Monday, October 11, 2010

Beware the Career Transition Nightmare

You're running through a dimly lit empty hall filled with closed doors . . . rushing to find the right classroom . . . searching for lecture notes . . . trying to remember what you're scheduled to teach. Glancing down, you notice you're improperly dressed, or even naked, without shoes or socks, or god forbid, undies. Though you're 100% ill prepared for today's class, and full of terror and anxiety, you open the door and find hundreds of students waiting for you (or just someone scary). Making your way over to the lectern, you wonder what the hell you'll talk about today and why you don't remember accepting, or wanting, the position. You wonder whose idea this was anyway. There must be some mistake, you conclude . . . 

 . . . Moments later you find yourself on a motorbike, clad in shorts and a tank top, weaving through a crowd of people in an office building with one arm. In the other arm you're holding a black leather briefcase. Spotting you, someone important looking beckons you to follow them down a bright, artificially lit hall into a conference room. Everyone is waiting for you to take the podium. You open the briefcase . . . discover its empty. A cell phone rings. You answer. Its your lover, or spouse, or friend, reminding you that you never submitted your dissertation, or that its full of errors, and the graduate program is going to rescind your Ph.D. . .  You flee the conference room. Glancing at yourself in a random mirror, you see someone naked with missing teeth and hair. You can't find an exit, but that makes the terrifying little man in the corner whose watching you very happy indeed . . .

I give up already.
Sound familiar? This sample scenario pretty much sums up my latest round of job-hunting/career transition nightmares. I jerk bolt upright at 4am, with sweaty palms, a pounding heart, and feet tangled in the sheets. Annoyance with myself  for having such ridiculous anxiety dreams about teaching or looking for work or forgetting to attend class trumps whatever fears I might have just experienced in dream land. (Listen, subconscious, enough with the tardy, clueless student dreams already; I'm well and truly done with school now!)

These dreams are pretty easy to read. They're about losing control of one's professional identity and falling apart as a result. The equation is simple: if you lose track of your professional self, you lose everything, ranging from your sanity to your underwear. OK, for someone still fully in career search mode, that is a bit freaky. Why are our professional identities so entangled with our personal, interior selves? Is there some way to disentangle these various selves, to tell them apart?

Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, argues that a mid-life career change amounts, in essence, to a total reinvention of the core self. While we're holding on to the past with one hand, clinging tightly to the time and effort we've invested in a particular path, we're simultaneously reaching out toward an unknown future with the other. For career changers, this can lead to a confusing yet necessary period of being, as Ibarra calls it, "between identities," in which we feel deeply fragmented, pulled in several different directions at once. This experimental phase, though exciting at times, is truly nerve wracking for the individual.

"The reinventing process is rarely quick or easy, even for the veteran job-hopper. Emotionally, it is hard to let go of a career in which we have invested much time, training and hard work. Letting go is even harder when the alternatives remain fuzzy. And yet there's no avoiding this agonizing period between old and new careers: A transition can begin years before a concrete alternative materializes, as we start creating and testing possible selves," notes Ibarra.

Viewing the beginning or middle stage of a career transition as a trial-and-error period of experimentation, doubt, and inner turmoil, where our identities remain in a constant of flux, certainly explains the nightmares. Transitional states are never fun or easy; they're mentally, emotionally, and financially draining. And the bad dreams merely confirm how we're really feeling about being torn between options A or B, or pushed out of one career into another due to a lack of openings, or not having any money. But whether or not we end up actually making a professional switch, we still need to suffer through these painful periods in order to better understand, and test out, the possible selves before us.

Ibarra's work makes clear the underlying connection between what we do for a living, and the values and beliefs associated with our careers, and how we define ourselves. Our basic but implicit assumptions about life are often so buried beneath the surface that we rarely stop and think about how our working identity can either affirm or contradict personal values rooted at a much deeper level.

All this makes for excellent food for thought. Knowing the whole job search thing is really about the self is motivation to keep battling those pesky nightly demons. I'll try to keep an open mind, then, the next time I find myself in my undies in a dark classroom, alone with Freddy Krueger.

Nails on a chalkboard, anyone?


WorstProfEver said...

This book sounds right on, and this post makes me feel better about the whole "Who am I and what in God's name am I doing" phenomenon.

The good news: the teaching/prof nightmares have gone away since I left. The bad news: the 4am existential angst remains. I thought I wouldn't have it once I got rid of the mortgage. Nope, because it wasn't financial, it was just angst.

I will say that knowing the insomnia is pure worry (i.e. anxiety for its own sake and not about a specific/rational object) does make it, weirdly, better, and that I still don't regret leaving!

Corinne said...

Yikes, naked in a room with a monster! Not my idea of a good dream. But, seriously, I also think your post is spot on: we have to go through the angst in order to grow, both profesionally and personally. It's all part of the process, even though it might hurt like hell.

Eliza Woolf said...

I agree, Ibarra's book is really good. Definitely for those of an analytical, reflective bent. It's nothing like "What Color is Your Parachute?" and other touchy feely career advice books that offer a step-by-step, managerial guide to employment. Those books are OK but tend to spend too much time focused on career planning rather than action.

Ibarra, on the other hand, explores why we're so wrapped up in our chosen careers and what a career transition might mean in the larger scheme of things. She advises small, active steps rather than introspection and inaction. Good advice for someone like me. said...

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