Author Talks: Create your ‘reinvention road map’ in four easy steps

In this edition of Author Talks, the McKinsey Global Institute’s Stephanie Strom chats with Joanne Lipman, former editor in chief of the USA Today network, about her new book, Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work (Mariner Books, Spring 2023). In the wake of a global pandemic where many have confronted feelings of displacement and the need for a fresh start, Lipman shares insight on the challenges and wonders inherent in the process of reinvention. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What made you to decide to write this book now?

Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work is a deeply reported guide to navigating change in the way that we live, work, and lead. I wrote it literally for this moment in time, when so many of us have been buffeted by the last few years of tumult. We’ve been searching for this “new normal,” and so many of us really are looking for more meaning in our lives and careers.

The original inspiration was exactly three years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, when I had my own aha moment. I woke up in the middle of the night, saying, “What am I doing? What am I going to do?” And I realized that everybody around me and the whole world—we were all in exactly the same position at the same time.

I woke up in the middle of the night, saying, ‘What am I doing? What am I going to do?’ And I realized that everybody around me and the whole world—we were all in exactly the same position at the same time.

We needed a road map to figure out how to get through these periods of tumult and transition. I set out to write Next! to provide that guidebook.

What is the ‘four Ss’ process that you map out in the book?

I interviewed people who changed careers, people who reinvented their lives, people who had these life-changing aha moments, people who came back from failure, and people who came back from terrible trauma.

Then I interviewed experts. There are different experts—psychologists, neuroscientists, management experts—in each one of those types of transition, and I asked them to walk me through the process. I wanted to understand the kind of people who had already been through this before, and I found that even though they used different words, they were all describing the same thing, these four steps. I call it the “Reinvention road map” and, as you said, “the four Ss”: search, struggle, stop, solution.

The first step, the search, is fascinating. This is when you are collecting information, collecting experiences. What’s key about it is that most people don’t realize it’s unintentional. This is the stuff that is going to take you to your transition, to your reinvention, but you don’t know it at the time. For career people, maybe it’s a side hustle or just a random interest, a hobby. That’s the search.

The second step is the struggle. The struggle is where you have disconnected, or you’re starting to disconnect, from that previous identity, but you have not figured out where you are going. It’s really uncomfortable, and we don’t like to talk about it. When we tell these reinvention stories, we tend to skip over this part. But it’s incredibly important, as the struggle is where all the important work gets done.

The struggle often doesn’t end until you hit the third step, the stop. The stop might be something that you initiate: for example, I quit my job. But it may be something imposed on you—for example, you lose your job. Or it could be a trauma, like a divorce or an illness in the family or a pandemic. Whatever it is, it stops you in your tracks.

Only then are you really able to synthesize all of these experiences. This struggle that you’ve gone through, it all coalesces into what leads you to your solution, which is the final reinvention step.

Can you walk us through your own reinvention?

People ask me that question, and I asked other people that question when I was doing these interviews. Even the people who had the most extreme reinventions didn’t see it as a reinvention. People just saw it as sort of an expression of themselves. Myself, I’ve been a journalist my whole life; I’ve just used those journalism skills in different ways.

I’ll walk you through some other examples that I found really, really fascinating. James Patterson, we all know him. He’s the best-selling novelist of all time, the most financially successful. I first met him more than 30 years ago. I am dating myself as a young Wall Street Journal reporter! I covered the advertising business, and he was working at J. Walter Thompson. He ran the Burger King account.

I was writing about the Burger Wars. I show up early in the morning, dragging my feet. I am not a morning person. He says, “Oh, I’ve been up for hours already because I want to be a novelist.” I’m thinking to myself, “Yeah, sure, guy, sure.” Then he says, “I even got a book published.” He hands me the book, and a couple of weeks later, I start reading it. I don’t remember the details, but a review of this book called it—and I am quoting—“abysmal.” At the time I was thinking, “Good thing the guy has a day job.”

Maybe ten years later, he pops up on my local TV, holding up his new book, Along Came a Spider, saying, “I’m James Patterson and this is my new book.” I’m, like, “How did this happen?”

So I went back to talk to James Patterson. He spent a lot of time with me, walking me through from when I first met him to where he is today: he went through all four of those steps.

The search was that he was writing and trying to find his voice while he was still an ad executive.

The struggle was when he started publishing books and they started getting better. But he’d been taught that you had to have a job, keep your job, and that writing is not a career. He had already published almost ten books, but he was nervous. He was not sure if he was good enough.

His stop came on a Sunday night. He can tell you exactly the moment. It was a summer Sunday, and he was coming back from the beach. He was stuck in traffic and standing still on the New Jersey Turnpike.

