What I Learned In The Ten Years It Took To Publish My First Book

I wrote my first version of Indispensable nearly ten years ago, over the early part of 2008.  Later that year, as the publishing industry struggled with the birth of eBooks, the economy collapsed, and my life moved forward, the goal of publishing it shifted into the background.  I largely put the manuscript down and didn’t touch it for years.

Now, it’s ten years later and my book is due to be published on June 26th.  The process of resurrecting, revisiting, and revising the book has been insightful.  More than anything else, the manuscript has served as a point of reflection of who I was then and who I am now.  As I set to work on revisions, I found myself having visceral reactions to the content. The tone of some sections made me cringe.  How could I be so rude, so flippant, or so ignorant?  On the other hand, some sections felt like old friends briefly forgotten.  How wise I used to be!  If I had only remembered that advice and applied it myself since writing it!  Over the past decade, I’ve learned and grown.  And the world has evolved around me.  My manuscript – from its previous incarnation and its current revisions – has been a lens through which to see all that change more clearly.

On the whole, I’ve noticed two major dimensions along which I’ve changed the most.  First, my understanding of diversity, inclusion, and privilege has expanded significantly.  In the revisions, I rotate the gender of the managers and employees chapter by chapter.  Similarly, I intentionally included a wide variety of names to be ethnically-inclusive; it’s no longer just a book about Bobs and Rachels.  But, perhaps most notably, I rewrote the entire segment on dressing at work to be comprehensive of a more fluid range of gender expressions – and to acknowledge how precious physical expression can be to people.  The passages that used to read as “just quiet down and wear whatever you need to wear to fit in” have a more nuanced tone, one suggesting that you make a conscious choice about what you wear and own the repercussions of how others may interpret that as reflective of your professional competence.

That brings me to the second shift in my approach; not just in the realm of physical presentation, but more broadly, my overarching approach became much less proscriptive and more fungible. I wrote the initial book as the essential advice you need to succeed in your first job and beyond.  The tone conveyed that this this advice was important and that the reader should carefully listen, learn, and apply each suggestion.  I positioned it as a universal formula for success.  Now, I’ve softened that approach.  I’m wise enough to know that even if some abstracted advice is broadly useful, people and situations are different. I present the book as full of useful strategies, but ones which should be considered, adapted, and applied with judgment. I focus more on the journey, the learning, and the development into your authentic self at work. Ultimately, I put the reader more in the position of power and conscious choice over their path rather than in the position of receiving wisdom from on high.

Now, Indispensable is in the final rounds of copy editing and proofreading.  From a content perspective, this book, which was ten years in the making, is suddenly out of my hands.  And I find myself looking both backwards and forwards.  Looking forward, if I am living well, won’t I learn as much over the next decade as I did over the last?  It is scary to think that the manuscript is fixed and I won’t be able to evolve it over time – as I and the world evolve in parallel. I have to believe that I’ll look back on Indispensable in another ten years and think “Wow, I missed so much.”

And so, I’m publishing something which feels not like a universal decree, but instead, a stake in the ground. But maybe that’s okay.  Maybe, since this version of the book will be fixed, it will provide a similar view into my psychology today – and I’ll be able to see the differences between now and then – and the growth that has occurred – all the more clearly.

Meredith
For more on the book, go www.indispensablebook.com or buy on Amazon.

ten years graphic

From Student to Strategist

Working in the learning and development space, I often reflect upon what takes us from novice to master. For any given topic, what is the path of learning? How do we become experts? And how do we grow our ability to then teach others in a meaningful way? Below, I propose a framework for understanding how we move from student to teacher, from teacher to content designer and, ultimately, from content designer to learning strategist.

AS A STUDENT
Experiencing We begin in traditional student mode. Students in the experiencing stage are the recipients of the experience rather than creators of the experience. Though they may actively participate in exercises and offer their perspectives, they do so within the design of the course and typically at the behest of the teacher. They focus on content — comprehension, application, and integration — rather than the way in which the content is delivered.

Note that, for most learners, this ‘hard’ focus on the content is where nearly all their attention goes — and rightfully so. It is often only higher-level thinkers with a specific curiosity about learning and development who step above the direct student experience.

