Putting Forever Employable Into Practice

I’ve followed Jeff Gothelf since about 2013 when I read his and Josh Seidon’s seminal book Lean UX about applying the principles of rapid experimentation and prototyping to the craft of user experience design. One of the things I loved most about their technique was how instrumental Lean UX was in helping design and engineering teams collaborate to create better outcomes for users.

Jeff’s more recent book, Forever Employable, published in 2020, came back onto my radar recently. I had read it before, but I wasn’t ready to take the kind of career steps that Jeff was talking about in the book. Now, having decided to part ways with the design agency I helped shape over the last seven years, it was time to revisit his techniques.

Jeff and I share some interesting career overlaps. We’re both about the same age. We were both briefly professional musicians in the late 1990s, and we both concluded that the lifestyle and pay as a musician weren’t sustainable for us. We similarly got to this conclusion when the Internet became a way for us to do work we enjoyed while getting compensated enough to be able to pay rent in New York City.

I started diving into HTML and Photoshop in 1998 and landed my first job designing and building early e-commerce websites for a stock photography company in 1999. This was the time when, as Jeff puts it in the book, “…being able to spell “HTML” … was literally the qualification for getting a job back then”. This was perfect for Jeff and perfect for me.

Forever Employable is a simple, lean book where Jeff breaks down 5 steps for future-proofing one’s career. His core message is around publishing about a topic that you can “plant your flag on” and develop your own opinion about to future-proof your career. While I don’t love the metaphor of “planting a flag” (colonialism and all that) and I also don’t think we can truly ever “future-proof” our careers. I do, however, think this book can be a huge help to at least make one’s career more future-friendly. Especially for mid-career folks like myself.

When I set out to write this review of Jeff’s book, I realized that I hadn’t yet put his techniques fully into practice. So, I decided to immerse myself in the practice of Forever Employable starting with these first few posts on my personal website to help me, a mid-career digital product specialist, find my personal center of gravity around what I have to offer the technology and design world.

One of the biggest hurdles for me is the craft of writing itself. Something I thought would be easy for me. Turns out, writing is hard! In my role as Direct of Product Management at an SF design agency, I kept trying to carve out time to publish, but each time I did, I found myself in a similar place:

  1. I was exhausted and burned out from the grind of the organization.
  2. I didn’t know what to write about. Those half-written articles from previous months felt no longer relevant and/or inspiring and diving into new ideas felt like starting over each time.
  3. Lastly, At the time, I didn’t feel I had any skill in the craft of writing.

I knew that I needed to adopt a regular habit of writing for me to make any progress on these and I knew that diving right into professional writing was not going to work for me. I had to break these practices into smaller chunks for me to be able to do this. Much like I used to do when learning a new song, I break it down one measure and chord at a time, until slowing the song comes together.

Growing up, I never felt confident at spelling and grammar, so this was always a huge distraction for me when trying to write. I struggled to get into the flow of writing because I was constantly checking the spelling of things and looking other things up. So, the research was getting done, but the pages remained blank. I had a bad case of perfectionism — and I’m still working on it.

In February 2021, about a year into the pandemic, my wife and I took a trip to a beautiful spot up the Pacific Coast of California about two hours north of San Francisco. I brought with me a new Moleskin journal, and I began to write, with a blue .7mm point uni-ball pen. Not about Product Management techniques or User-centered Design, but rather about my personal life. I wrote about anything. My cat, my garden, my relationships — It’s been great therapy!

The best part of it is that I use a pen and notebook. All the little distractions that get in the way of me getting into a writing flow fall away. I don’t have spell check. I can’t stop to get a quote from somewhere. I can’t stop to look anything up. I just get to keep going and look past the misspellings, bad grammar, and best guesses when I can’t recall something.

Writing professionally for other folks is still very hard for me. And though I still feel a ways off from having a habit around it, I’m slowly starting to put the practice of Forever Employable in motion and feeling optimistic about my flow now that I’m giving myself space for it. My career has spanned almost a quarter century of designing and building digital products, so it's challenging to know where to start. But rather than getting hung up on this and which of my brilliant ideas people think will be gold, Jeff offers some helpful and appropriately lean advice…

Ask yourself the question: “How do I start to test which portions of my expertise will resonate with a target audience, and how can I learn that with as little risk and investment as possible?” Forever Employable, Gothelf

So, read on, curious readers. The best is yet to come!