. A research, Studying Career Change, tells us that we might be going about it the wrong way.

Everyone knows a story about a smart and talented businessperson who has lost his or her passion for work, who no longer looks forward to going to the office yet remains stuck without a visible way out.

Almost everyone knows a story, too, about a person who ditched a 20-year career to pursue something completely different—the lawyer who gave it all up to become a writer or the auditor who quit her accounting firm to start her own toy company—and is the happier for it.

Many academics and career counselors observe this inertia and conclude that the problem lies in basic human motives: We fear change, lack readiness, are unwilling to make sacrifices, sabotage ourselves. This article, the result of an in-depth research, leads to a different conclusion about how to make career change: People most often fail because they go about it all wrong. Indeed, the conventional wisdom on how to change careers is in fact a prescription for how to stay put. The problem lies in our methods, not our motives.

In the research, Herminia Ibarra saw many people try the conventional approach and then languish for months, if not years. But by taking a different tack, one she came to call the practice of working identity, they eventually found their way to brand-new careers. The phrase “working identity,” of course, carries two meanings. It is, first, our sense of self in our professional roles, what we convey about ourselves to others and, ultimately, how we live our working lives. But it can also denote action—a process of applying effort to reshape that identity. Working our identity, she found, is a matter of skill, not personality, and therefore can be learned by almost anyone seeking professional renewal. But first we have to be willing to abandon everything we have ever been taught about making sound career decisions.

  • A Three-Point Plan: Change actually happens the other way around. Doing comes first, knowing second.
  • Know Thyself:  Knowing, in theory, comes from self-reflection, in solitary introspection or with the help of standardized questionnaires and certified professionals.
  • Consult Trusted Advisers: Conventional wisdom has it that you should look to those who know you best and those who know the market.
  • Think Big: Just as starting the transition by looking for one’s true self can cause paralysis rather than progress, trying to make one big move once and for all can prevent real change.
See also  Forbes: Ways to Make You and Your Resume Stand Out in an Interview.

Read more about this and success stories on HBR.org.

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