Return to Reinvention

T.J. Elliott
5 min readMar 7, 2023

“People don’t choose their careers; they are engulfed by them.”
John DosPassos

Photo by Rémy Penet on Unsplash

What Is Reinvention Anyway?

When people use the word reinvention, their meanings can differ significantly. Frustration usually coats the expression ‘reinventing the wheel’ because there is a sense of wasted time and indulgent activity. But reinventing oneself acknowledges that who we are already is an invention, something that we have created within a particular set of circumstances. In that case, this kind of reinvention is about doing something new, about discovering a different story that we might tell about ourselves.

As an unrepentant English major, my writing often begins with The Oxford English Dictionary. The entries there serve as a compass making more likely that whatever I am trying to express is pointing in the right direction. The roots of reinvent in the manner intended here come from Latin words that suggest the action of rediscovery, of finding something that may have gone missing as we scrambled to create a career. Such a meaning suggests that reinvention requires work to be done and the will to follow through on what may prove a complicated and even difficult enterprise.

We all tend to do what we tend to do

One of the most valuable insights ever given to me by someone in a lecture came from Bas Verplanken, Professor Emeritus now at the University of Bath, who has spent his career investigating attitudes, habits and behavior change. What was the insight? “People tend to do what they tend to do.” While this simple truth applies in many settings, its import in the initiative of reinvention explains why so many people who state that they would like to reinvent, to create a different story and circumstance for themselves, founder upon the barriers of the schedules and habits that already surround their life. Reinvention takes time and courage, but first the exercise requires a passion for change.

Reinvention is creating our occupational imprint AGAIN but intentionally this time.

[My mother] always told me that I must invent my own reality. Reality will not conform to you. You must invent your own and then conform to it. So I did. I am an authentic and an original. … I will not allow myself to be known simply as an African American, no more than I would allow myself to be known as gay or conservative. They are all bits and pieces of a work in progress. I am a child of God.”
Peter Gomes

Gomes, who was for many years the chaplain of Harvard University, had the luck of a mother who was explicit about something that often stays unsaid and even hidden: we will invent our own reality. The first question is what set of conditions society has afforded us. Only someone willfully (and even maliciously) in denial of the way things are would claim that we all enjoy the same resources for invention. That’s not a topic to take up in this particular thread, but it’s a reality that we must acknowledge.

The second question about reinvention or even our initial invention of our career is whether we participated in its construction passively or actively. John DosPassos, the post-World War I novelist, once wrote that, “People don’t choose their careers; they are engulfed by them.” Sometimes that means that serendipity swept us into a practice of life that provides us with all sorts of satisfaction. Sometimes, however, ‘engulfed’ means submerged, swamped. The demands and controls upon us of a job or even a profession press in such a way that we can’t even consider let alone plan an escape to some other occupation.

To change that, we will need to build on our self-efficacy, which is different than confidence. Take it from the man who invented the term.

“It should be noted that the construct of self-efficacy differs from the colloquial term “confidence.” Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor. Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment. A self -efficacy assessment, therefore, includes both an affirmation of a capability level and the strength of that belief. Confidence is a catchword rather than a construct embedded in a theoretical system.”
Albert Bandura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

So what to do?

Start with an examination of why you want to do what you want to do, which by necessity means an examination of yourself. T’aint easy.

There Are Three Things Extreamly Hard, Steel, a Diamond and To Know One’s Self
Ben Franklin

Starting with the ‘why’ of your quest for reinvention involves an examination as well of who you are right now, which may prove more disconcerting than initially imagined. But this examination is essential or else all the efforts may proceed from a false premise.

Why we want to reinvent will lead us to an encounter with various images of ourselves. Stephen Bayley in The Gentle Art of Selling Yourself put the dilemma pithily.

It is said that we are all three different people: the person we think we are (the one we have invented), the person other people think we are (the impression we make) and the person we think other people think we are (the one we fret about).

Why precedes what and where. This differs from the direction one might give an actor playing a character. There the question is first what one wishes to achieve, accomplish, or acquire. But this is real life and before a target is set the best practice is to ask yourself why you’re ven bothering and then determine how that answer will impact the rest of your journey to reinvention. My friend Robert Burnside gave me a quote he likes in this regard from David Campbell: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else”. I will add to that that is you did not stop to ascertain WHY you’re going you’ll end up with a less than optimal destination as well, one that might be right back where you started and hope to escape.

So the next installment will be a reissue of a piece written three years ago that can lead the interested pilgrim through an exploration of the big WHY. Click here to get there.



T.J. Elliott

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