August 17, 2009

10 Inspirational quotes from Herminia Ibarra's book Working Identity on the First-Act-Then-Think Change Strategy

The book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (2004) by Herminia Ibarra is a gem. In the book, she does away with the way most people in the Western world think about career change. Most people think that for successful career change, you first have to diagnose your true self before you can make a plan for your new career and before you can take action to implement that plan. Herminia Ibarra argues successful career change works quite differently as is shown in the following quotes from the book:
  1. Change usually happens the other way around: Doing comes first, knowing, second [...] Career transition follows a first-act-and-then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are so tightly connected (p1)
  2. We are not one self but many selves. [...] It is nearly impossible to think out how to reinvent ourselves, and therefore, it is equally hard to execute in a planned and orderly way. (p2)
  3. A view of human beings as defined by our "internal states"-our talents, goals, and preferences - is deeply ingrained in the Western world. This view is at the root of conventional approaches for making career decisions: If our "true identity" is inside, deep within ourselves, only introspection can lead to the right action steps and a better-fitting career. [...] Certainly, reflecting on past experiences, future dreams, and current values or strengths is an essential and valuable step. But reflection best comes later, when we have some momentum and when there is something new to reflect on. (p16)
  4. Identities change in practice, as we start doing new things (crafting experiments), interacting with different people (shifting connections), and reinterpreting our life stories through the lens of the emerging possibilities (making sense). (p16)
  5. Making important career moves, and ultimately, life changes, requires us to live through long periods of uncertainty and doubt. (p19)
  6. Our ideas for change change along the way, as we change. (p23)
  7. The kind of knowledge we need to make change in our lives is tacit, not textbook clear; it is implicit, not explicit; it consists of knowing-in-doing, not just knowing. Such self-knowledge has a personal and situational quality. [..] It can be acquired only in the process of making change. [...] The test-and-learn model for making change is based on theories suggesting that learning is circular, iterative: we take actions, one step at a time, and respond to the consequences of those actions such that an intelligible pattern eventual starts to form. (p32)
  8. Even if we manage to get past the paralysis, the true-self approach can mislead us into thinking that the bulk of the work is up-front and diagnostic. After that, implementation is easy. Unfortunately, implementation consumes the bulk of our time and patience in career transition. What really happens in effective change is a necessarily "open-ended, tentative, exploratory, hypothetical, problematic, devious, changeable, and only partially unified" process. (p37)
  9. In the reinventing process, we make two kinds of changes: small adjustments in course and deep shifts in perspective [...] That is not to say that small steps are inconsequential. In fact, they are often the only way to start tackling career problems that can otherwise overwhelm us. (p67)
  10. By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers is to delay taking the first step until they have settled on a destination. (p91)
Herminia Ibarra's book is specifically about career change but I think her ideas are very relevant for different types of change too.
What do you think?


  1. Never heard of her or the book, but based on what you quote I agree: a little gem!

  2. it is, isn't it? here is a brief article I co-wrote with Kirsten Dierolf once, in which Ibarra is also mentioned:

  3. Coert,

    Thanks for posting this. I've often felt like I needed more direction and only things I did actually showed me what I wanted to do with my life.

    I also know a few people I will recommend this book to.


  4. it seems very interesting;
    on me: I planned to become a consultant, when I had the opportunity to join Arthur Andersen, for me was a real happyness, but ... it was a so big disappointment, that when I left it, I deciced to invent a very new consulting approach (a maieutic one).
    was it a false step or o I needed it in order to clarify my professional "Identity"?
    thx coert

  5. there is the italian version:

  6. Herminia Ibarra's book is the best book written to date on Career Transition. Having been a Career Transition Consultant for many years, I agree with most of her philosophies and strategies (with a few exceptions) and I highly recommend her book.

    Terry Del Percio


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