How To Reinvent Yourself

The new book, NEXT!, lays out the path to making a major life change. Here’s what successful self-reinvention truly requires, and the big mistakes to avoid along the way.

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The pandemic is in the rearview mirror of our collective consciousness, but uncertainty and upheaval still linger. Because of course they do. We had so many of the things we take for granted about everyday life yanked away suddenly and indefinitely. This feeling of unsettlement primed many of us to consider a big change — be it a new career, a new city, a new kind of life entirely. We all wondered, Is this it? Is this enough? Am I who I’m supposed to be? Or even, Is it too late to become who I’m supposed to be? Reinvention was, and still is, on a lot of people’s minds.

But what does true reinvention require?

Award-winning business journalist Joanne Lipman wanted to find the answer and help guide those interested in making a big change. The result is her new book, NEXT! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work. Lipman interviewed dozens of people who were brave enough to dismantle life as they knew it and put the pieces back together in ways that were ultimately more meaningful to them. Her research, gleaned from neuroscientists, parents, famous authors, journalists, an NBA star, designers, and CEOs, helped her formulate a “reinvention roadmap” that people can use in any phase of their lives. It lays out the four stages — the search, the struggle, the stop, and the solution — every successful reinvention requires.

Fatherly spoke to Lipman about putting the four-step process of reinvention into practice, how to find your “aha” moment, the “smart” way to fail, and the damaging myth that keeps people from achieving their goals.

What were some of the most startling or interesting reinventions among people you interviewed?

One of my favorite stories is how Chris Donovan reinvented himself. He was a telephone repairman for years and had a hobby of doodling very elaborate drawings of shoes. He loved doing it, but it never occurred to him that it could be an actual career. He was well into his 30s when he met his now husband, who saw these drawings and told Chris he had talent.

Chris entered a period of struggle, where he thought, “Oh it's too late for this, I need a job.” Then he got prostate cancer. That was his “stop” moment. Luckily, he was successfully treated, but it took him out of his routine and gave him the perspective of, “What am I doing? Life is too short.” So he took early retirement and went to design school. Now he has his own shoe line — his solution — and was named best shoe designer of 2020 in Boston magazine.

What a big shift.

You might think telephone repair has nothing in common with shoe design, but Chris sees beauty in industry, and has a wholly different perspective on shoe design. Looking back on his period of struggle, he would scour junkyards for inspiration and use knowledge he picked up along the way in his designs.

Rather than throwing up their hands in despair, successful failures will keep tweaking.

You also interviewed former NBA star Len Elmore who had an interesting reinvention as well.

Yes. At 65, he lost his job as a sports commentator for ESPN and had to think about what’s next. He called on previous experience, including his law degree from Harvard University and childhood experiences during the Civil Rights movement, to launch a new career teaching sports management at Columbia University. Now he gets to focus on sports and social justice at once. He tapped all of his interests together to pay it forward.

So what did you discover in your research about how people got started in reinventing themselves? What does it take to start figuring out a new path toward a major change?

The first phase, or “the search,” is a period of open-mindedness. People have to be open to unexpected directions their search might take them in, and directions that ultimately might be more fulfilling than the direction they initially had in mind.

“Ah-ha!” moments seem like they come out of nowhere, but recent advances in neuroscience research suggest these moments are not as random as they seem. In fact, what brain scans show is that you have disparate ideas floating around in your head that are unconnected. But when you turn off executive function and stop consciously thinking about something, ideas can swirl around and coalesce into what seems like a brand-new idea, or an “ah-ha!” moment. These are actually concepts and ideas already swirling in your head.

Two things often get in the way of reinvention for people: One is focusing on the goal and not the process, and the other is that they quit too soon.

So how can people “search” without thinking about searching?

You can’t conjure an ah-ha moment. But that’s also the reason they feel right — because they’re based on knowledge that’s already in your head. One of the neuroscientists I spoke with walked me through three ways that can help you have ah-ha moments:

One is distraction. Distract yourself from a problem you’re having, because you can't consciously be thinking about it; get up and go do something else.

The second step is relaxation. Your brain literally needs to be relaxed; executive control and decision-making need to be offline. Taking nature walks might help.

The third is to be in a positive mood. Neuroscientists have found that people who have more “ah-ha” moments also reported being in a more positive mood.

What are some of the things that can get in the way of successful reinventions? What tends to thwart people’s efforts?

Dashun Wang, a professor at Northwestern University, has found that two things often get in the way of reinvention for people: One is focusing on the goal and not the process, and the other is that they quit too soon. It turns out that there’s a smart way to fail.

Interesting. So, what’s the “smart way” to fail?

Imagine you’re trying to melt an ice cube. Imagine it’s 20 degrees, and you turn up the temperature by a degree. That doesn't work, so you keep turning the temperature up and up, until you hit 31 degrees. Then you give up. A lot of people that do succeed go through iterative failure. Rather than throwing up their hands in despair, successful failures will keep tweaking.

And that’s why you say step number two, “the struggle,” is so crucial.

