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					MANAGING YOURSELF




       How
       to
          Stay Stuck
       in theWrong Career
                                                                              by Herminia Ibarra




                    You’re ready to chuck it all and start afresh. Just make sure you
                    don’t listen to the usual advice about changing careers.




                         E
                               veryone knows a story about a           to grow. But the difference between the
                                smart and talented businessperson      person who yearns for change yet stays
                                who has lost his or her passion for    put and the person who takes the leap
                          work, who no longer looks forward to         to find renewed fulfillment at midcareer
                          going to the office yet remains stuck with-   is not what you might expect. Consider
                          out a visible way out. Most everyone         the following examples:
                          knows a story, too, about a person who          Susan Fontaine made a clean break
                          ditched a 20-year career to pursue some-     with her unfulfilling past as partner and
                          thing completely different – the lawyer      head of the strategy practice at a top
                          who gave it all up to become a writer or     consulting firm. But the former man-
                          the auditor who quit her accounting          agement consultant – her name, like the
                          firm to start her own toy company – and       names of the other people I studied, has
                          is the happier for it.                       been changed for this article – had not
                             “Am I doing what is right for me, or      yet had the time to figure out a future
                          should I change direction?” is one of        direction. When a close client offered
                          the most pressing questions in the mid-      her the top strategy job at a Financial
                          career professional’s mind today. The        Times 100 firm, she took it. She was
                          numbers of people making major career        ready for change, and the opportunity
                          changes, not to mention those just           was too good to pass up. To her dismay,
                          thinking about it, have risen signifi-        this position – though perfect accord-
                          cantly over the last decade and continue     ing to what she calls “the relentless

40                                                                                    harvard business review
                 logic of a post-MBA CV” – was no differ-     But he was disappointed; there was no       correct things. He started with a career
                 ent from her old job in all the aspects      challenge anymore. Resigned to waiting      psychologist who gave him a battery of
                 she had been seeking to change. Two          it out, he created for himself a “network   tests to help him figure out his work
                 weeks into the new role, she realized        of mentors,”senior members of the firm       interests and values. He talked to head-
                 she had made a terrible mistake.             whom he enlisted to guide his develop-      hunters, friends, and family and read
                    After a four-week executive education     ment and help him try to land the cov-      best-selling books on career change. By
                 program at a top business school, Harris     eted general management role. Eighteen      his own account, none of the advice
                 Roberts, a regulatory affairs director at    months later, he was still doing essen-     was very useful. He researched possi-
                 a major health care firm, was ready for       tially the same job.                        ble industries and companies. He made
                 change. He wanted bottom-line respon-           A milestone birthday, upheaval in        two lists: completely different profes-
                 sibility, and he itched to put into prac-    his personal life, and a negative per-      sions involving things he was passion-
                 tice some of the cutting-edge ideas he       formance evaluation – the first of his       ate about and variations on what he
                 had learned in the program. His long-        career – combined to make a “snapping       was already doing. A year later, a viable
                 time mentor, the company’s CEO, had          point” for Gary McCarthy. After busi-       alternative had yet to materialize.
                 promised, “When you come back, we’ll         ness school, the former investment             When I consider the experiences of
                 give you a business unit.”But upon Har-      banker and consultant had taken a job       these people and dozens of others I have
                 ris’s return, a complicated new product      at a blue-chip firm by default, biding       studied over the past few years, there
MARC ROSENTHAL




                 introduction delayed the long-awaited        his time until he found his “true pas-      can be no doubt: Despite the rhetoric,
                 transition. He was needed in his old role,   sion.” Now, he decided, it was time to      a true change of direction is very hard
                 so he was asked to postpone his dream.       make a proactive career choice. Deter-      to swing. This isn’t because managers
                 As always, Harris put the company first.      mined to get it right, Gary did all the     or professionals are typically unwilling


