Letting Go of Your Old Identity

If you are a CIA spy, this next step will be a breeze. As a secret agent, you are accustomed to shedding identities the way the rest of us go through Kleenex.

For the majority of you who do not make a living traveling the world pretending to be someone else, I have a message for you: You are not your job.

I’m sure you have always agreed with this in theory. It’s a different matter when you have to live it yourself. And now you must, because when it comes to career reinvention, you must literally stop identifying yourself by what you used to do.

Refraining from this is tough. But the frame of your old identity can be a liability when you’re trying to get the world to see you in a new light.

Eventually, you will change your self-perception to the culture of your new career—a process that is called “frame-shifting.” For that to happen, you must get out of the habit of summing yourself up by what you did or who you were in the past.

You might be tempted to neglect this step, saying to yourself, “When I get to my new career, I’ll identify myself in a new way. Until then, I’ll just use my old career; it’s easier.”

Beware! Using your old career identity limits your options in two critical ways:

  • It keeps you from moving on, intellectually and emotionally.
  • It confuses people who might otherwise be of assistance to you in moving to a new career.

Relinquishing your old identity is one of the most painful things you will do when you reinvent your career. Your old identity is the last thing you’ll want to let go of—but it should be the first.

A successful career change. depends on establishing and embracing a new identity right up front. That means leaving behind whatever ideas. you hold about yourself that won’t make sense in the place you’re headed.

Here are some tactics to get you started:

  • Get a business card made that advertises your new career instead of your old one. You can do this even if you’re not sure exactly where you’ll land, by thinking of your new field in broader terms.
  • Start going to social events in your new industry. By immersing yourself in the new culture and becoming familiar with it, you will find it easier to picture yourself there.
  • Put a temporary moratorium on hanging out with buddies from your old career. You have to understand the nuances of this suggestion before you run out and cut all your ties with your old friends. I’m not saying to withdraw from everyone you know, but to ease off the ties and social activities that keep you living in the past and treading the same old ruts.
  • Ask your friends and family to drop the old identity. For purposes of how they describe you, ask them to drop your old career entirely and say that you’re working toward the new one.
  • Clean out your closet. Get rid of any paraphernalia from your old career that will not be useful to you in the new one.
  • Redefine yourself. When asked what you do, say that you’re in the “new” field. If that feels too uncomfortable, say that you’re working toward a position in the “new” field. Whatever you do, don’t say “I’m a [insert old job here], but I’m working toward [insert new field here].” The minute you say “but,” it tells people not to take what follows seriously. If you’re completely uncomfortable owning your new field, then when people ask you what you do, tell them “Nothing.” This might be tough to say, but it is a great conversation starter!

Once you free yourself of the old definitions, you unlock your ability to use your skills—the tools of reinvention—in entirely different and surprising ways.

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