Design isn’t immune from layoffs. I know several folks looking for jobs. Some have been looking for a while. And some might be considering changing careers. So, I thought it might be helpful to share books that have helped me navigate change in my career. Any of these books makes a great gift for someone contemplating a change. (Perhaps it’s you?)

To be clear, none of these books show you the mechanics of career change. They don’t offer step-by-step instructions on what to do. In some ways, they’re the opposite: these books allow you to hone in on the things you should focus on that won’t (or shouldn’t) change as you shift gears. You’ll experience more success if you know your values and aptitudes, regardless of what you choose to do.

I’ll acknowledge that there are better people to compile such a list than me. I’ve only made one big pivot. (I left my budding career as a building architect to become an information architect.) But that shift and smaller ones got me closer to a career I love. The reason is that while what I’m doing has changed over time, the deeper things haven’t changed. These books will help you become more aware of those enduring goals, aptitudes, and values that should underlie your career.

Identify Your Higher Goals

Book: The Highest Goal by Michael Ray

Ray taught a course at Stanford called Creativity in Business. This book is based on that course. The central idea is to get you to consider what matters most to you — what lights you up — so you can find “true prosperity,” which Ray defines as “being happy and continuously experiencing the variety and infinity of qualities that make up your Self.”

The best path toward true prosperity is different for everybody. But if you don’t figure out what makes you happy and what you’re good at (hint: they often go together), you’ll shift randomly and end up focused on what other people want. Instead, you want to

find a happy, productive intersection between passion (what I love to do), genetic encoding (what I was put here on this earth to do) and economics (what I can make a living at).

The book helps you become more aware of what makes you feel truly prosperous so you can pursue it more consciously. This involves an exercise where you outline and prioritize the qualities of activities that energize you and those that sap your energy.

Ray also suggests working with “live-withs,” pithy phrases you meditate on as you go about your life. They’re like Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies but for personal grounding rather than creative output. (An example of a live-with: “Do only what you love, love everything that you do.”)

During the mid-2000s, I went through a period of intense personal and professional change. This book helped me get my stuff together and refocus my career (and life) in a positive direction. (I shared my list of live-withs at the time, in case you’re curious.) I’ve revisited these exercises periodically since then.

Find Your Aptitudes

Book: StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Gallup)

Although it’s packaged as a book, this is a personality assessment. The book comes with a code for an online survey. After you take the survey, you’re shown a list of your strongest themes or inclinations. The book explains what they mean and imply for your life and work. (I believe you can buy the survey without reading the book.)

In my case, the quiz revealed five “strengths” I should lean into:

  • Strategic people are good at spotting relevant patterns and issues that influence a situation — i.e., big-picture thinkers who can evaluate alternatives.
  • Connectedness people see links between things — i.e., they emphasize causality over random connections.
  • Learner people are always looking to improve and grow; they’re excited by the learning process.
  • Intellection people are into brainy stuff and tend to be introspective.
  • Achiever people are willing to work hard; they get their kicks from being busy and productive.

I’m not sharing these themes to say, “Look at how cool I am”; some of these themes have downsides. For example, people high in intellection risk retreating into their minds and becoming aloof. The important thing is becoming aware of the themes that best describe your themes — and their upsides and downsides.

And this is where taking this assessment was helpful to me. When I got the report, I recognized many of these traits in myself. Knowing I was into learning and intellection led me to shift toward teaching and writing. (This newsletter is one of the direct results.) I also changed my consulting toward more strategic challenges, where I’m happier and add more value.

Which is to say, self-knowledge is critical when making career shifts. As with The Highest Goal, StrengthsFinder can help you become more aware of your aptitudes and values to be more intentional when deciding what to do next.

Put Things In Perspective

Book: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

Whereas my previous two recommendations are about understanding your internal landscape, this book and the next help you understand your relationship with your contexts. In particular, they shift your models about your agency in the world: your role in effecting change.

