Tips for Curbing Career Anxiety

In a new book "Forever Employable: How to Stop Looking for Work and Let Your Next Job Find You" by software designer-turned-entrepreneur Jeff Gothelf, learn how to economy-proof any career.

By Joanie Wexler

By Joanie Wexler December 15, 2020

Career anxiety can be hard to avoid, especially given that the traditional notion of job security has all but dissolved into the stuff of bedtime fables.

There was a time when a corporate behemoth like IBM or Procter & Gamble might recruit people right out of college, train and help them navigate the corporate ladder for 30 or 40 years. Many careers ended with a bang at a lavish retirement party, complete with a gold watch and possibly even a guaranteed-income pension that lasted through those golden years.

This scenario is a long way from the stark realities of today’s work environment. Somewhere along the line – around 1980 – employers stopped investing their productivity gains back into their workers and instead used it to create more value for their shareholders. This dynamic led to decades of frequent corporate reorganizations and layoffs, which left employees in the lurch and company loyalty on the cutting room floor. Pensions, which are big liabilities to employers and thus disliked by the almighty shareholders, gave way to 401(k) retirement plans that employees fund themselves.


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Along the way, there have been economic crashes, terrorist attacks and pandemics that have all challenged an individual’s ability to remain gainfully employed. But what if there were a surefire formula for remaining resilient through it all?

Jeff Gothelf thinks there is. In fact, making yourself recession-resistant is the subject of the software designer-turned-author and entrepreneur’s latest book, Forever Employable: How to Stop Looking for Work and Let Your Next Job Find You.

Looking Out for No. 1: Building Resistance to Economic Uncertainty

Twelve years ago, Gothelf was a Web developer with a growing family to feed when the 2008 global financial crisis came along. The one-time musician, circus worker, and software designer had already bounced from tech job to tech job after weathering the economic ups and downs of the dot-com bust, Y2K, and 9/11 in the early 2000s. He now found himself highly motivated to find a cure for those “panicky moments” when rumors of corporate reorgs would cause him to break into a sweat and send him scurrying to fine-tune his resume.

Aware that “better, cheaper designers were coming after my job,” he says, he planted a stake in the ground and devoted himself to becoming invincible to unemployment. “I decided I was no longer going to chase jobs. Jobs were going to look for me,” Gothelf says, a resolution he made on his 35th birthday.

This new way of looking at the job landscape forced Gothelf to answer a few key questions that would enable him to start crafting a situation where jobs would unfailingly seek him out, rather than the other way around:

  1. “If jobs are going to find me, does anyone know who I am?”
  2. “Why would they look for me? What problem can I help them solve?”
  3. “How would they find me?
  4. “If work is going to find me, what kind of work do I want?”

The answers to each of these questions got Gothelf to where he is today: a successful author, entrepreneur, consultant, and business coach.

Make Sure Employers Know You

Step one for Gothelf was to determine what expertise was going to be his proverbial claim to fame. Then, he’d do everything in his power to become known as the go-to guy for that proficiency. When conducting this exercise yourself, he advises, “avoid trendy areas likely to come and go. For example, [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos looked at what people are always going to want and need” when he set up his business, he says.

In Gothelf’s case, lean and agile user experience (UX) design was his forte, and he settled on this area as the foundation for marketing his own brand. In his early software design years, he says, “Much of the work my teams and I were doing was focused on getting software shipped to market with little concern for how well these products and services met the needs of our customers and users. I knew there had to be a better way.”

Lean UX is an approach to application, software, and Web development that involves regular user feedback as designers, developers, and others collaborate with the goal of creating optimal experiences with the products they build. The team continues to hone their work so that user experiences keep getting better and better.

Gothelf worked first with his teams at TheLadders, a high-end recruitment company, and then as a co-founder at Neo Innovation, an early lean and agile agency purchased by Pivotal in 2015. “I helped bring the ideas of customer-centric, cross-functional collaboration to light and refined the application of these ways of working through another decade of consulting, coaching, and iteration,” he explains. The first of his four books, Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience, was published in 2013.

No Rest for the Weary Evangelizer

His employers, luckily, saw that it was to their advantage to allow Gothelf to market himself as an evangelist for UX design; when potential customers found Gothelf, they found Gothelf’s employers, too. 

