Tree of life, growth

Thinking (again) about our career identities

I recently finished reading Think Again by Adam Grant – the fundamental premise of which is the importance of unlearning, questioning and relearning across different spheres in life. The chapter on careers and personal and professional identity really stood out for me, and I’m sharing my favourite take-aways here:

  1. Careers and identity:

We often ask children the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, and an oft-asked interview question is ‘Where do you see yourself 5 / 10 years from now?’ These aren’t great questions to ask, according to Grant. Because often they lead us to commit to a particular life plan that may not actually be the best fit. And when things start turning out differently, instead of re-thinking the plan, we experience an ‘escalation of commitment’ – grit and resilience actually going wrong because we are determined to make things work.

Instead of thinking of careers as identities to claim, he suggests thinking of them as actions to take – this is ‘what I do’, not ‘who I AM’.

If I think about my own career, I know that not tying myself to any particular identity has helped me move quite seamlessly from consulting to a start-up, then to a non-profit, back to consulting, and then to being an entrepreneur. The last one was probably the hardest because ‘entrepreneur’ was never part of my identity – which meant I had actually closed out the option for myself. But when I started doing it, I realized it’s something I actually enjoy!

2. Career check-ins:

In light of the above, Grant suggests scheduling a check-in twice a year on how your career is going. This is a time to take a step back and ask some fundamental questions – ‘When did you form the aspirations you’re currently pursuing, and how have you changed since then? Have you reached a learning plateau in your role or your workplace and is it time to consider a pivot?’

Asking these questions ensures we are enabling a ‘rethinking cycle’ periodically, and are actively thinking about our options. It also ensures that at other times, we can stay committed to the path – because we know we have time and space for this thinking calendared ever so often.

3. Navigating career transitions:

When at a fork in the road, he suggests taking the approach Herminia Ibarra advocates (one of my favourite writers too on this topic). Think like a scientist – develop multiple hypotheses about potential paths you could take that align with your values and strengths (talking to lots of people who are very different from you is a great way to open up possibilities), test them out by crafting small experiments (taking on a small side project, volunteering), and then reflect on the data that emerges to determine where you may want to go.

4. Careers and happiness:

This was my absolute favourite. Often, we go chasing happiness assuming it is somewhere else. However, finding happiness does not always need us to change our situation. An alternate path is to change our actions while we stay right where we are.

I often have this discussion with clients – it is amazing how many times people come to coaching because they want to find a different path, but end up finding meaning and purpose wherever they are right now.

In fact, Adam Grant refers to research by his colleagues Amy Wrzensniewski and Jane Dutton, who find that people who become active architects of their jobs, or engage in ‘job crafting’, are able to align their roles to fit their values, strengths and interests. I’ve found many of my clients doing this, and it has a significant impact on both happiness and success.

To quote Grant: ‘Our identities are open systems, and so are our lives. We don’t have to stay tethered to old images of where we want to go or who we want to be.’

We find a lot of joy in helping people do just this – take a step back, think about where they’re going and where they really want to go, and then architect that path. If you’re in a place where you could do with a support system to help rethink your life or career, do reach out for a conversation.

PS: Why the tree in the photo? I was in Bangalore this last week and the beautiful trees there reminded me that we continue to evolve and grow over time. While it’s hard to think of where we will be 10 years from now, we can be sure we would have grown and blossomed in ways we possibly can’t imagine right now!

About Shweta Anand Arora

Shweta Anand Arora is the founder of The Core Questin. She is a Leadership and Life Coach, who works with leaders across the corporate, social enterprise and non-profit space. Shweta holds an M.Ed. from Harvard University, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and is a graduate of Coach for Life, USA.

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