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On Jeff Gothelf’s “Forever Employable.”

Forever Employable: How to Stop Looking for Work and Let Your Next Job Find You.

A book by Jeff Gothelf.

Bookshop link. 

Sometimes my wife and I get into these conversations where I tell her about great advice I received, whether I read it in a book, or heard it from a colleague.

And she would say, “But I told you that before!” Which was sometimes true—I just didn’t recognize it as great advice then.

Sometimes it’s because of the way the advice is presented or framed, whether as a gentle suggestion or a swift kick in the pants.

Sometimes you hear something four or five times but the sixth time’s the charm.

Sometimes you’re just not ready to hear things yet. I’m reminded here of Nick Cave, on songwriting, emphases mine:

“You are not the ‘Great Creator’ of your songs, you are simply their servant, and the songs will come to you when you have adequately prepared yourself to receive them. They are not inside you, unable to get out; rather, they are outside of you, unable to get in.”

Some fortuitous combination allowed Jeff Gothelf’s Forever Employable to get in. Some of it has to do with my own receptivity, after being well-primed by some great managers of mine, and excellent career coaches along the way. But a lot of it has to do with Gothelf’s lucid, pragmatic style, and the way he gives you pointers to put into practice immediately.

Forever Employable (catchily subtitled “How to Stop Looking for Work and Let Your Next Job Find You”) dares to traffic in aspirational absolutes. (There it is in the title; forever is a mighty long time.) It’s the big hairy audacious hypothesis that resists any empirical validation—a fact not lost on Gothelf, I am sure—but I ate it up anyway because he makes you believe.

I find his story even more compelling in the sense that I was witness, as it were, to his career transformation. I was already familiar with his intellectual work as a designer and leader in the UX field, and was lucky to have taken a UX prototyping workshop led by Gothelf years ago at a User Interface Engineering (UIE) conference in Boston. I’m fortunate once again to read his latest book about something rather different.

Let’s get a little something out of the way: Gothelf isn’t saying anything new. He doesn’t break new ground or promise to give you The One Secret Technique that Will Quadruple Your 401K and Let You Slay Dragons in Your Sleep. People savvier than I who are well-versed in “personal branding”—a term from which I still instinctively recoil, but that’s totally my problem and I need to get over it—will recognize the advice he offers about creating a platform and “future-proofing” your career.

Here, for instance, are a couple pieces of advice he shares about “building traction:”

  1. Follow leaders in your field.
  2. Join their conversation.

No-brainers, right? And yet—full confession here—I still find it all somewhat terrifying, even when the said leader and the said conversation is happening somewhere as frictionlessly as social media.

Here’s a third piece of advice, which also reminds me of Austin Kleon’s exclamation, ”Show your work!”:

  1. Share your work regularly. I created a consistent pace for sharing my materials. 

You can head over to Gothelf’s blog and see the evidence: a wealth of advice and interviews and downloadable templates.

Run your career as if it were a product or a science experiment.

What is novel to me, though, is how Gothelf anchors his advice on career development on the scientific method. You know, just like what you learned in high school biology, except adapted for a career in knowledge work: forming and declaring assumptions regarding your platform and the audience; writing and refining hypotheses; and running iterative experiments in as agile a fashion as possible, towards crafting a minimally viable product and beyond. You essentially run your career as if it were a product—or more precisely, a science experiment. 

Gothelf’s use of a conventional methodology in seemingly unconventional fashion won’t be new to those familiar with Lean UX, the user experience framework he’s most famous for popularizing. (“What’s the least amount of work we can do to test our hypotheses?” he asked at that prototyping workshop back in 2013. I still have my notes.) In Forever Employable, he advocates many of the same Lean UX principles, including frequent testing and solicitation of feedback and yes, keeping it lean when learning about a hypothesis:

What’s the least amount of work I can do right now to learn that? Your goal is to spend as little of your precious time on early-stage ideas in case they end up not working.

It doesn’t just mean less effort; it also means a minimum of waste, as course corrections can be done quickly. This pattern of repetition—systematically and quickly putting out content, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t, and seeking constant feedback to improve the next version—allows one to be more nimble in testing how to expand one’s career options.

[Planting a flag] means having a story. Despite one’s misgivings about all the stories already being told, no one else has the story you will tell. No one else has made that same journey as you have.

Gothelf writes that the first step to becoming “forever employable” is “planting a flag,” which entails having an informed opinion about a specific topic. I find “planting a flag” a more compelling metaphor than “building a platform.” It means having a story. And despite one’s misgivings about all the stories already being told, no one else has the story you will tell. No one else has made that same journey as you have, he writes. I find this all inspirational. There’s no need either to go farther afield in figuring out where to plant this flag: it requires looking deep into what you already have—remember, “What’s the least amount of work?”—which is your own experience.

Be comfortable knowing that there’s always room for entry-level content because no one has done the work exactly like you have done the work.

Jeff Gothelf

One of the best things about Forever Employable is that the book itself is a compact illustration of its own principles. I’ll give two examples.

First example: Gothelf writes about making sure your authentic voice comes through in the content you create, and that authentic voice is evident in the book as well. It’s noticeable, for instance, how many times Gothelf tells you at the beginning about all the things he doesn’t know. Like you (like me), Gothelf didn’t know where to start either:

I was humble about it. I shared the wins and I shared the losses. I talked a lot about the things we tried that didn’t work, some real disasters, and what we learned from them.

And that voice works: it establishes trust. It automatically aligns both writer and reader in a position of empathy.

Second example: Gothelf also gives you helpful tips and recommendations that can be used immediately. It also happens to be his main piece of advice for engaging an audience:

I provided practical and tactical advice for people to use. I always gave my audience something to try—something they could actually put into practice today, tomorrow, next week, next month.

(I learned that lesson first-hand when I taught my Design Thinking and Storytelling class; it was crucial that students should be given tools they could use right away.)

For instance, he provides tips about “giving the best presentation of your life,” or “five things you can do right now to start building traction for your story”—yes, they’re a little clickbait-y (like that “Forever” in the title) but you can bet I added some of those tips to my todo list as soon as I could.

As I wrote above, his ideas aren’t necessarily new. But they are framed and packaged in a simple but compelling manner that I find immensely valuable. Forever Employable is especially helpful for someone like me puzzling over how to tie together the disparate parts of my experience and weave it all into a career that isn’t just intellectually stimulating and satisfying for me, but also of service and value to others.

So here’s a piece of practical, doable advice you can do right now: pick up Jeff Gothelf’s book. (Bookshop link) You might find you were ready to hear his advice all along.

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