Who Am I?

Exploring your identity.

Identity at Work: Career Crafting

Why it's better to create, rather than follow, our bliss

Monique Valcour, a professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France, wrote the following in a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog post: The "follow your passion" self-help industry tends to under-emphasize this key point: all of the self-awareness in the world is of little use if you can't pitch your passion to a buyer. A sustainable career is built upon the ability to show that you can fill a need that someone is willing to pay for. This holds not only when you're starting a business or looking for a new job; it's also an important springboard for refining your current job and your career trajectory to make it more ideal.

Valcour’s HBR piece was on career crafting, and she provided valuable steps we can take to ensure we use our skills, are challenged to develop new ones, find meaning at work, have marketable skills, and fit work into our overall life goals -- including those regarding family, friends, and leisure. To read the piece, click here:

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In a subsequent article on the Huffington Post, Cal Newport, the author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love” was quoted on the CNN blog as saying "Don't set out to discover passion. Instead, set out to develop it". A link to Newport’s original post can be found here

As a researcher who studies identity development during adulthood, I found all of this advice to be a breath of fresh air. Following your bliss is important, but it’s better to create your bliss. You may not like your job and fantasize you could earn a six-figure salary doing something you love, such as making sock monkeys and selling them on etsy.com, but for most of us, that isn’t going to happen.

On the other hand, even if we don’t like our job, we can discover aspects of our work that we really do like, or at least have the potential to create bliss for us. For example, in my work as a professor, I really don’t like serving on university committees, given I am impatient and like to accomplish things asap. So I try to choose a few committees based on my interests, such as a student success task force, which gives satisfaction. And I’m developing new skills all the time in the job, such as learning how to teach online, adopting the latest statistical techniques to analyze research data, and conducting studies specifically on career identity development in adulthood. 

If I spent all day complaining about the parts of my job that I don’t like, I wouldn’t have much energy to discover the aspects that are both fulfilling to me and help me stay valuable to my employer.

Notice that career crafting is an ongoing process. We need to regularly check in with ourselves, see if we are providing value to our employer, and take notice of trends in our industry so we can always keep our skill set sharp.

I’ve discussed identity statuses before on this blog, but let me do a brief review here, because continuous career crafting can be better appreciated within this framework.

Identity Diffusion: Individuals in this status show low levels of Exploration and low levels of Commitment, i.e., they haven’t thought much about who they are and haven’t made much of a decision about it either.

Identity Foreclosure: Individuals in this status show low levels of Exploration and high levels of Commitment, i.e., they haven’t thought much about who they are but they have made a decision, such as a college student deciding to go into psychology because it sounds interesting – but without having looked into the statistics and research methods required for the major.

Identity Moratorium: Individuals in this status show high levels of Exploration and low levels of Commitment, i.e., they have thought a great deal about who they are but have yet to make a decision, such as a college student who has yet to declare a major because he/she can’t decide between Psychology and Engineering, or an adult in mid-life who feels unfulfilled as an accountant but hasn’t decided what other career to pursue instead.

Identity Achievement: Individuals in this status show high levels of Exploration and high levels of Commitment, i.e., they have thought a great deal about who they are and have made a decision, such as choosing Psychology as one’s major after exploring all of the requirements of the major, or quitting one’s job as an accountant and starting over as an organic free range chicken farmer.

Longitudinal research indicates that it is not unusual for individuals to regress back to an Identity Moratorium status after having reached an Identity Achievement status (Marcia, 2002; Stephen, Fraser, & Marcia, 1992). All hope is not lost though, because many of these same people go on to reach the Identity Achievement status once again, resulting in a Moratorium-Achievement-Moratorium-Achievement or MAMA cycle.

These MAMA cycles can be difficult periods through which we may struggle with feelings of confusion and being scattered. Most of us can expect to experience at least three MAMA cycles after adolescence. It is important to remember that MAMA cycles serve a valuable purpose, i.e., having our identity dismantled is painful but necessary if we are to construct who we are, redefined, in our terms (Marcia, 2002).

As one man who was interviewed for a recent New York Times article on being over 50 and unemployed said: “don’t tell people you’re unemployed. Tell them you’re semiretired. It changed my self-identity. I still look for jobs, but I feel better about myself.”

Notice that this taking charge of our identity, the continual career crafting suggested by Valcour and the development, rather than following, of one’s passion suggested by Newport are consistent with a MAMA cycle understanding of identity development.

That is, although it can be distressing to struggle through a MAMA cycle, in order to develop our potential we must periodically survey the career identity landscape and then commit to our next move within it depending on our circumstances -- whether they be feelings of boredom with our current position, developing new skills so we stay competitive, updating our current skills after deciding on which growth areas in our industry to pursue, etc. 

References:

            Marcia, J. A. (2002). Identity and psychosocial development in adulthood. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 2(1), 7-28. 

            Stephen, J., Fraser, E., & Marcia, J. E. (1992). Lifespan identity development: Variables related to Moratorium-Achievement (MAMA) cycles. Journal of Adolescence, 15, 283–300.

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.

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