The solution struck him as he was watching cars on the other side heading to the beach: “I am on the wrong side of the road. My job is to get to the other side of the road, where I get to go to the beach on a Sunday.” He subsequently quit to become a full-time novelist, which turned out to be a very good idea.

Is the ‘stop’ the sticking point for most people?

Going back to this idea that we think that change happens overnight—really, it’s iterative. For younger people who go through this, the stop generally presents itself.

I’ll give you an example of a young woman named Lauren Strayhorn, who went through this very quickly. She was a marketing major in college, and she found herself spending a ton of time reading multiple different kinds of newsletters to collect the information that was specifically of interest to her.

She created a class project she called “Notedd,” with two Ds. It curates information for other women like herself—young Black professional women—news of interest and culture.

Then the class was over, but since she really enjoyed doing it, she continued curating it. COVID-19 hit, and, like other knowledge workers, she was sent home. She was working at home on her corporate job, but then she was able to roll over and spend time on Notedd, her passion project. Over the course of the pandemic, she realized that she was rushing through her day job to get to this passion project. Now Notedd is her full-time job!

That stop kind of presents itself when you reach that point where you’ve been iterating, iterating, iterating. Sometimes you don’t reach that point until it is forced on you. This is one of the reasons I wrote the book.

Generally, these moments are very individual and unique to every one of us—you get married or you lose your job or you move or whatever. But when the pandemic hit, suddenly that stop hit all of us at the same time. Everybody was torn out of their routines.

Millennials spend only about two years and nine months in one job. Gen Zers spend even less time: two years, three months per job; they are quick to reinvent themselves.

Pair that with the fact that we are now in an environment where we’re talking about a 60-year career path for people as opposed to the 40-year-and-then-you-retire-at-65 career path. In 60 years, you’ve got a lot of time to do more than one career.

Is there a common mistake that people make along this ‘four Ss’ path?

There are a couple of strategies for success, but there are also a few things that you want to avoid. I was surprised to find that one of the bigger mistakes was people quitting too soon.

There’s a professor at Northwestern University, Dashun Wang, a computational social scientist, and he studies these paths. He found that, first of all, successful failures are failures where you’re trying to do something new. You fail, and then you iterate, and then you iterate, and you iterate. Wang said the problem that many of us have is that when we fail, we throw out the whole thing and start over. He said that is the wrong way to fail. The “right” way to fail is to do this iteratively. There are two really important myths that Next exploded that were a surprise to me. They also made me feel a lot better about my own career path.

One of them, which I’ve referenced a little bit already, is the Cinderella myth—this idea that transformation is abrupt and instant. Think about any of the business stories we tell ourselves—whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg, from college student to billionaire, or Vera Wang, from figure skater to bridal designer. We tell ourselves these stories but we don’t ever talk about that in-between struggle.

From Cinderella to Superman to American Idol, you name it—we are taken with this idea that there’s something wrong with us if we can’t [transform abruptly] also. But there’s nothing wrong with you. Not only that, you’re actually moving forward, and this is an incredibly important part of the transformation process.

From Cinderella to Superman to American Idol, you name it—we are taken with this idea that there’s something wrong with us if we can’t [transform abruptly] also. But there’s nothing wrong with you.

The second myth that I think is incredibly damaging is this idea that you have to have an absolute plan of where you want to go. Everything that we’ve been reading for the last hundred years, from Think and Grow Rich1 on, these books tell us, “Have a goal and then have a definite plan and then execute every single step of the way.” That is very good advice if, say, you really know that you want to be an oral surgeon. But for so many other people whom I interviewed, it was the reverse.

They didn’t know where they were going; they had no idea. The economist who became a cattle farmer, for example, said, “There’s no way in hell I ever would have imagined that that was my career path. That was not in the plan.” He said, “I would never quit, as an economist, to become a cattle farmer.”

In his case, it started with a weekend home that he bought because it was an inexpensive, crumbling-down farmhouse. Over time, not only did he fix up the farmhouse, but he also leased out the property to someone who had some cows. Then when that cattle owner died, he just took on the cows.

It was a process of 20 years before he actually made that transition. I found so many of these stories where people did have these meandering paths.

How did the companies you focus on enable people to get things done?

I was very interested in how companies can reinvent themselves, how companies can keep that spirit of innovation, and there are certain things that they have in common.

The biggest quality, first of all, is to listen and respect what your employees, your customers, and your vendors have to say. In the back of the book, I go through about a dozen strategies for success for anyone.

