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Whether you are questioning who you really are as part of considering a career move or as general life introspection, stop looking for the mother lode – Your True Self. Instead, pan for the golden nuggets in the complex stream of your varied and shifting identities.

Stop trying to find your one true self. Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.

…reflecting on who we are is less important than probing whether we really want what we think we want. 

– Herminia Ibarra in Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

Who you are on the community sports field is different from the you who handles a daughter with a fever, and both differ from you as you tackle a complex post-merger integration. Likewise, your identity were you to trade in office life for a crack at writing crime fiction would be different again.

We ‘wear’ many selves every day, based on not only our roles but also our internal and external contexts at any moment. They are stories–assumptions, habits and filters–that have emerged from a life of experience. An intriguing thought is that many others lie as possibilities to arise as our lives continue.

Some of these stories sit deeper than others, and the deepest–formed in our pre-verbal childhood–are fixed in some senses, but our relation to them can change. We can, with care, practice and help, examine even these, and that relates to the second half of the quote above.

I have long valued Herminia Ibarra’s book, published while she taught at HBS, and I draw from it in my work. The quote’s first half invites us to realize our complexity and the magnitude of our creative potential. It also pulls us out of our mental cage and into the world, where we both learn about and create ourselves constantly through exploration and experimentation.

The self is a portfolio, and our working lives play an important role in it. You can shift the weighting among the portfolio’s elements. Best to do that based on their actual performance. Exploring our range of working selves includes:

  • Questioning our deepest stories (about our abilities, human nature, money, etc.), which may be holding us back;
  • Finding ways to engage (e.g. through courses, moonlighting, projects) with potential new work content;
  • Broadening our networks in these areas and finding ‘insider’ mentors;
  • Constructing stories around these possibilities, seeing how they feel, and testing them with others. 
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