                 december 2002                                                                                                                  41
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to change; on the contrary, many make              learned by almost anyone seeking pro-         lead to the most disastrous of results,
serious attempts to reinvent themselves,           fessional renewal. But first we have to be     which is to say no result. So if your
devoting large amounts of time and en-             willing to abandon everything we have         deepest desire is to remain indefinitely
ergy to the process at great professional          ever been taught about making sound           in a career that grates on your nerves
and personal risk. But despite heroic              career decisions.                             or stifles your self-expression, simply
efforts, they remain stuck in the wrong                                                          adhere to that conventional wisdom,
careers, not living up to their potential          A Three-Point Plan                            presented below as a foolproof, three-
and sacrificing professional fulfillment.            We like to think that the key to a success-   point plan.
   Many academics and career coun-                 ful career change is knowing what we
selors observe this inertia and conclude           want to do next, then using that knowl-       Know Thyself
that the problem lies in basic human               edge to guide our actions. But studying       Like Gary McCarthy, most of us are
motives: We fear change, lack readiness,           people in the throes of the career change     taught to begin a career change with
are unwilling to make sacrifices, sabo-             process (as opposed to afterward, when        a quest for self-knowledge. Knowing,
tage ourselves. My in-depth research (see          hindsight is always 20/20) led me to a        in theory, comes from self-reflection, in
the sidebar “Studying Career Change”               startling conclusion: Change actually         solitary introspection or with the help
for an explanation of my methods) leads            happens the other way around. Doing           of standardized questionnaires and cer-
me to a different conclusion: People               comes first, knowing second.                   tified professionals. Learning whether we
most often fail because they go about                 Why? Because changing careers means        are introverted or extroverted, whether
it all wrong. Indeed, the conventional             redefining our working identity. Career        we prefer to work in a structured and
wisdom on how to change careers is in              change follows a first-act-and-then-think      methodical environment or in chaos,
fact a prescription for how to stay put.           sequence because who we are and what          whether we place greater value on im-
The problem lies in our methods, not               we do are tightly connected, the result       pact or income helps us avoid jobs that
our motives.                                       of years of action; to change that con-       will again prove unsatisfying. Having
   In my study, I saw many people try a            nection, we must also resort to action –      reached an understanding of his or her
conventional approach and then lan-                exactly what the conventional wisdom          temperament, needs, competencies,
guish for months, if not years. But by             cautions us against.                          core values, and priorities, a person can
taking a different tack, one I came to call           Conventional career change meth-           go out and find a job or organization
the practice of working identity, they             ods – Susan’s “logical” CV progression,       that matches.
                                                                                                    Gary did all these things. Armed with
                                                                                                 his test results, he researched promis-
My research suggests that conventional, reasonable-
                                                                                                 ing companies and industries and net-
sounding career change methods will lead to the most                                             worked with a lot of people to get leads
                                                                                                 and referrals. He made two lists of possi-
disastrous of results, which is to say no result.                                                bilities: “conformist” and “nonconform-
                                                                                                 ist.”But what happened from there, and
eventually found their way to brand-               Harris’s networking, and Gary’s plan-         what consumed 90% of the year he spent
new careers. The phrase “working iden-             ning–are all part of what I call the “plan    looking for a new career, is what the
tity,” of course, carries two meanings.            and implement” model of change. It            conventional models leave out – a lot
It is, first, our sense of self in our profes-      goes like this: First, determine with as      of trial and error.
sional roles, what we convey about our-            much clarity and certainty as possible           Gary started with several rounds of
selves to others and, ultimately, how we           what you really want to do. Next, use         talking with traditional companies and
live our working lives. But it can also            that knowledge to identify jobs or fields      headhunters. Next, he tried to turn a
denote action – a process of applying              in which your passions can be coupled         passion or a hobby into a career: He and
effort to reshape that identity. Working           with your skills and experience. Seek         his wife wrote a business plan for a
our identity, I found, is a matter of skill,       advice from the people who know you           wine-tour business. The financials were
not personality, and therefore can be              best and from professionals in tune with      not great, so they dropped it. Next, he
                                                   the market. Then simply implement the         pursued his true fantasy career: Gary
Herminia Ibarra is a professor of orga-            resulting action steps. Change is seen as a   got certified as a scuba instructor and
nizational behavior at Insead in Fon-              one-shot deal: The plan-and-implement         looked into the purchase of a dive oper-
tainebleau, France. Her forthcoming                approach cautions us against making a         ation. He soon learned, though, that
book, Working Identity: Unconventional             move before we know exactly where we          his dream job was unlikely to hold his
Strategies for Reinventing Your Career             are going.                                    interest over the long term (and thus
(Harvard Business School Press), identi-             It all sounds reasonable, and it is a re-   was not worth the economic sacrifice).
fies conditions that enable people to make          assuring way to proceed. Yet my research      So he went back to the headhunters and
major career changes.                              suggests that proceeding this way will        traditional companies, only to recon-

