I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the deep connection between learning and identify formation, and the implications for the work that I do every day.
These ruminations were begun when I read Herminia Ibarra’s book, Working Identity. At its core, the book provides an unconventional view of the process of career transition. Through the stories of real people making career changes and a sophisticated analysis of the messy processes they went through, Ibarra sharpens our understanding of the process of career transition and illustrates it as a process of identity formation. I highly recommend the book, and would point you to posts that Michele Martin has written summarizing some of the key ideas. (See Working Identity and Questions to Compose Your Working Identity.)
In this post, I want to reflect on the underlying theme that struck me as quite profound – the idea that what we do with our working lives is a part of who we are. That sounds obvious and uninteresting until you think about it for a while.
We who are in the business of helping people learn in the context of their jobs or their professional pursuits are in the business of identity formation. Our work might be as important as parenting in terms of the potential influence on others’ lives. That is a humbling thought.
“Who comes into a person’s life may be the single greatest factor of influence to what that life becomes.” ~ Robert Kegan
Environmental influences on learning and identity
The connection between learning and identity is not a new idea. The community of practice literature especially focuses on the idea that learning is a process of learning to be. As we take on various roles in our lives, and become part of many different communities, they all influence who we are in that context. We don’t simply learn how to play, we learn how to be a child. We don’t simply learn math and geography, we learn to be a student. We don’t just learn to process claims or manage people, we learn to be an individual contributor or a leader.
In this process of learning knowledge bases and skill sets in order to be effective in the various roles we play, outside environments – the people who surround us – exert influence on our learning. Others “teach” us lessons through how they respond to our actions. Others identify what we “should” learn in order to behave appropriately in a given situation – they influence who we become. As a learning leader, I am one of those others.
This reminds me that when I work to create a learning environment for people in specific roles, I am not just helping them to learn innocuous facts and actions. That learning environment is part of what forms their identity as professional practitioners. What messages am I sending through that environment? What kind of professional am I hoping to develop? What character traits am I nurturing?
It seems important that we think about this more deliberately even though we cannot and should not take full credit for who our learners become.
Identity’s influence on learning
Identity works on learning from the inside out as well. How we see ourselves causes us to seek out certain kinds of learning and to reject others. Recent writings regarding a “new culture of learning” point out that people who are passionate about their work find learning opportunities abounding in chance interactions, internet connections, and day-to-day work.
When I consider creating learning environment to support advanced learning for a specific audience group in my organization, the first question I need to ask is about learner motivation. If learners see themselves as professionals, if they have a self-image that includes being highly skilled in their work, then they will naturally take advantage of the learning environment we might pull together. But if they do not seem to have that innate desire to learn and grow in the same way that the organization needs them to learn and grow, we have a different issue altogether. And a well-organized learning environment won’t help that issue.
Food for thought
In the learning and development field, we often get caught up in tactical goals and objectives; we see our work and our programs as instrumental to helping people do their jobs and helping our organizations to achieve their goals. To supply the motivation to learn in a work context, we rely on learners seeing themselves as skilled professionals and desiring to do a good job to supply the motivation to learn in a work context. It is useful – and profoundly humbling – to recognize that when we impact others’ learning, we are acting on their very identities. It’s something I’ll be continuing to ruminate.