Data from the United Nations World Population Prospects study corroborate this phenomenon at the global level. The conventional three-stage model of education, work and retirement is now obsolete. The new life model will be multistage, as described by Lynda Gratton (see graphic), so we have to be prepared for careers lasting 50-60 years in which we must keep adapting and readapting to the emerging possibilities.
This means a totally redesigned life: people will work until they are 70-80 years old. We will have to learn new skills for new jobs and switching careers will be the norm. We will have to be more flexible, acquire new knowledge, explore new ways of thinking and develop new networks of relationships.
These processes of change must be approached as opportunities to redefine ourselves when embarking on other professional careers.
Source: “The Corporate Implications of Longer Lives,” by Lynda Gratton et al., MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2017, http://mitsmr.com/x/58304.
Mastery makes the change difficult
We must be clear about one simple thing: Our professional identity is not one-dimensional. Research conducted by Professor Herminia Ibarra shows that professional identity is built on myriad possibilities. Some are tangible and specific, based on our prior experience and competencies, while others exist only in a potential future.
In other words, “what got you here won’t get you there.” This is the fundamental tenet that professionals who need to repurpose themselves must keep in mind. Change is always complex, especially when mastering competencies also represents an impediment for change, a handicap for transforming the mindset of professionals. Stepping out of one’s area of expertise and being bold enough to try out new skills requires a great deal of valor.
My research and experience working with people in the midst of changing careers tells me that professional identities are something we build. They are living processes shaped by our own individual experience and personal relationships, and by our ability to give meaning to what do we do. How well these principles are assimilated will determine how successful we are with navigating change.
We will have to be more flexible, acquire new knowledge, explore new ways of thinking and develop new networks of relationships.
The real possibilities are discovered by opening ourselves to the world, exploring new knowledge, undertaking new projects and trying new activities, joining new groups and finding new models to imitate.
This means we will have to develop a more “playful” attitude toward what we do and our identity: by daring to experiment with a different set of tasks and competencies than the ones that helped us succeed in the career we are looking to leave behind.
With this experimentation, new dimensions that used to be hidden will become part of our professional identity. Discovering new alternatives will continuously shape our professional identity.
It can be a short or long process, but one that is necessary for us to acquire the skills and competencies demanded by the market.
Discovering a new network of relationships: the role of contacts
Leaving our comfort zone also affects our network of relationships.
It is impossible to change directions if we remain isolated, since we all develop in and through our relationships with others. All the studies conducted since the mid-1970s on how people get their jobs confirm that it is mostly through personal contacts. In times of change and uncertainty, we find consolation in reinforcing the ties that bind us to our family and friends, but it is impossible to change careers without changing and expanding our social circles.
The research shows that, although it may not be intuitive, what makes a contact useful for a career change is not so much how close they are or how much power the contact has in their environment, but rather the different people who we do not know that they can give us access to. This creates more alternatives and gives us a chance to find models to imitate and pattern ourselves after. Of course, having a contact from an important business school or professional association can substantially improve the prospects of joining certain circles that would otherwise be out of reach. The closest contact networks may bring us comfort in the difficult moments of the transition. But they do not enrich us or help us reorient and validate a range of possible identities; in fact, they may even view the change as a setback.
According to Dr. Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow in Surgery at Harvard Medical School, the process of changing careers is an experiential journey that takes place in the company of other people who provide help and resources to acquire the vital new knowledge.
We also have to invest time in exploring the different alternatives offered by the market and simultaneously build a new network of relationships that will increase our options.
Carving out a new career path takes time. It is important to keep that in mind in order to manage the process. First of all, we must internalize the situation. This process is absolutely worthwhile. In fact it is crucial, since it not only allows us to increase our knowledge about ourselves, but also gives us confidence in our abilities and helps us assimilate the new situation. Meanwhile, we also have to invest time in exploring the different alternatives offered by the market and simultaneously build a new network of relationships that will increase our options.
Oftentimes, the problem is not defining what type of work we like best and find the most meaningful. Instead, the challenge is figuring out how to take our longstanding preferences and values and transfer them to new and different contexts, and how to integrate them with the new opportunities.
Being in this transitory space is not always pleasant. Since there is no clear path or model that will guarantee a successful transition, there are some guidelines, based on research and practice, that we should always keep in mind:
- Stay active, take action, explore alternatives where you can “export” your abilities to elevate yourself to a new way of thinking and being. The process of changing careers is a challenge for us to redefine ourselves, with the assumption that “what got you here won’t get you there.”
- Give yourself some time, a transition period, and don’t self-impose deadlines. It’s better to experience the inherent contradictions of a situation than to make a premature decision. Experimentation and play will make the process more enjoyable and enriching.
- Expand and branch out your network of contacts. Follow the advice of experts. Remember that all career changes require social support and that redirecting our career entails far more than getting a different type of job; it also means changing the relationships in our professional life. Make the change in the company of others—never alone. Open the door to new personal contacts.
- Be flexible, realistic and keep an open mind. When you open windows of opportunity, you must be able to see them in their entirety, with their drawbacks and advantages.
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