42                                                                                                              harvard business review
                                                        H o w t o S tay S t u c k i n t h e W ro n g Ca re e r • M A N A G I N G Y O U R S E L F


firm that he did not want what they had        can be a useful tool. But too often this          paycheck-producing job or, unlike Gary,
to offer. Next, he identified entrepre-        practice is rooted in the profound mis-           we remain emotionally attached to a
neurs he admired and looked for ways          conception that it is possible to dis-            fantasy career that we do not realize we
to get his foot in their doors. He ex-        cover one’s “true self,” when the reality         have outgrown.
plored freelancing, trying to get short-      is that none of us has such an essence.              We learn who we have become – in
term projects in exciting young com-          (See the sidebar “Our Many Possible               practice, not in theory – by testing fan-
panies. But a precise match did not           Selves”for a discussion of why one’s true         tasy and reality, not by “looking inside.”
materialize.                                  self is so elusive.) Intense introspection        Knowing oneself is crucial, but it is usu-
   Certainly the common practice of           also poses the danger that a potential            ally the outcome of – and not a first input
looking back over our careers and iden-       career changer will get stuck in the              to – the reinvention process. Worse, start-
tifying what we liked and disliked, what      realm of daydreams. Either the fantasy            ing out by trying to identify one’s true
we found satisfying and not satisfying,       never finds a match in a real-world,               self often causes paralysis. While we




                               O u r M a n y Po s s i b l e S e l v e s

      What is identity? Most traditional                                                        touch, and taste. That is why work-
      definitions – the ones that form                                                            ing identity, as a practice, is neces-
      the foundation for most career                                                             sarily a process of experimenting,
      advice – are based on the notion                                                           testing, and learning about our
      of an “inner core” or a “true self.”                                                       possible selves.
      By early adulthood, these theories                                                            Take Gary McCarthy, the former
      suggest, a person has formed                                                               investment banker and consultant
      a relatively stable personality                                                            profiled in the main article. The
      structure, defined by his or her                                                           set of possible selves he considered
      aptitudes, preferences, and values.                                                    is typical in its number and range. It
      Excavating this true self – often forgotten                                          included a “ditch it all and open a tour-
      in a dead-end pursuit of fame, fortune, or social                guide business in the south of France with my wife” self;
      approval – should be the starting point of any career            a socially respectable “junior partner” self that his parents
      reorientation, according to conventional wisdom. With            would have endorsed; a youthful, outdoorsy,“follow your
      the appropriate self-knowledge, obtained via introspec-          passion” self who renounced convention and wanted to
      tion and psychological testing, a person can more easily         open a scuba business; a “responsible spouse and future
      search for the right “match” and avoid the mistakes of           parent” self who wanted to make good dual-career
      the past. This true-self definition corresponds perfectly         decisions; a “corporate drone at age 50, full of regrets”
      to the plan-and-implement method – once we find the               self; an “apprentice” self who learned at the elbow of
      self, all that remains is execution.                             an admired entrepreneur; and a practical, reasonable,
         The work of Stanford cognitive psychologist Hazel             “go to a traditional company where I can combine my
      Markus and other behavioral scientists, however, offers          backgrounds in banking and consulting” self.
      a different definition of identity, one that is more consis-         Conventional wisdom would say that the scope of his
      tent with what I have discovered: We are many selves.            list of possibilities was evidence that he lacked focus and
      And while these selves are defined partly by our histo-           wasn’t ready for change. But within the working identity
      ries, they are defined just as powerfully by our present          framework, it was precisely this variety that allowed
      circumstances and our hopes and fears for the future.            him to find a truly good fit. Certain possible selves are con-
         Our possible selves – the images and fantasies we all         crete and tangible, defined by the things we do and the
      have about who we hope to become, think we should                company we keep today; others remain vague and fuzzy,
      become, or even fear becoming – are at the heart of the          existing only in the realm of private dreams, hypothetical
      career change process. Although conventional wisdom              possibilities, and abstract ideas. By bringing the possibili-
      says pain – a self we fear becoming – is the only driver for     ties – both desired and feared, present and future – more
      change, in reality pain can create paralysis. We change          sharply into focus, we give ourselves a concrete base of
      only when we have enticing alternatives that we can feel,        experience from which to choose among them.


