“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”  —Red, The Shawshank Redemption

Last week, I helped facilitate a career change workshop on the topic of identity.

Identity is a hairy topic in career change largely because who we are in society is so tightly tied to what we do.

Meet someone new at an event or party, and like clockwork the question pops out: “So, what do you do?”

It’s partly out of habit. Partly out of absence of alternatives that don’t make you feel like a weirdo. And partly because we’re scared to ask deeper questions that might invite our messy inner world to collide with a stranger’s.

And socially, the question helps us place each other into neat boxes in our heads – teacher, banker, lawyer, fireman, entrepreneur, etc.

For someone going through a career change, or even contemplating one, the question of identity bubbles up through that seemingly harmless question.

What will I say when I’m asked “what do I do?”

  • If I’m no longer a lawyer…who am I?
  • If I’m no longer a mother to dependent children…what is my role?
  • If I don’t manage people at XYZ company…where do I fit socially?
  • If I’m in between things…how do I answer that without feeling like a loser?
  • If my life or career hasn’t panned out how I thought it would…how do I explain that – to others, but mostly to my myself?

When people consider a career change, here’s what I really see: the early signs of a deeper transformation that wants to take place. Maybe not for everyone, but for many. Whether the person gives into it or lets themselves become transformed is another story.

In workshops like last week’s, I sometimes use the words change and transformation interchangeably. Which, as I reflect on it, might not necessarily be accurate.

Change I think of as swapping one identity for another. Moving from one job to another job. Going from a big corporation to a smaller business. Moving from one industry to another. Changing roles from one to another. Which can be difficult and scary.

Transformation may encompass change, but it’s bigger and scarier than that. While change happens around us, transformation happens inside us.

The story of the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly is a useful metaphor.

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As the caterpillar hangs itself up to begin its transformation, its skin hardens into a chrysalis. Inside this chrysalis, deep in the caterpillar’s body, tiny cells called ‘imaginal cells’ begin to form. What happens next sounds like a scene from an apocalyptic alien film:

“The caterpillar’s immune system believes these imaginal cells are foreign and tries to destroy them…Once in the cocoon, the buds link up, the caterpillar’s immune system breaks down, and its body literally disintegrates. The buds — essentially, stem cells — then build a butterfly from the chrysalis fluids. The caterpillar and butterfly are not really opposed to one another; the butterfly is not an alien organism within the caterpillar. They are, in fact, one and the same organism, with the same genetic code.” (From Nature and the Human Soul)

I don’t know how or if a caterpillar thinks, but I imagine that as it’s disintegrating into caterpillar soup, it probably thinks it’s dying. In a way it does – it liquefies and becomes virtually unrecognizable.

Little does the caterpillar know that it’s imaginal cells are actually “imagining” wings so that it may one day soon take flight.

Tying it back to career change…

When I have conversations with people about being unfulfilled at work and changing their career, more often than not the conversation is an entry drug into a deeper discussion around our identity – who we are – and who we’re becoming. Or like the caterpillar, who doesn’t yet know what it’s becoming.

I think this is why the work at Escape is and has always been difficult. We’re trying to help people navigate not only career change, but sometimes a personal transformation.

And while transformation is a journey involving many guides – angels and demons alike – it’s largely a journey that has to be taken alone. At one’s own pace, largely against one’s own free will, and “whose conclusion is uncertain.”

Maybe it’s not even a journey. A journey implies there’s some sort of deliberate motion, one foot after the other, in a direction. In a sense, it does. But our actions in transformation aren’t the stepping as much as they are the letting go.

Letting nature have its way with us. To stop fighting it, stop trying to control it, stop trying to understand it or intellectualize it. But instead to let ourselves be dissolved by it.

Both change and transformation are hard.

Both dip us into a deep unknown.

With change, we adapt to it. We find the inner strength and resilience to persist despite the tumultuous environment around us.

Transformation, on the other hand, happens to us. Just like transformation happens to the caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

In transformation, it’s we who become changed. The storm is within, mutilating and reshaping us from the inside out. The key trait isn’t trying harder or hacking your way there. It’s being willing to let it all go.

Joseph Campbell said:

“We must be willing to get rid of
the life we’ve planned, so as to have
the life that is waiting for us.

The old skin has to be shed
before the new one can come.”

Undertaking a transformation is walking naked through a period of life – more than naked! – without skin and without knowing what kind of skin will grow next. It’s sitting in a chrysalis of our own caterpillar soup.

It’s not all pain and soup though. It can also be a terribly exciting time. Like Red’s closing thoughts in Shawshank Redemption:

“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

It feels like dying. But if you pay close attention, it also might feel like something is emerging – beautiful, expansive, wonderful and new.

I hope.

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