Career Design Lab

When identity becomes work

Identity is your compass on the evolving career path, but it needs regular work and the right tools.

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Think of a time when you faced a change in your work or career.

Maybe it was a time when you started on a new job, your responsibilities changed or you were actively looking for career direction. These transitions can be taxing emotionally and mentally but they also raise more fundamental questions: "who am I?", "how should I act?" and "who do I want to become?".

Posing such questions is part of identity work. It refers to the various ways we go about creating, adjusting, fixing or strengthening the meanings we attach to our selves.

Identity work is typical in major work-life role transitions, such as graduation, switching jobs and changing careers. However, with the increasing changes and demands in the future of work, it is becoming more frequent and more important.

Where is your North Star?

Identities are made of values, strengths, interests and aims. They give us a sense of our place in the world, guide our actions and make our lives meaningful.

Identity is like a compass that helps you find your way in the continuously changing landscape of work. It also helps in choosing your direction – your so-called North Star. This North Star can be a purpose or passion but often it is just a general direction of interest or value.

Narrative as a tool

As the circumstances along your path change, you need to check and adjust the compass. Are you still going to the right direction? That’s what identity work is about.

The best tool for identity work is narrative. A narrative is a way to make sense of changes, identify important life themes and adjust the course. It gives our careers a direction and meaning.

There is a pitfall, however. We may become too attached to our narratives and less resilient to change. That is why it is important to see that our identities are, in fact, just narratives. They are not permanent. They can, and need to, be regularly worked on.

How to do identity work

The first step in identity work is to create (or recreate) your narrative. Take some time to reflect on who you are and what matters to you. Write your story and see what themes come up. Such an exercise will be helpful also in job search. If you are unsure of your direction, write a few alternative narratives. This is like trying on clothes to see which one fits the best.

The second step is to test it. Identity work is not only an inside job. As career identity researcher Herminia Ibarra says, “we can discover our possibilities only by doing”. So try out new activities, join new groups, find new role models and rework your story by sharing it with others.

picture of Kirsi LaPointe

Blog writer

Kirsi LaPointe, D.Sc. works as a senior advisor at Aalto University's Career Design Lab. She develops and facilitates programs to support Aalto students and alumni in pursuing meaningful and sustainable careers.

Kirsi's expertise focuses on career transitions, identity and meaningful work. She is inspired by creative and critical approaches to change including narrative, design, mindfulness and arts-based methods.

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