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wait for the flash of blinding insight,             care company director who wanted to            however, many people are no longer
opportunities pass us by. To launch our-           assume a general management role. The          looking to “leverage past experience in
selves anew, we need to get out of our             people around him, who were invested           a different setting.” They want to invent
heads. We need to act.                             in his staying put, only mirrored his nor-     their own jobs and escape the shackles
                                                   mal doubts about moving outside his            of corporate convention, in some cases
Consult Trusted Advisers                           comfort zone. His mentors cared about          to do something completely different.
If you accept the conventional wisdom              him and held the power to make his             What Susan Fontaine, the management
that career change begins with self-               desired change a reality. But they made        consultant, experienced is typical: “I
knowledge and proceeds through an                  a fence, not a gateway, blocking the           found headhunters unhelpful, basically.
objective scrutiny of the available                moves that would lead to career change.        I would say, ‘Here are my skills; what
choices, who should you turn to for                By talking only to people who inhab-           else might I do?’ And they kept saying,
guidance? Conventional wisdom has it               ited his immediate professional world,         ‘Why don’t you move to Andersen?’ or,
that you should look to those who know             people whose ideas for him didn’t go           ‘Why don’t you try Bain?’ All they could
you best and those who know the mar-               beyond the four walls, Harris seriously        suggest was exactly the same thing. I
ket. Friends and family – with whom                limited himself. Not only did he lack          kept saying,‘I’m quite clear I don’t want
you share a long history – can offer in-           outside market information, but these          to do that, and if I did want to do that, I
sight into your true nature, and they              coworkers could no more let go of their        would not come to you. I can do that on
have your best interests at heart; pro-            outdated image of a junior Harris than         my own.’”
fessionals add a dose of pragmatism,               he himself could.                                 So if self-assessment, the advice of
keeping you grounded in the realities                 Headhunters and outplacers, today’s         close ones, and the counsel of change
of the marketplace.                                career change professionals, can keep us       professionals won’t do it, then where
   In times of change and uncertainty,             tethered to the past just as effectively.      can we find support for our reinven-
we naturally take comfort in our en-               We assume, rightly, that they have the         tion? To make a true break with the
during connections with friends and                market perspective we lack – but we            past, we need to see ourselves in a new
family. But when it comes to reinvent-             forget that they are in the business of        light. We need guides who have been
ing ourselves, the people who know us              facilitating incremental moves along an        there and can understand where we are
best are the ones most likely to hinder            established trajectory. At midcareer,          going. Reaching outside our normal cir-
rather than help us. They may wish to
be supportive, but they tend to rein-
force – or even desperately try to pre-
serve – the old identities we are trying to
shed. Early in his career, Gary discov-
                                                                             Te s t a n d L e a r n
ered that his close circle would not be              Your working identity is an amalgam of the kind of work you do, the relationships
much help. “I wanted to do something                 and organizations that form part of your work life, and the story you tell about why
different but was shocked to realize that            you do what you do and how you arrived at that point. Reshaping that identity,
people were already pigeonholing me,”                therefore, is a matter of making adjustments to all three of those aspects over time.
he says. “I tried to brainstorm with                 The adjustments happen tentatively and incrementally, so the process can seem
friends and family about what other                  disorderly. In fact, it is a logical process of testing, discovering, and adapting that
things I might do. All the ideas that                can be learned by almost anyone seeking professional renewal.
came back were a version of ‘Well, you
could get a middle management job in                 Crafting Experiments
a finance department of a company.’ Or                 Working identity is defined by               Try out new activities and professional
‘You could become a trainee in a man-                 what we do, the professional                roles on a small scale before making a
agement program.’” John Alexander, an                 activities that engage us.                  major commitment to a different path.
investment banker hoping to make a go
                                                     Shifting Connections
of fiction writing, reports that he had
                                                      Working identity is also defined by          Develop contacts that can open doors
often discussed his career predicament
                                                      the company we keep, our working            to new worlds, and look for role models
with his friends and family.“They would               relationships, and the professional         and new reference groups to guide and
tend to say,‘I can see why writing might              groups to which we belong.                  benchmark your progress.
be interesting, but you’ve got a very
good job, and do you really want to                  Making Sense
jeopardize that?’”                                    Working identity is also defined             Find or create catalysts and triggers
   Mentors and close coworkers, though                by the formative events in our              for change, and use them as occasions
                                                      lives and the stories that link who         to rework your life story.
well meaning, can also unwittingly hold
                                                      we were and who we will become.
us back. Take Harris Roberts, the health

