Gather the building blocks of your reinvention

Leaving The Field: An Idiosyncratic Guide to Reinvention Part 2C Considering ‘How’, Inequality, and Honesty

T.J. Elliott


And so, we finally get to ‘how’, which is where most guides to reinvention and even invention start. Instead, we illuminated first the context of our journey to another field — the ‘why’ and ‘what’. The more secure those answers are in our own mind the more likely we are able to possess what Ralph Waldo Emerson described as self-trust:

“Self-trust is the first secret of success, the belief that, if you are here, the authorities of the universe put you here, and for cause, or with some task strictly appointed you in your constitution, and so long as you work at that you are well and successful. It by no means consists in rushing prematurely to a showy feat that shall catch the eye and satisfy spectators. It is enough if you work in the right direction.”

Starting with the notion of why we want to leave the field and what we want as the new core of our career — even though those elements might change for us — orients us. Possessing these ‘bearings’ matters as many sages advise whether Stephen Covey urging us to ‘begin with the end in mind’ or the great theorist of creativity Robert Fritz counseling that we begin “with a very simple yet profound question that only you can answer, which is, ‘what matters to me enough to create it?’” If we don’t have the answer to that question, then we are not ready to leave the field; we are unprepared for reinvention.

With that context for each of us, the four activities that this idiosyncratic guide argues will help in leaving one field and gaining successful entry to another field are:

Reading — burrowing into the accumulated explicit knowledge of the new field

Conversing — building and engaging new networks of people associated with the new field

Writing — reflecting and exploring what the material gained in the first two activities suggests about the new field

Creating — experimenting with projects associated with the new field even if they are self-produced

In the next four posts in Leaving the Field, we will cover each one of those activities in more detail, but first we should clarify some elements that affect the ‘how’ of reinvention. As noted in an earlier post, Agnes Callard insists in any such effort upon “a particularized grasp of where the aspirant currently stands.” Where she refers to the self-knowledge that we might have as we contemplate reinvention, our current position also matters in more fundamental ways such as what resources, regret, and rewards we hold.

‘How’ does depend upon ‘when’. The resources that we possess to achieve a reinvention may shift in our lives our supplies of energy and money are likely not the same at age 27 as age 67. Whether it is the dollars available to craft a new resume or move to a new location or our internal resources — patience, resilience, time, credentials, etc., our resources for reinvention can be volatile stocks that rise and fall. Such shifts often depend upon events outside of our control. Changes in family responsibilities or an unexpected work transition can build or deplete these resources. Sometimes it’s just the passing of time that alters these resources. For example, “occupation switches after 30 commonly reflect experience and education”, but there is also a “sudden increase after retirement age”.[i] With the material that we have generated about ‘what’ and ‘why’, we should list the relevant resources we believe we hold right now for this journey.

· We need people. Specifically, we need some friends and acquaintances have at least a tangential connection to the desired field. It’s okay if a particular relationship ends up being a ‘weak link or tie to the field. That may prove to be even more helpful because if we only stick to our current circle then we are limiting ourselves.

· We need time. Finding the friends of friends who will prove to be important resources to us may prove easier than finding the hours and days necessary to investigate and then instigate all of the steps necessary to entering the new field. “’Nature has given man nothing more precious than time.’ So began a lecture on “The use of time” by Henri-François Daguesseau in 1714”[ii], and that is one aspect of nature that certainly has not altered.

· We need resolution. That requirement does not mean that we have determined to a final degree of specificity beforehand how we will enter or the corner where we will settle in this new field, but it does mean that we reject regret proactively and preemptively. We don’t always follow our bliss; sometimes we follow our success. We take on an activity and it turns out to be good for us or we turn out to be good for it. The order doesn’t matter so much as the feeling of capability and competence that leads us to continue and leads others to reward us for that continuance. These are accidental inventions and they are not to be dismissed. They may be what sustains us while we try to get back to the Bliss. If giving up this feeling of well-being, this sense of safety and warmth, raises feelings of anxiety then we should pause before leaving the field. Behavioral scientists understand the importance of regret in decision-making. This desire to avoid regret is not abstract because as Richard Larrick wrote in 1993, “Many decisions can be understood in terms of a desire to avoid the unpleasant psychological consequences that result from a decision that turns out poorly. Making a choice can be threatening to the self because a poor outcome can undermine one’s sense of competence as a decision maker.” If we are currently in a good place, then following some aspiration for a different or higher calling might hazard risk. The advice here is to pay attention to how much risk we are willing to hazard because the consequences of ‘a decision that turns out poorly’ can fracture an ego that has only met success so far. If we are susceptible to regret, then we should be hesitant to reinvent.

· We need rewards. The road to a new career perhaps even a new identity may prove long and arduous. We should distinguish some rewards along the way. They may be small such as a celebratory dinner after finishing a new resume or binge watching the series after forcing ourselves to put in the library time required for a deep dive into the knowledge of the desired new field. Our humanity is such that we will do better in this reinvention if we can look forward to some small prize after undertaking a series of tasks that may challenge our nature.

With these considerations of resources, regrets, and rewards in mind, we will be ready to plan out and then pursue the four activities of the ‘how’ phase of reinvention: read, converse, right, create. Before we get to those activities in the next post of this series, there are two important notes to cover: reality of inequality and necessity of honesty.

