Provisional Selves

Curiosity doesn’t have to Kill the Cat

You have been working a typical 9-5 job for several years now, while the corporate hustle was exciting among the first few years, you are currently feeling unfulfilled, dread going to work, and desire a change of pace. On the weekends you enjoy strolling on the beach or hiking a mountain to take pictures of the scenery. One day your friend asks, “Why don’t become a photographer?”; you think to yourself, “I could never do that”, but in reality you are simply fearful. People don’t necessarily fear change, they fear failure; often, those who are afraid of trying something new are apprehensive to test their skills (Ibarra, 2002). Choosing to not pick up photography out of fear of failure is very similar to not giving yourself the opportunity to explore a career options, so how will your curiosity be satiated? 

Have you ever wondered if you were in the right career? Why not experiment with the idea? This interest is common; it is very likely that a person will undergo multiple careers throughout their lifetime (Ibarra, 2002). Experimenting with one’s professional identity is called the provisional self (Ibarra, 1999). This concept is closely aligned with one’s possible self, which are potential versions of what one might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming (Ibarra, 2002; Markus & Nurius, 1986). In essence, this may look like a person becoming a photographer out of desire, or out of fear of who they may become if they were to stay in the corporate realm. The provisional self serves as a means to test out theories of one’s possible selves.

If you are interested in a career transition, you can begin by looking to others as role models, making sure their actions coincide with your values. After studying a diverse group of professionals, researchers have unveiled two forms of experimentation that generally occur in the workplace (Ibarra, 1999). The first was imitation strategies, in which one looks to others in their field of interest, observes their behavior, and replicates it. The second form of experimentation includes authenticity. People who demonstrate authenticity behave in ways that align with their beliefs, ideas, and values. However, just because you know your beliefs, ideas, and values, doesn’t mean you are discovering ways to align them with your career. Researchers have examined values of various professional industries and found no connection between their stated values and their quality of professional practice (Ronfeldt & Grossman, 2008). Participants reported their values as foundational to their professional identities, however, they failed to make the connection between those values and their professional practice. Researchers attributed this to their lack of availability for shadowing those in their field and lack of experimentation before commitment to a career (Ronfeldt & Grossman, 2008). “When novices do not actually see instructors in practitioner roles, the possible selves they encounter are always partial” (Ronfeldt & Grossman, 2008, p. 47). In essence, observing role models is a great way to explore a career opportunity, but actual experimentation within the possible role, is the key to success.

Each person has many possible selves, and they could be satisfied in a variety of careers; therefore, it is essential to test different options. Provisional selves serve as trail runs for the various possible selves one might self-identify with (Ibarra, 1999; Ibarra, 2002; Markus & Nurius, 1986). Therefore, trying on different hats and seeing what you enjoy is a great way to discover the right move for you. Curious to try it out? Here are three simple steps taken from Ibarra (1999) to help you along the way.

  1. Observe role models to identify potential identities. Perhaps you are interested in what it would be like to become a photographer. You might want to have a few informational interviews with professional photographers and discover what they love most about their job, what skills they believe are necessary to be competent, and what aspects of the job are most challenging. They may even allow you to shadow them during their next photo shoot.

  2. Experiment with your provisional selves. Next, it would be a good idea to take a class in photography and learn more skills for professional practice. If you think you already possess the right skills, you might want to try it out by offering to take photos at a friend’s wedding, or take a family portrait for someone you know. This first-hand experience is the perfect way to see if this kind of career is right for you.

  3. Finally, evaluate the experience against internal standards and external feedback. This means taking the time to determine whether or not the experiment was a good fit for you. Did it meet your expectations? Will this career offer you the opportunities you desire (i.e. finances, flexibility, autonomy, etc.)? Perhaps you should talk to a trusted friend or family member about the experience and see what kind of feedback they can offer.

Don’t feel as if you have to stay stuck on one career path. There are a variety of options out there, you just need to be willing to test the waters. Trying out a provisional self is an evidenced-based practice that is low risk and offers high reward. Pick up that camera lens and see what you capture, because if you don’t, you may never satisfy the curiosity that’s been poking you!


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Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American psychologist, 41, 954.

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