44                                                                                                                 harvard business review
                                                      H o w t o S tay S t u c k i n t h e W ro n g Ca re e r • M A N A G I N G Y O U R S E L F


cles to new people, networks, and pro-      Three Success Stories                             unexpected job offer. There is an alter-
fessional communities is the best way to                                                      native method that works according
both break frame and get psychological      Although they floundered, victims of               to a different logic than the plan-and-
sustenance.                                 conventional wisdom, Gary McCarthy,               implement approach. Gary, Harris, and
                                            Harris Roberts, and Susan Fontaine                Susan, as well as many other successful
Think Big                                   eventually moved on to a different –              career changers I have observed, shared
We like to think that we can leap di-       and more successful – approach. Gary              this method, which I call the “test and
rectly from a desire for change to a        is now at a media company he admires,             learn” model of change. During times
single decision that will complete our      working as an internal venture capital-           of transition – when our possible selves
reinvention – the conventional wisdom       ist, a role that allows him to use his skill      are shifting wildly – the only way to cre-
would say you shouldn’t fool yourself       set in consulting and finance but grants           ate change is by putting our possible
with small, superficial adjustments. But     him great creative latitude and total             identities into practice, working and
trying to tackle the big changes too        ownership of his results. Harris is presi-        crafting them until they are sufficiently
quickly can be counterproductive. Just      dent and COO of a growing medical de-             grounded in experience to guide more
as starting the transition by looking       vice company and very much involved               decisive steps. (See the exhibit “Test and
for one’s true self can cause paralysis     in setting the strategic direction of his         Learn.”)
rather than progress, trying to make one    new firm. Susan is working with non-                  The test-and-learn approach recog-
big move once and for all can prevent       profits, bringing her strategy expertise           nizes that the only way to counter
real change.                                to this sector and loving her work.               uncertainty and resist the pull of the
   When Susan Fontaine decided to              None of them followed a straight and           familiar is to make alternative futures
leave her consulting career, it was with    narrow route. Gary dabbled in wine                more vivid, more tangible, and more
good reason. A single mother of two, she    tours and flirted with buying a scuba              doable. We acquired our old identities in
was finding the travel and other de-         diving operation before settling on what          practice. Likewise, we redefine them,
mands on her personal life increasingly     his wife called a more normal path.               in practice, by crafting experiments,
intolerable. She quit her job and re-       Harris had his prized general manage-             shifting connections, and making sense
solved to spend some time exploring her     ment role snatched from under him a               of the changes we are going through.
options. That resolve vanished, however,    second time as the result of a corporate          These three common practices lie at the
when financial pressure coincided with a     restructuring. He considered leaving              heart of the most disparate of career
flattering offer to join the management     for a biotech start-up but realized that          changes, lending logic to what can look
team of a former client. She accepted the   he simply did not have the appetite for           like chance occurrences and disorderly
new position only to discover that its      such a risky move. Susan set up tem-              behavior.
demands would be very similar to those      porarily as a freelance consultant, land-            Crafting Experiments. By far the big-
of the position she had left. “I thought,   ing traditional consulting projects to            gest mistake people make when trying
‘What have I done?’” she later told me.     pay the bills and using her discretionary         to change careers is delaying the first
“I had had the opportunity to leave         time to explore a more varied portfolio           step until they have settled on a desti-
all that!” By hoping to solve all her       of assignments.                                   nation. This error is undermining be-
problems in one fell swoop, Susan made         Their experience is typical. Nearly            cause the only way we figure out what
a change that amounted to no change         everyone who tries to figure out a next            we really want to do is by giving it a try.
at all. Two weeks into the new job, she     career takes a long time to find the one           Understandably, most people are reluc-
resigned.                                   that is truly right. Most career transi-          tant to leap into the unknown. We must
   As much as we might want to avoid        tions take about three years. It is rarely        test our fantasies – otherwise, they re-
endless procrastination, premature clo-     a linear path: We take two steps forward          main just that. I discovered that most
sure is not the answer. It takes time to    and one step back, and where we end               people create new working identities
discover what we truly want to change       up often surprises us.                            on the side at first, by getting involved in
and to identify the deeply grooved                                                            extracurricular ventures and weekend
habits and assumptions that are holding     Working Identity                                  projects.
us back. The lesson of Susan’s story is     Once we start questioning not just                   Crafting experiments refers to the
that trying to make a single bold move      whether we are in the right job or organi-        practice of creating these side projects.
can bring us back to square one all too     zation today but also what we thought             Their great advantage is that we can try
quickly. A longer, less linear transition   we wanted for the future, the job search          out new professional roles on a limited
process may leave us feeling that we are    methods we have all been taught fail              scale without compromising our current
wasting time. But as we will see below,     us. But that doesn’t mean we must re-             jobs or having to leap into new positions
taking smaller steps can allow a richer,    sign ourselves to a random process gov-           too quickly. In almost every instance of
more grounded redefinition of our           erned by factors outside our control – a          successful change that I have observed,
working identity to emerge.                 life crisis that forces us to reprioritize, an    the person had already been deeply


