Why acting your way into a new way of thinking really can be the catalyst to the change you’re looking to make?

Why acting your way into a new way of thinking really can be the catalyst to change you’re looking to make

When it comes to our careers, so many of us face challenges in actually making a move. Our tendency is to plan (read dream), maybe take just another training course, talk to just a few more people to get their views, and then likely sit with the information for a long time. In reality, what is happening to us when we take this (frequently textbook advocated) approach is that we stay stuck in indecision, analysis paralysis infobesity, overwhelm, fear, to name a few, and as a result the easiest thing is to do nothing.

I have faced this issue with many of my executive coaching and business mentoring clients as well as recognising this pattern in my own thinking and behaviour at different stages of my career – none of us are immune. Clients often at times feel stuck. They know they want a change – this could be a new role, a promotion, a switch in career or a change in lifestyle. Intellectually, they understand the issues involved, but they are still finding it impossible to make the change. This can be for many good reasons as mentioned above such as fear of losing more than they might gain, need for certainty that the change will work or hope that things will “settle down” with their current situation.

In my work, as well as with my own situation, I have found that it is very difficult to think our way out of such situations. Prof Herminia Ibarra articulates this extremely well in her book Working Identities based on her research and consulting practice. Ultimately and particularly for those of us who are knowledge workers, it can be almost impossible to think and plan our way out these situations. Ibarra’s premise is that what we should be doing instead is starting to act our way into a new way of thinking by experimenting with different concepts and ideas that interest us and where we think we might want to take things forward.

In the book, she shares many case studies, but I wanted to elaborate briefly on two here. Case study one is of a male professional who was unhappy with his career but after much deliberating was still unsure what to do – although he knew he wanted a change. What ultimately transpired was that after trying several completely unrelated roles, he used the skill set that he had honed over many years to change context and role; working for and with an organisation and leadership that inspired him and enabled him to bring his best self to work. The role that he ultimately ended up doing was not that different to what he had been doing previously but the context in which he was doing it was very different. Had he not tried on many of the different roles to explore the fit, he would not have transitioned into his current role where he found a great fit. In case study two, Ibarra shares the story of a female professional who gradually moved roles and sectors. Ultimately ending up in a very different context and doing a fundamentally different role – feeling and acting her way into the new role. Notably though in the process, she draws heavily upon her skill set as well as her network of contacts that that she has built up over her career to make this successful change. These two case studies resonated for me, because both individuals had started acting their way out of their current unfulfilling, unhappy work environments through either gradually almost instinctively trying on new situations and opportunities or deliberately “trying out” different things, testing what worked for them on many different levels. Both approaches worked.

I observe frequently this situation of lack of fulfilment in careers, uncertainty about next steps but fear of acting and overthinking paralysing individuals from making progress. I see it arising particularly in my work with mid-career professionals. The challenge as well as the opportunity is to work with individuals, so they see the benefit of small steps without over intellectualising the why or the how or the outcome but that they see the value in the experiment for the sake of it. This allows them to even start having some fun exploring what their new self might be like. Taking small steps to figuring out what might work for them, dispelling myths and dreams and exploring the art of the possible.

By mid-career, many professionals have become used to being seen and seeing themselves as experts in their professional space even if they are deeply dissatisfied with the work they are doing. They turn to their intellectual abilities to try to work and reason through their situation – there is great comfort in this as it is a known approach. However, for the majority it does not move them towards the new future they desire.

As previously referenced, in my own situation, I stepped away from my career as a change professional to explore and experiment with new concepts applying Ibarra’s research and approach. It has been a deeply iterative process taking much longer than I had imagined. Some things I have tried have led to great breakthroughs on my journey, others have proved to be damp squids (to be polite and sometimes expensive at that) but all have provided valuable insight. Critically, I have tried to rely very heavily on how things feel at each step and resist the trap of over thinking them; acting my way into a new way of thinking and being as Ibarra advocates through her research and work. I have become a proponent of this approach through the work I do and my own experiences. To be truly embodied in our approach to our careers and work and not just use the mind to think our way forward – but instead to use our sense of play and experiment to help us move forward is key.

Some of you reading this insight may believe that this is a privileged approach available to only those who can afford it – I have certainly been challenged on this before. To some extent this is true – many of us have very real financial and caring pressures that keep us rooted in work and careers that maybe less fulfilling. However, I have to ask what is the cost of not at least trying to do this? We spend a large part of our life working – too long to be dissatisfied, unfulfilled, wondering what if. If we can at least take some steps towards acting on the art of the possible, then it has to be worth the cost. And it is also never too late – another challenge that has been levied at me. If we are to be working into our 70s and 80s through choice or necessity – which is the case for many of us and especially women already – then there is all the more reason to be taking this approach in your 40s, 50s and 60s.

Rebecca Hill, Founder, Wise Sherpa


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