A Note on Inequality

We reinvent to gain and exploit opportunities. Some groups may suffer disadvantages in this quest because of structural inequities and biases; e.g., society cannot accept or at times allow the establishment of certain new identities by women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. Society includes admission officers, recruiting managers, project leaders, and everybody else. As a white, English-speaking male, such prejudices do not and did not hobble me. Ignoring this reality would be facile; presuming to rectify it through advice would be presumptuous. My experience may not prove completely useless to those in the above groups but the caveat needs stating. I don’t have a solution for this reality, but I admire greatly my friends who have overcome obstacles I never had to face in order to achieve extraordinary new identities that were valuable to them and to many others.

A Note on Honesty — Reinvention Must Be The Real Thing

Reinvention must always be real. It is never lying.

Sometimes we lie. Perhaps more accurately, we imagine and bend the truth — whatever that is — to fit our desires or just the exigencies of the moment. The first realization of falsely manufactured identity for me came from a book, which is unsurprising since so much of my life then came from books. As a boy, the Robert Crichton book about Fred Demara entitled ‘The Great Imposter’ fascinated me. Towers of paperbacks resided in our home and this one filtered through several of my brothers before I consumed it around age 10. DeMara posed as a monk, a prison warden, and, most impressively to me, a surgeon — all projections of identity enacted without any of the usual credentials. Thus long before I learned from philosophers of performative acts and social construction as shapers of identity, this dogeared paperback helped me understand something about reinvention, the shaping of a new identity. The Tony Curtis movie adaptation? Not so much.

The experience did not lead me to imitate Fred DeMara: his agility was admirable, but he ends up in jail, which I was determined to avoid. DeMara did persuade me that we had more control over our identity then the adults were willing to admit. If I listened to them, reinvention would’ve seemed unlikely if not impossible. But reinvention is something that I’ve done at least eight times and now at the age of 67 I’m doing it again. Each shift yielded lessons about the process that others might find of use. That’s why in conjunction with explaining and establishing this newest (re-) incarnation this series of short essays shares those lessons. Reinvention allowed my success. The failure to reinvent, to create and coordinate “actions, behaviors, and gestures” to form a new identity contributed powerfully to the frustration and failure suffered by many colleagues, kinsmen, and other acquaintances. They seemed to hold identity like those adults of my childhood as something bestowed rather than managed. But reinvention must be the real thing, not a fraud.

Imposters like Demara and Abagnale do offer one inside that is not a mirage: identity is flexible. The point is important because if we insist upon the inflexibility of identity we pass up chances. Carol Dweck’s critical insight is instructive here: she found that those who hold a fixed mindset, who believe “their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent are fixed traits… [Who] spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them” miss out on opportunities for accomplishment. The notion of a static identity connects also — in my mind at least — to Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work that demonstrated that higher adult development is possible but rarely attempted by people in their 30s to their 70s. We weren’t done when we first introduced ourselves in kindergarten and we are not necessarily done now. Reinvention requires willingness and the ability to consider the current identity, to hold it away from ourselves for more dispassionate observation. That exercise is difficult, hazardous, and often painful, but not impossible. Therefore, this series of notes is not for everyone. Believers in reinvention may benefit from the lessons learned. However, there will not be a movie version; after all, Tony Curtis is dead.

While Fred DeMara and later Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame may illuminate the wildest possibilities of newly assumed identities, reinvention is about newly earned identities. Those pursuing reinvention wish to make a claim about themselves: ‘I can do such and such to a high degree of competency; given the opportunity, I will make something happen. My performance will produce the promised result.’ DeMara and Abagnale might have approached validity at times with their purloined or pretended identities, but they either could not do so reliably or could not do so legitimately. The world doesn’t just care about the results. Often the people who want that result, the ‘requestors’ as Fernando Flores would put it, need to know that the result came from someone who is certified, who has toiled to build up more than the patina of knowledge and bravado that makes their brass shine like gold in a certain light. “Always tell the truth then you only have to remember one story”, Sister Mary Lucille Socciarelli told her prize student the late Tim Russert many years ago. This dictum is an initial principal in reinvention. No matter how impressive the acquisition of talents and smarts, misrepresentation of what we know, can do, or have done wrecks trust which is essential to fruitful reinvention. Similarly, the kind of reinvention to which I refer is not some postmodernist claptrap. As Errol Morris noted in his book The Ashtray, contriving words and labels is not the same thing as inventing a reality. The former is relatively easy, the latter requires interacting with the world. Pretending that we have accomplished that when all we have done is to run off at the mouth is an enormous and perhaps irreversible mistake. Our imprint on the consciousness of others as we start to show up in our reinvented reality must not smudge. As reinventors read, converse, write, and create in their quest for a different identity, this dedication to candor may prove difficult because of the disqualifications applied by those with that fixed mindset; e.g., ‘an advanced degree is a prerequisite’, ‘we only employ specialists’, etc. Overcoming those unfounded prejudices is not impossible. Changing minds once caught in a lie or a postmodernist declaration is impossible even after following the path of reinvention as stated in the pages to follow.

[i] Check out the wonderful charts displayed at flowing data by Nathan Yau:

[ii] See for very interesting disquisition on the phrase ‘Time Is Money’



T.J. Elliott

Spouse - MGPE, Playwright w J. Queenan: Alms, Grudges, Genealogy, The Oracle. Solo: Keeping Right, The Jester's Wife, HONOR