Yes. But struggle is something we don’t like to talk about because it’s uncomfortable. When we tell great success stories, we tend to skip over that part. Everyone has a period where they’re disconnecting from an identity but haven't figured out yet where they’re going. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that you're stuck in limbo or standing still but, in fact, you’re moving forward but don't realize it.

I use the phrase “move before you move.” What that means is, don't just take a leap and quit your job, because tomorrow you’re going to be an airline pilot. Almost everybody I talked to who has made these big transformations did so in small, iterative steps. You can do that while parenting and can do it over a period of years. James Patterson didn't quit his job as an ad executive until he was almost 50. He made the transition into writing novels very gradually.

Almost everybody I talked to who has made these big transformations did so in small, iterative steps.

How does focusing on a goal get in the way of reinvention? Isn’t that common advice?

We’ve all been brought up on the advice — it’s in 100 business books, which are mostly read by men — to have a goal in mind and work backward. That’s what they teach you in business school, but it’s wrong. That's been a very damaging myth. To be clear, yes, if your goal is to be a surgeon, you’ll have to get into and complete medical school. But so many people I interviewed for this book did not have a specific goal in mind.

What does help people is focusing on the process. A great example of this is Nathan Chen, a gold-medal figure skater. At a previous Olympics, he says he was so focused on the goal that he lost sight of the process and completely screwed up his performance. When he returned four years later, after going back to school and focusing on training and tweaking, as opposed to just thinking about the end goal, he excelled.

In your book, you talk about creating a “CV of failure.” What is that and how does it foster reinvention?

Berlin neurobiologist Melanie Stefan created a CV of failure that turned out to reveal incredibly valuable data for her. When you look at her actual CV, it just looks like gold star after gold star. So, she made a CV of failure that noted every fellowship she didn't get, every professor who said she’d never make it, and published it. It was an amazing reminder to everyone that we all fail.

In addition to showing her where her weaknesses were, it also revealed her strengths. It made her realize she had been focused on biology when her real strength was on computational issues. So, she switched her whole focus to using computers to study the brain. It helped her to see it in black and white and showed her, “This is where I excel.”

This also has to do with listening to your gut, which I devoted a whole chapter to in NEXT! I’m a big believer in gut feelings and had always heard that that was wrong. But it’s not wrong — listen to your gut.

The third phase of reinvention in your book is called “the stop,” which sounds counterintuitive when talking about a journey forward. What do you mean by “the stop”?

The struggle phase doesn’t end until you get a “stop.” The stop gets you out of your routine. It could be something you bring on yourself, such as quitting your job, or something that happens to you, such as getting fired or a pandemic hitting that pulls you out of your routine.

Chris Donovan’s cancer was his stop. For Jane Veron, her kids going to college was her “stop.” She’s an MBA who left a corporate job, which required a lot of travel, to raise her kids. For 12 years, she did not do paid work. It was a gradual way for her to dip into volunteerism and was a way to keep a piece of herself separate from being a parent. When her kids went to college, she used what she learned in her previous job and in her volunteer work to start a successful nonprofit. She’s also now mayor of Scarsdale, New York.

Veron has said that although it might look like her path to where she is now was carefully planned, it wasn’t like that. She has said that when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t see it.

So many people I spoke to for this book didn't have a firm idea, like “This is my goal. I’m going to embark on a reinvention.” Instead, it was people whose actions and interests and hobbies led them in a different direction. What’s fascinating about it is, when people collect information that will ultimately lead to transformation, the key is that many do it unintentionally, they’re not setting off on a specific goal or journey.

Only after a “stop” are you able to synthesize what you learned in the struggle into a solution, or reinvention.

When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t see it.

What’s one essential piece of advice you would give someone who wants to embark on a new venture or make a big change in their lives?

Get the idea of overnight success out of your head. We’re brought up from childhood to see these transformations as happening overnight, like how superheroes instantly transform into superheroes. Then we grow up and watch “American Idol,” and “Who wants to Be a Millionaire?”, shows that perpetuate the myth of overnight transformation. That myth ignores the struggle in the middle. It’s damaging because it makes all of us look terrible if we’re struggling. But although it’s been beaten into us that we shouldn't ever struggle — struggle is a really important part of the process of reinvention.

How can parents help keep kids open to reinvention?

One thing parents can do for their kids is combat the Cinderella myth of overnight success, which kids and young adults get sucked into. Parents can disabuse them of this myth and let them know these transformations don't happen overnight, and they’re not easy. Working hard doesn't feel good, and not seeing results right away and having to go through that period of struggle is a part of life.

My son and daughter are now grown; my son is 30. When he was a kid, it would drive me crazy that he was all, sports, sports, sports. He knew every baseball stat, read baseball books constantly, but he wouldn't do his homework. I’d yell at him to spend more time on schoolwork and stuff that actually counts. He ended up getting a great education at Cornell and is now a junior producer at ESPN. Sports is what led him to his career. And in retrospect, I was kind of wrong to discount his passion.