“We hired a lot of good people over the four years I was Neo Innovation, in part because of my evangelism. Now, I’m an independent coach, consultant, speaker, and author who helps organizational teams build great products and leaders build cultures. They want me to teach the material in my books.”

Evangelizing, he explains, means taking on every offered speaking and teaching engagement, both in-house and at industry events.  He acknowledges that finding time for all this self-promotion while still excelling at your day job isn’t for the faint of heart.  

To make it work, it’s imperative, he says, to find small pockets of time – on the train to work, during a lunch hour – to build your brand. “It’s a long play, and it’s exhausting,” he concedes. “Emergence as the industry expert on whatever topic is your passion won’t happen overnight.  Give it a good 18 to 24 months of doing everything you can to market yourself in terms of your ‘theme,’” he advises. “The closer you stick to the theme, the more likely you are to come up in Google searches.”

How else do you get noticed? “Create some YouTube videos on your topics. If they don’t do well, find out why. For example, if you create YouTube videos for accountants to build better practices, what if no one watches them?” While that’s a  fairly discouraging outcome, he advises viewing these experiences as experiments. “The purpose of experiments is to learn,” says Gothelf. “Find three or four accountants and put the video in front of them, and see what they say,”  he advises.

Gothelf has learned for example, that some professionals think YouTube is for their kids and simply don’t watch it. “The goal at this stage is to learn as quickly as possible and invest as little as possible until [your efforts] begin to bear fruit,” he says.

Tell Your Story

Gothelf maintains that everyone has a unique story to tell, and he recommends telling it “every chance you get to promote the brand that is uniquely you.” Making it compelling involves telling both the highs and the lows, the hits and the misses.

Join the conversations that are already taking place to get the ball rolling, Gothelf advises. “There are conversations on everything going on all over the place. Insert yourself into them, respectfully, with the intention of adding to the conversation, adding your expertise, your unique story. As you become a regular fixture, you can begin to direct people back to you and your organization,” he says. 

“Focus on a challenge that many people have,” he recommends. “When you find common ground with enough of an audience, you and your story have a chance to become popular.”

Use your actual real-world experience in the story, he adds. “For example, explain that “when I faced this issue, I tried X, and this is what happened.” And be humble. “Share the things that worked and didn’t work but that you learned from and became better for it. Try to provide some practical, tactical advice that someone can apply to a job the next day. That resonates significantly.”

Steps to an Invincible Career

Gothelf offers these tips for economy-proofing your employability:

  • Look deep within yourself and identify the core value you have to offer. Once you do, you’ll find that your core value can be delivered in multiple ways.
  • Plant a flag in that area of expertise and stay active in that place by building a presence, a platform, and a conversation around your experience.
  • Make your work and yourself easily findable and accessible. Share your materials—papers, videos, presentations—for free while you get yourself established. 

Gothelf says he estimates that he still spends 50% of his time creating conversations “as opposed to delivering work.” 

And what of the wallflowers of the world?  “You need to figure out how you’re most comfortable communicating your expertise and thought leadership,” Gothelf advises.

He acknowledges that some core skills and values all of us offer today may someday become automated—even if we can’t envision that happening. He assumes, for example, that aspects of cybersecurity and IT operations will become automated, but that skills in collaboration and communications and empathizing with customers will long remain resilient.

“Coaching, speaking, training, and writing are what I do now, but if that gets automated, I’ll figure out a different way to deliver that core value. My background in design makes me want to believe that design can’t be automated, but the truth is, some of it can. The writing’s on the wall. You just have to be willing to see it.”

The challenge, he says, is to experiment to find new delivery channels. “How do we deliver our core skills and value in new ways to future-proof ourselves? If you’re going to rely on your employer, you’ll be disappointed.”

As the world anxiously awaits the end of the global COVID-19 pandemic, how to weather its economic ups and downs is on the minds of many. “The reality is this,” says Gothelf.  “The folks that have been working for a while to build a platform around themselves with a personal brand and thought leadership are doing pretty well in the pandemic. And they’ll come out fine on the other end.”

Today Jeff Gothelf works as an independent consultant to large organizations struggling with their digital transformation, increasing their agility and integrating good product management and User Experience practices into their ways of working. 

This article originally appeared in NEXT magazine, issue 8.

Joanie Wexler is a contributing writer and editor with more than 20 years’ experience covering IT and computer networking technologies.

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