James Patterson, the most commercially successful American author, remained the CEO of the J. Walter Thompson North America ad agency well after his writing career had taken off. During his day job he wrote commercial lines such as “I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid,” while working through the plots of his novels in the middle of the night, on planes, and in between meetings.
Patterson’s story of reinvention as an author whose books have sold over 400 million copies is the starting point for Joanne Lipman’s new book Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work, which comes out next week. Lipman, a former top newspaper editor who lectures at Yale and appears on CNBC, met Patterson while reporting for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s when he was still an advertising executive, and he gave her a copy of one of his early novels.
Lipman notes that reinventions like Patterson’s seem both smooth and inevitable in retrospect, and sets out to demystify the process of such transformative change in business and people’s careers. “Patterson knew for years where he’d like to go but wasn’t sure how to get there,” she writes. “The bestselling author of our time didn’t quit his day job until he was almost 50 years old.” (p. 20)
The ability to understand such searching and transition is arguably even more relevant right now. Psychologists have suggested that the societal and individual pains of the pandemic could give rise to a sort of post-traumatic growth, and the waves of resignations and re-evaluations of careers and lives over the past few years support the idea that people are hungry for meaningful reinvention.
Next! suggests that such change often follows a similar series of steps, which Lipman calls the “reinvention roadmap”:
- Search. This involves imagining reenvisioning your career or your business, imagining what psychologists sometimes call “possible selves.” People who successfully have reinvented themselves “aren’t trying to invent a new identity; they are instead seeking a fuller expression of who they already are,” Lipman writes. (p. 28) And she notes that generally a transition is not a sudden, dramatic shift, but “an immeasurable number of often tiny, imperceptible steps forward,” (p. 274) such as Ina Garten’s journey from White House budget analyst who entertained friends with home-cooked dinners to celebrity cookbook writer.
- Struggle. This step is the most important, and stories of reinvention tend to leave out this messy middle, when you’ve left behind one identity but haven’t fully realized a new one. For creative problems, this is the stage where you’re stumped by a problem and are hitting your head against the wall, such as scientist Katalin Kariko’s years of failed experiments and career setbacks that would eventually lay the groundwork for mRNA vaccines. “The struggle isn’t just necessary; in virtually every arena of transformation, it’s the key to finding a solution,” Lipman writes. (p. 13) Having an “expert companion,” someone who knows you well and has confidence and clarity you might not have during this phase, is often essential.
- Stop. Stepping away from the change you’re wrestling with is often key to breaking through. Sabbaticals, sleep, and unstructured time are all essential to having needed epiphanies and clarity about what comes next. The concept for Post-it Notes came to 3M employee Art Fry when his mind wandered during a church service, for example.
- Solution. This is when the transition is complete. Lipman notes that—even though they might feel like a waste—past efforts and experience contribute to where you land, such as former NBA player Len Elmore’s interest in civil rights and a law degree that eventually led him to teaching sports management at Columbia. “One of the most important insights I learned in my reporting was that people who made the most extraordinary pivots often got there by following meandering and unexpected paths,” she writes. (p. 278)
Other useful takeaways and tactics from the book:
- How to know when it’s time to jump. Lipman encourages following your gut instinct. “It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes too much information gives us a false sense of security and actually leads us to make objectively wrong decisions,” she writes. “And while gut instinct may seem disconcertingly unscientific, it’s often actually a recognition of our own expertise and of pattern recognition.” (p. 274)
- The importance of the people around you. There’s the expert companion, a concept borrowed from a term trauma psychologists use to describe a person who helps the survivor come to grips with their situation and move forward. The companion’s role with reinvention is “to ask questions and help them see new perspectives, not to dictate what they should be feeling, or tell them what to do,” writes Lipman. (p. 235) Research also shows that so-called “weak ties” can be critical for reinvention, as people outside of your inner circle are even more able to connect you to fresh opportunities, perspectives, and ideas. Also, researchers found that people who sent weekly updates to a friend were much more likely to achieve their goals.
- The 90-minute rule. Focus on your work completely for 90 minutes, and then stop and take a break. “By focusing intensely, then taking a break, we refresh our brain and allow thoughts to coalesce,” writes Lipman. (p. 209) She quotes one consultant as saying you can only have the mental energy to go through this cycle three times a day.
- Why you might make a CV of failure. Medical researcher Melanie Stefan suggests creating a resume listing not your accomplishments, but rather what you’ve failed at. “Log every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper. Don’t dwell on it for hours, just keep a running, up-to-date tally,” Stefan wrote in Nature. “It will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist—and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.”
- You can create the conditions for breakthrough ideas. The key elements for getting eureka insights are distraction, relaxation, and a positive mood. “You need to remove the guardrails in your brain and allow disconnected thoughts to swim together unimpeded, so that they can coalesce into something new,” writes Lipman. (p. 96)
To be sure:
- Lipman defines reinvention broadly—encompassing such wide-ranging events as the Great Resignation and the invention of Play-Doh—so someone seeking a focused playbook for changing careers or for business transformation could be disappointed. Next! detours through topics such as where good ideas come from, the power of gut instinct, hybrid work, and the benefits of sleep, although Lipman’s reinvention roadmap framework generally holds it together.
Memorable facts and anecdotes:
- The average person switches jobs a dozen times over their career.
- Paul McCartney one morning woke up with the tune for “Yesterday” in his head and assumed that he must have heard it somewhere and someone else must have composed it.
- Almost half of trauma survivors experience post-traumatic growth—in areas such as relationships with others, appreciation for life, and personal strength—according to a 2019 meta-analysis. Scottish cancer survivors were more likely to get involved with a charity than to reward themselves with a dream vacation, according to one study.
- Women are less likely than men to link their self-esteem to their work, researchers have found.
- Auto executive Robert Lutz created the Dodge Viper convertible sports car to try to shake up how people saw Chrysler after he arrived there in 1986. “What you need to do when you want to change perception is you have to do something truly awesome,” Lutz said. (p. 256) He later used a similar approach at General Motors when he championed the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid over internal opposition.
- The company behind Play-Doh originally sold putty called Kutol for cleaning coal soot from wallpaper and was on the verge of failure when a member of the owners’ family suggested altering the formulation and marketing the dough as modeling clay for kids.
- “We’ve bet on the life we have, and it’s too hard to think about the life we don’t have. We have invested in our current path, and we double down instead of reevaluating. ‘We don’t let go of anything important until we have exhausted all the possible ways that we might keep holding on to it,’ as William Bridges wrote in his book The Way of Transition.” (p. 7)
- “Rather than spinning yourself into a frenzy, sometimes you just have to forget all of the endless variables and listen to your gut.” (p. 37)
- “Those who ultimately succeed are those who tweak, adjust, and fiddle after every flameout. They don’t give up the whole endeavor and start from scratch. Instead, they embark on the iterative and sometimes painful process of isolating one component at a time.” (p. 60)
- “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” —Winston Churchill (p. 70)
- “Taking a break, whether to sleep for a few hours or take a sabbatical for many months, may be the most important, yet most underrated, ingredient in coming up with new ideas and directions.” (p. 192)
The bottom line is that Next! is a useful, thought-provoking guide to figuring out the next thing—whether as a person or a business—getting started on it, and persevering through the common period of struggle. It’s a virtuoso assembly of historical anecdotes and quotes—spanning French mathematician Henri Poincaré to rocker Todd Rundgren—and case studies of people and organizations who’ve successfully reinvented themselves.