Understanding Stepping one level above the experience at hand, students shift their focus from the content of the experience to the design of the experience. Students are still primarily in observation mode, but their senses are attuned to different dimensions: They look for the choices made by the designer and/or the teacher. They are curious about the decisions made about when to tell, when to ask, when to demonstrate, and when to invite participation. They notice the teacher’s own style as a factor in facilitating the experience.

AS A TEACHER
Replicating Shifting roles, we next transition from students to teachers. Again, this transition is not for everyone; on any given subject, the majority of students will find that they capture the value they needed through their experiences and move on to apply their learnings in the real world. For the handful looking to teach others, their teaching approach begins in a crude and unrefined state; it lacks subtlety and depth of experience. They largely replicate the approaches they have seen, delivering content referenced in notes or memorized by rote. They navigate with the aid of lesson plans, outlines, or presentation slides. When complex questions come up, they tend to parrot their own teachers and cite the experience of others rather than relying on their own expertise or observations.

Tailoring As they teach the content again and again, teachers come to facilitate the learning experience more elegantly. They abandon their external aids, depending instead upon an increasingly clear understanding of what is required to meet the goals and how it should go. As they get the facts down cold, they are able to widen their aperture, intentionally managing their style and focus. They dynamically adjust to accommodate the learners in the room and their style of learning. Increasingly fluent in the content and structure, they grow more fully into their authentic selves as teachers.

AS A DESIGNER
Evolving With increasing experience, teachers may shift into content designers. At first, they may simply evolve pre-existing content, making an adjustment to the delivery here or a tweak on the timing there. Over time, they come to shift the learning experience in bigger ways, more fully revising content to better achieve learning objectives. Evolving designers take the power of the pen not only as they plan learning experiences, but real-time in the room as well; they are comfortable shifting the design in substantial ways on the fly in order to maximize learning in the room.

Innovating With even more experience, content designers become innovators. They are able to take new learning objectives and craft meaningful learning experiences ex nihilo. They thoughtfully consider all aspects of the learning experience. They often begin by examining the world of relevant content on a topic and synthesizing this into the most important points. They then apply themselves to crafting the learning, adjusting each aspect of the embodied experience (e.g., the timing, the tone, the atmosphere, the space, the materials) to enable the higher-level goals.

AS A STRATEGIST
Translating Beyond this, we again transition roles; this time from the designer to the strategist. Translating strategists can take high-level goals (e.g., greater proficiency in mathematics) and render these into the right set of tangible learning objectives (e.g., understanding of concept of addition, facility with adding multi-digit numbers, speed of application). In addition to the learning objectives, they also articulate the design principles and high-level architecture within which the objectives are best achieved (e.g., twelve-session series over three weeks, focused primarily on application). Translating strategists can apply their skills in either direction — scoping a new learning experience from the top-down or evaluating an existing learning experience to understand whether it fits shifting needs.

Envisioning Finally, envisioning strategists primarily concern themselves with the goals at hand and how exposing people to learning experiences might contribute to those overarching ambitions. They bring a big picture view, carefully considering the relevant context (whether that be the organization, industry, community, country, or world as a whole). They see the opportunities and challenges within the broader system and can envision its evolution. Given this view, they identify where learning experiences might affect meaningful change in individuals and communities.

As you see, each stage includes a basic level and a more advanced level before fundamentally shifting focus via a role change (e.g., student to teacher). That said, this framework is not linear. Though some may ‘rise through the ranks’ from student to teacher to designer to strategist, this is not necessary; for example, a strategic thinker with experience in other domains may also strategize about learning. However, the best envisioning strategists are not generalists who see learning experiences as one of many levers to pull to execute a strategy, but those who have moved from student through strategist in this continuum and hold a nuanced understanding of how learning experiences can meaningfully shift human development.

Stepping back and reflecting, what has your own evolution as a learning professional looked like? At which level do you prefer to function? At which level do you aspire to function? Then, looking at your team, at what level are they engaging with your agenda? What potential do they have to operate at other levels and what experiences are necessary to get them there? And, most importantly, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?

Meredith