There’s one strategy that is relevant to both individuals and to companies as well, and it’s called “Find your expert companion.” “Expert companion” is a term that I borrowed from trauma psychologists. When trauma psychologists have trauma survivors, often they have an expert companion, who might be a therapist or a friend—someone who can help reflect back to the survivors the progress they’ve made and the strengths they have.

My view is that every one of us needs an expert companion. It’s really important when you’re thinking about changing careers, but that expert-companion concept also translates into businesses. My favorite example of that one, honestly, is Play-Doh.

Most people probably don’t realize that Play-Doh actually started as a household cleaner called Kutol—Kutol wallpaper dough. It was this doughy, putty stuff that was used to clean the soot from coal stoves off your wallpaper. In the 1950s, people stopped using coal stoves and moved to electric and gas. Kutol was going out of business; no one needed it anymore.

It was a family-run business ten seconds from bankruptcy. The owner’s sister-in-law happened to be a nursery schoolteacher. She called up the owner one day and said, “Oh, my God, I’m reading this nursery school magazine, and it turns out we can use wallpaper dough as modeling clay for little kids.”

It was a “Voilà!” aha moment. The brother-in-law of this company hired a chemist to take out the cleaning solution and add that fragrance that we all know today. He basically used the same factory, the same extruders, the same packaging, and just changed the label. And Play-Doh was born.

What was the most surprising thing that you found during your research for this book?

Probably the most surprising [discoveries] were the myths that I talk about—the idea that things have to happen overnight, the idea that you have to know what your goal is. The other really surprising thing to me was just how similar this process of transformation is across multiple kinds of transitions.

I found it very heartening because it is applicable to different areas of your life, whether you’re thinking about a career, some sort of major life change, or whether you are going through something traumatic.

Probably the most surprising [discoveries] were the myths that I talk about—the idea that things have to happen overnight, the idea that you have to know what your goal is. The other really surprising thing to me was just how similar this process of transformation is across multiple kinds of transitions.

What qualities are important in reinventing yourself?

One of the really important takeaways from the book is that so many of these people who reinvent themselves—or their careers or their lives—don’t have that end goal in mind. But they do need to be open to exploring what the future might hold, allowing it to seep in a little bit.

There are a few strategies that can help you to be open to that. One is definitely having an expert companion: ask somebody who knows you, “What are my strengths?” It’s amazing how many of us have innate strengths that we totally discount or we don’t even recognize in the first place.

Another is to imagine your possible selves, thinking about what you might be or could be. Imagining it is a first step to getting there—it helps to open your mind. Though it’s not enough to just imagine it and keep it in your head; you really do need to act.

Now, taking action doesn’t mean quit your job. Taking action could mean talking to somebody in that field, taking a course, even writing down your goals.

Another strategy that also helps is reaching out to your weak and dormant ties. I knew this intellectually, but in writing the book, I had to do it to find all these examples. I found it difficult. It’s so funny, but I forced myself to do it. I got some of my best examples this way.

Your “weak ties” are people who you don’t know very well. I wanted to get to one guy who I knew had a big career transition, but I didn’t know him. Yet I knew somebody who used to work with him. That’s an example of your weak ties.

Your “dormant ties” are people with whom you haven’t been in touch for a while. Researchers asked executives to specify a business problem they were trying to solve. Then they were asked to reach a dormant tie, someone they hadn’t spoken to in [at least] five years, and to ask their advice.

The advice they got from their dormant tie was so much better than the advice they got from their inner circle.

I also have a whole chapter on taking a break. When I did the research and looked into all the studies that have been done about taking a walk, swimming, hiking, showering, and everything you need to do to take a break, it is overwhelming. In the daily course of work, one of my very favorite strategies was the “90-minute rule.”

I have experienced this with writer’s block. The 90-minute rule holds that if you’re stuck on a problem and you’re working really hard, completely focus for 90 minutes. That means you turn off the phone, the emails, the social media—everything.

At the end of 90 minutes, you must stop. No choice: hard stop. You have to do something else. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson was the person who discovered this. He did his research on expert violinists: these experts practiced for only 90 minutes, and then they took a break. That 90 minutes was what was called “focused practice.” They had no distractions.

Why did it feel empowering to write this book?

I found it very empowering. Because there were so many things that I thought were “just me”—like, “I’m the only one who’s struggling. I can’t figure it out, everybody else can.”

When you are going through the struggle, these difficult times when you’re not exactly sure where you’re going to land, you may think that you’re standing still, but really, you are moving forward. And I found that to be empowering.

We don’t like to talk about the struggle, because it’s uncomfortable. But that’s where the work is getting done, and we really are moving forward. It may not feel that way, but you really are moving forward.

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