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engaged in the new career for quite                new selves. For most successful career        ing out. Gary, for example, used his
some time.                                         changers I have observed, a guiding fig-       alumni and company networks quite
   There are many ways to set up exper-            ure or new professional community             successfully. It was an ex-employee of
iments that work. Newly resolved to ex-            helped to light the way and cushion the       his company – someone he didn’t know
plore a range of possibilities, Susan took         eventual leap.                                personally – who got him the temporary
freelancing assignments in her old line              Finding a new job always requires           project at his current company. But
of work and did pro bono work for char-            networking outside our usual circles.         what clinched his decision, what made
ities as her lifeline to get her through           We get ideas and job leads by branch-         this job different from all the other con-
this difficult period. Through that work,
she began to develop contacts that led
to paid charity consulting. Gradually,
she became immersed in nonprofits, a
sector she had never expected to find
                                                              S t u d y i n g Ca r e e r C h a n g e
a career in. And she found herself en-
                                                         Certain career transitions have been thoroughly studied and are well under-
joying freelancing. Today, she is work-
                                                         stood: a move into a position of greater managerial responsibility and orga-
ing with the largest UK consulting firm
                                                         nizational status, a transfer to a similar job in a new company or industry,
that specializes in charities, and she has
                                                         a lateral move into a different work function within a familiar field. But few
this to say: “All I hope is that I never
                                                         researchers have investigated how managers and professionals go about
again make the mistake of jumping be-
                                                         making a true change of direction.
fore giving myself the chance to explore
                                                            My research is an in-depth study of 39 people who changed, or were in
what I really want to do.”
   Other people use temporary assign-                    the process of trying to change, careers. Determining the magnitude of any
ments, outside contracts, advisory work,                 work transition is highly subjective. Who, apart from the person who has
and moonlighting to get experience or                    lived through it, can say whether a shift is radical or incremental? After
build skills in new industries. Thanks to                interviewing dozens of people who were making very different kinds of
a temporary stint at the helm of his divi-               career moves, I settled on a three-part definition of career change.
sion, Harris got over his fear, which had                   Some of the people in my study made significant changes in the context
silently plagued him for years, that he                  in which they worked, most typically jumping from large, established com-
lacked the finance and cross-functional                   panies to small, entrepreneurial organizations or to self-employment or
background necessary to be a good gen-                   between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Others made major changes
eral manager. This concrete experience,                  in the content of the work, sometimes leaving occupations, such as medi-
more than any amount of self-reflection,                  cine, law or academia, that they had trained for extensively. The majority
helped him envision himself as a gen-                    made significant changes in both what they did and where they did it,
eral manager. Taking courses or picking                  but most important, all experienced a feeling of having reached a crossroad,
up training and credentials in a new                     one that would require psychological change.
area is still another way of experiment-                    My sample ranged in age from 32 to 51, with an average of 41. I chose this
ing. For many of the people in my study,                 range not to coincide with the infamous midlife crisis but to study a group
an executive program, sabbatical, or                     of people with enough experience in one career to make a shift to another
extended vacation improved their capac-
                                                         high-stakes endeavor. Sixty-five percent of the participants were men. Almost
ity to move in a new direction. These
                                                         half of the subjects lived and worked outside the United States, mostly in
breaks are powerful because they force
                                                         France and the UK. It was a highly credentialed sample: All had college
us to step back from the daily routine
                                                         degrees, and about three-fourths held graduate or professional degrees
while engaging us with new people and
                                                         (business, science, law, and so on). They represented all walks of managerial
activities.
                                                         and professional life, including business management, law, finance, acade-
   Shifting Connections. Consider how
                                                         mia, medicine, science, and technology.
common it is for employees to say of
their companies, “There is no one here                      Some of the interviews were retrospective, with people who had already
I want to be like.” At midcareer, our                    completed their changes. With people at earlier stages of the transition,
desire for change is rarely about only                   I conducted an average of three interviews over two to three years. The
the work we do; it is perhaps more im-                   interviews were open-ended, typically beginning with: “Tell me about your
portantly about changing our working                     career to date.” Between the interviews, I had e-mail exchanges and tele-
relationships so they are more satisfying                phone conversations with participants to keep track of their progress.
and inspiring. Shifting connections re-                  I supplemented this core study with many shorter interviews involving
fers to the practice of finding people                    a range of career change professionals, including headhunters, venture
who can help us see and grow into our                    capitalists, career counselors, and outplacement specialists.


