5 Ways to Redesign Your Career in Publishing

dbw, digital book world conference, design thinkingAuthors and publishers have been working in an environment of constant change for the last several years. New tools and technologies keep popping up. New sales options and strategies arise. Data has become important even to those without backgrounds in statistics.

There’s always something new to learn, and many people have found themselves taking on new roles, even new careers, in order to achieve success or just stay afloat.

Because publishing has become such a volatile industry, with publishing professionals often struggling to figure out the next steps for their lives and careers, the organizers of Digital Book World 2017 invited Bill Burnett, co-author of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, to speak to the attendees.

Burnett offered the audience of authors and publishing professionals a list of five mindsets that, when reframed, have the power to help people design a satisfying career and life—even in the ever-changing profession of book publishing.

You Can Design Your Life

Burnett is one of the founders of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University. When describing his job, Burnett said, “I teach classes that help you figure out what you want to be when you grow up.” As soon he said that, however, he immediately corrected himself. “Actually, I help you figure out what you grow into, because you never grow up.”

Burnett started his career as a mechanical designer, but soon began to apply the engineering design principles to human behavior after observing how often people get stuck when trying to make life decisions. He observed that many people are held back by their beliefs: ideas they think are true but are actually holding them back from achieving their goals. Burnett discovered that the process of design thinking that led engineers to create effective products could also be applied to people when creating effective life choices.

Idea 1: Connect the Dots for a Meaningful Life

Burnett observed that these days, many people want more meaning in their lives. But what exactly is a meaningful life? Burnett believes that meaning arises out of a deep connection between who you are, what you do, and what you believe.

Burnett suggested that when we connect the dots between our identities, our work and our beliefs, we will recognize the meaning in our lives. He suggests that in order to do this, we write a “work view” by documenting our own personal theory of what work is, what it’s for, and why we do it. In addition, writing a “life view” is also helpful. This is a personal document in which we list our personal definition of the meaning of life and why we are here.

When the connection between all of these “dots” is coherent and there’s no tension or contradiction, we can find meaning in our lives. Burnett also noted that meaningful work often has some component of service to others and includes the knowledge that what we do will “amount to something.”

Expressing, documenting and linking all these powerful ideas leads to awareness of our lives, and that knowledge itself leads to a more meaningful life.

Idea 2: We Are Many Lives: Ideate Three of Them

“How many lives are you?” Burnett asked the DBW audience. The average, he said, is about eight; each of us is more than one “aliveness” because we can imagine our lives in many ways. Burnett likened our lifespan to an odyssey—a journey that is long and far. In order to determine our various lives, Burnett said that we should ideate three alternative futures:

• Future 1 answers the question of what you are doing right now. This scenario includes the best possible version of what you’re currently doing. Burnett suggested writing out the story of today’s situation working out really well, with the optimum outcome.
• Future 2 answers the question, “What if I died tomorrow?” He suggests making note of how you would feel now if everything were over and all the things you are doing are gone.
• Future 3 isn’t a question as much as a brainstorm. “And now, for something completely different,” Burnett said, suggesting writing out what your life would be like if money or status were no object.

Idea 3: Bias Toward Action

In the engineering profession, prototyping allows teams to build models to prove that their ideas could actually work. When you’re designing your life, prototyping consists of asking yourself interesting questions about your life with the goal of exposing your assumptions. You could have a prototype conversation or a prototype experience.

A prototype conversation allows you to speak with someone who is already doing the activity you’re thinking of doing. If you’d like to take a year off, for example, and construct your own house, or sail a boat around the world, find someone who is or was involved in that activity and interview them.

“Ask them for their story,” Burnett advised. “Humans are natural storytellers. Go find someone who is living in your future.”

Prototype conversations are a low-risk way of finding out if the new life you imagine is the right fit. “Don’t just jump into it,” Burnett said. “Instead, have a conversation.” Someone is doing what you want to do. Find them and learn how they are living it out.

Alternatively, you could have a prototype experience. This is a short, temporary experience that allows you to physically embody the life you imagine. Burnett said prototyping is a way to “sneak up on your future, set the bar low and clear it over and over again.” This is a simple, fast way to try out various ideas, and it can teach you whether or not a particular way or thinking or acting might be worth pursuing further.

Idea 4: Make Good Choices

There is a technique to choosing well, Burnett said. This methodology, when applied thoughtfully, can help you answer the question, “How do you know when you know?” The process includes the following steps: gather and create options, and then make a list of pros and cons.

Then narrow down your options. Burnett said that it’s impossible to make a good choice when you have too many choices, so discipline yourself into reducing the list to a manageable few.

After narrowing your options, make the final choice, based on the pros and cons measured against your values. Here you should use both reason and emotion. Use both your brain and your gut.

Finally, let go of other options and move on. Burnett said that letting go is a powerful and important step in the decision-making process. When a choice is irrevocable, it’s a lot easier to feel satisfied about it later on.

“People who can change their mind are often deeply dissatisfied with their first decision,” Burnett said. “But people who have no choice are OK with it because they can’t change their minds.”

It seems counter-intuitive, but Burnett said the decision “has to be irrevocable in order not to be deeply dissatisfied.” If, after making that final decision, you decide you want to change your mind, Burnett suggested going back to the beginning of the decision-making process and performing the whole thing over again honestly.

Idea 5: Avoid the Gravity Problem

Nobody on earth can change gravity. So why complain about it? Why say it bothers you? No matter what you do, gravity won’t be any different, and you’ll be perpetually dissatisfied. The gravity problem describes the situation that exists when people mistake problems they can’t change with something that bothers them.

“If it’s not actionable,” Burnett said, “it’s just the water you’re swimming in.”

So if there’s something in your life that you know you can’t change, instead of griping about it, reframe it and accept it.

“Deal with what you’ve got, and reframe it in a way that you can be happy with it,” Burnett said. “It’s making what I’ve got the choice that I like, not trying to find a better choice.”

Reframe and Revitalize Your Life

Reframing unchangeable situations can be pretty relieving. If you can reframe your thoughts, you can get unstuck and adapt to the changing roles, technologies and mindsets of the volatile publishing industry.


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