Possible Selves

There’s a book I found helpful when I was in the exploratory phase of my career change. Otherwise known as the time when I read every possible book available on career change/how to decide what you really want to do/how to find your passion etc etc. It taught me about ‘possible selves’.

It’s called Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, and it’s written by Herminia Ibarra.

“Possible selves are the ideas we all have about who we might want to become. Some are concrete and well-informed by experience; others are vague and fuzzy, nascent and untested. Some are realistic; others are pure fantasy. And, naturally, some appeal more to us than others.”

You’re not searching for The One

I love this idea. Because straight off, it takes the pressure off. You’re not searching for The One. You’re not searching for this one dream job that’s going to change your life, make everything better, make you happy. 

Instead, you’re making a list of all those possible selves you think you might like to be.

There’s the you that carries on in a similar role, but with a different company. Another version of you that retrains as a teacher. A possible self that becomes an artist and lives by the sea. Another you that wants to work for XX company but doesn’t know how to get in the door. The one that stays in your current role but somehow, magically, it gets better and you enjoy working there again. The version that starts up a business selling cheesy snacks that get snapped up by Waitrose and John Lewis. 

You’re having fun, you’re getting it all out of your head. The sensible ideas, the totally out there ideas. The ones you’re not sure about, the ones you’re extremely keen on. 

The main thing is to not hold back. All of these possible selves are representing something in you. Maybe some are hinting at a creative you that’s feeling frustrated and trapped. Maybe there’s a part of you that wants autonomy and freedom. If you push these urges down and ignore them, you’re not going to deal with the feelings of frustration, they’re just going to build.


The next step is to start to explore these possible selves, as many as you can.

It could be that you explore a more creative self, where your main work is creating. You look into the reality of what you’d need to do every day, what you might get paid, how long it might take etc. You speak to someone who’s doing work in this area that you admire or that seems to enjoy it. And you realise that actually you wouldn’t really want to be an artist; trying to make money from it doesn’t sound fun.

But you realise you really do want to be a part of that industry, and that finding a role similar to your current one, but in that industry, just might be an idea. Or you realise instead that starting something artistic as a hobby will bring you a lot of joy and a chance to express yourself in a way you haven’t for a long time. 

On the other hand it could be that you realise this is what you want to be doing. Therefore you need to make a plan. How can you make it happen? What have other people out there done to make it happen? How could you get started? Who could help you?

Nothing’s off limits

It’s important to give credibility to your ideas, don’t just dismiss them as silly. Part of the process is to make it as fun and interesting as possible, like a side project. Explore these ideas, see what you find out. Even if the result is that you definitely do not want to proceed in that direction, at least now you’re clear on that and you have a good idea of the reality. 

It will help you to clarify what you want and sort through the muddle. And new ideas may appear. 

I explored all sorts of possible selves. At first I considered staying in my role but working for another similar company. I tried out working as a tutor, a translator, a teaching assistant. Teaching English abroad, volunteering or working for a charity appealed, and I got close to going ahead. That even led me to do a teaching English as a foreign language (CELTA) qualification. I shadowed someone working in the foreign rights department of a publishing company. I started offering coaching sessions.

And I finally took a full-time role which tied in a lot the areas I’d been exploring. It was in the world of education, using skills I’d used in my former role such as sales and presenting, and for a company whose values mirrored mine.

Importantly, exploring possible selves helped me to shed my previous work identity, something Ibarra also writes about. I shed the constraints I’d been holding onto, this is what a good job looks like, this is what I can do, this is the world I have to work in. It helped me to be open to new opportunities that I previously would have dismissed as not possible, or not right for me.

It’s a journey, and it takes time. But if you’re at that point where you’re feeling stuck and frustrated, you know you need to make a change but you don’t know how, then it’s worth the work.

If you need help with your career change, you can contact me at LinkedIn or email me at joaopoku@gmail.com.

Photo by Charlie Egan on Unsplash

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