46                                                                                                               harvard business review
                                                        H o w t o S tay S t u c k i n t h e W ro n g Ca re e r • M A N A G I N G Y O U R S E L F


formist roles he had considered, was the      dane – with special meaning and weav-             choice. Without a story that explains why
opportunity to work for a role model          ing them into a story about who we are            we must change, the external audience
he had long admired and from whom he          becoming.                                         to whom we are selling our reinvention
could learn the ropes.                           Every person who has changed ca-               remains dubious, and we, too, feel un-
   Seeking refuge in close working rela-      reers has a story about the moment of             settled and uncertain.
tionships is natural in times of change       truth. For John Alexander, the would-                Good stories develop in the telling
and uncertainty. But Harris made a clas-      be author I’ve mentioned, the moment              and retelling, by being put into the
sic mistake in turning to an old mentor,      of truth came when, on a whim, he                 public sphere even before they are fully
Alfred, who was too invested in Harris        visited an astrologer. To his surprise, the       formed. Instead of being embarrassed
remaining the unsure protégé to give          first thing she said to him was,“I’m glad          about having visited an astrologer, for
him room to grow. Harris’s way out of         I haven’t been you for the last two or            example, John told everyone his story
this “codependent” relationship came          three years. You have been undergoing             and even wrote about it in a newspaper
via a person he had met casually at a         a painful internal tug-of-war between             column. The closer he got to finding his
professional conference. Gerry, the com-      two opposing factions. One side wants             creative outlet, the more the episode
pany founder who later hired Harris as        stability, economic well-being, and so-           made sense and the less often his story
his COO, initially approached Harris          cial status, and the other craves artistic        elicited the “Why would you want to
for regulatory advice. Eventually, they       expression, maybe as a writer or an im-           do that?” reaction. By making public
developed an informal consulting rela-        presario. You may wish to believe that            declarations about what we seek and
tionship. In Gerry, Harris found a person     there can be reconciliation between               about the common thread that binds
who believed in his potential as a gen-       these two. I tell you, there cannot be.”          our old and new selves, we clarify our
eral manager and offered a different          Another career changer, a woman who               intentions and improve our ability to
kind of close, interdependent working         had grown increasingly frustrated as              enlist others’ support.
relationship: “It was such a contrast to      an executive in a high-tech start-up,
my relationship with Alfred,” Harris          said, “One day my husband just asked              The Road Now Taken
says. “It’s not as paternal. Gerry knows      me, ‘Are you happy? If you are, that’s            Most of us know what we are trying
things I need to learn – things that re-      great. But you don’t look happy.’ His             to escape: the lockstep of a narrowly
late to creative financing, ways to raise      question prompted me to reconsider                defined career, inauthentic or unstimu-
money – but he also needs to learn from       what I was doing.”                                lating work, numbing corporate politics,
me. He doesn’t know how to run a com-            It would be easy to believe from such          a lack of time for life outside of work.
pany, and I do. He’s looking to me to         accounts that career changes have their           Finding an alternative that truly fits,
teach him what’s necessary to develop         geneses in such moments. But the mo-              like finding one’s mission in life, cannot
an organization, to build a foundation.       ment of insight is an effect, not a cause,        be accomplished overnight. It takes
I think I can learn a lot from Gerry,         of change. Across my many interviews,             time, perseverance, and hard work. But
but it’s a more mature and more pro-          a striking discovery was that such                effort isn’t enough; a sound method and
fessional relationship than I had with        moments tended to occur late in the               the skill to put it into practice are also
Alfred.”                                      transition process, only after much trial         required.
   To make a break with the past, we          and tribulation. Rather than catalyzing              The idea of working one’s identity
must venture into unknown networks –          change, defining moments helped peo-               flies in the face of everything we have
and not just for job leads. Often it is       ple make sense of changes that had long           always been told about choosing careers.
strangers who are best equipped to help       been unfolding.                                   It asks us to devote the greater part of
us see who we are becoming.                      Trigger events don’t just jolt us out          our time and energy to action rather
   Making Sense. In the middle of the         of our habitual routines, they are the nec-       than reflection, to doing instead of plan-
confusion about which way to go, many         essary pegs on which to hang our rein-            ning. It tells us to give up the search for
of us hope for one event that will clarify    vention stories. Arranging life events            a ten-point plan and to accept instead a
everything, that will transform our stum-     into a coherent story is one of the sub-          crooked path. But what appears to be
bling moves into a coherent trajectory.       tlest, yet most demanding, challenges of          a mysterious, road-to-Damascus process
Julio Gonzales, a doctor trying to leave      career reinvention. To reinvent oneself           is actually a learning-by-doing practice
the practice of medicine, put it like this:   is to rework one’s story. At the start of         that any of us can adopt. We start by
“I was waiting for an epiphany – I wake       a career transition, when all we have is          taking action.
up in the middle of the night and the         a laundry list of diffuse ideas, it unsettles
Angel of Mercy tells me this is what I        us that we have no story. It disturbs us          Reprint r0212b
should do.” The third working identity        to find so many different options ap-              To order reprints, see the last page
                                                                                                of Executive Summaries.
practice, making sense, refers to creating    pealing, and we worry that the same self
our own triggers for change: infusing         who once chose what we no longer                  For more on this topic, go to
events – the momentous and the mun-           want to do might again make a bad                 http://explore.hbr.org.


december 2002                                                                                                                                47

				
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