In this book, “games” is meant broadly: not just those you explicitly play, such as board and video games, but also how you engage with life. Carse argues there are two types of games: finite and infinite games. You play finite games to win (i.e., zero-sum), whereas infinite games are those you play looking to keep the game going.

The book explores the implications of this idea as it applies to various social constructs: religion, patriotism, culture, sexuality, politics, etc. This lens changes how you understand your agency in the world. People who approach life with a finite mindset will approach change differently than those who think of themselves as infinite players. As Carse puts it, “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

This distinction has obvious implications for your career. Somebody primarily motivated by “winning” (whatever that means to them) will have a different level of impact than somebody driven to keep the metaphorical ball in play.

An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility. Work is not a way of arriving at a desired present and securing it against an unpredictable future, but of moving toward a future which itself has a future.

As things change faster and the future becomes more unpredictable, you must ask yourself: what is my stance towards reality? What kind of “player” am I? Am I rolling with changes, or do I resist them? Do I have a strong vision of what winning means (and, therefore, who the losers must be)? Or am I willing to negotiate and compromise to keep the game going?

Be Present

Book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

I wanted to include at least one work of fiction, and Pirsig’s classic road trip novel is high on my list. He argues for Quality (with a capital Q) as the generative value that underlies good things. Quality bridges the gap between what he calls the “romantic” and “classic” world views — or, to use a 1970s distinction, hippies and squares.

But it goes deeper than that: you must get hands-on with reality rather than with your ideas of reality. (An occupational hazard for those of us who rank high on the intellection theme.) The motorcycle metaphor works on several levels:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer, and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle, the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.

The book argues for being present to the needs of the moment, i.e., learning to care for your motorcycle — and not just in the abstract sense of knowing how it comes together (what we’d call a “model” in my systems class) but by rolling up your sleeves to change spark plugs, learn which replacement parts you need to take on the road, diagnose trouble from subtle variations in engine sounds, etc.

Which is to say, a deep regard for quality can only be attained empirically — i.e., by doing the actual work instead of thinking about what it is. This distinction matters for information architects since ours is a discipline that trades in abstractions.

If you want to pivot, awareness of your epistemology will make a big difference. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance delivers that and more. (Bonus book: If you’re looking for a non-fiction take on this subject with more direct relevance to designers, check out Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head.)

Adopt Timeless Values

Book: Be Useful by Arnold Schwarzenegger

I wanted to include at least one audiobook since some folks prefer that format. This book has yet to influence my career choices. (It only came out a few weeks ago.) However, it’s full of timeless positive advice, the sort I want my kids to hear. Anyone starting in their career or shifting to a new one would do well to read this. Oh, and it’s read by the author in his distinctive accent. The tone is warm and casual but firm — like talking with a wise old Austrian uncle.

The title comes from the number one lesson his father taught him: to always look for ways to be useful to other people. Schwarzenegger embraces his father’s advice despite (or because of) his drinking and physical abuse. The reframing of this complicated relationship illustrates the book’s positive outlook: you either roll with the punches or let them beat you. Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t let anybody beat him.

But he does more than roll: he actively improves his odds by setting clear visions for what success looks like and (in his words) working his ass off to achieve them. Schwarzenegger promotes thinking big, selling your ideas, learning, and de-centering yourself to add value to others. Which isn’t to say he’s led a perfect life: he’s candid about having wronged others, especially his family.

As a kid, I would’ve never predicted Arnold Schwarzenegger would become a compelling advocate for timeless positive values. Yet here we are. His memoir/self-help book is a powerful antidote to the cynicism that has become so prevalent today. If my first couple of choices on this list are about self-knowledge, this choice encourages you to work on yourself by adopting values and behaviors that have proven conducive to success.

Change Happens

Change can come from the outside (e.g., layoffs) or inside (e.g., shifting interests.) But some things won’t change. Awareness of your deeper aspirations and attributes — what matters to you, what you’re good at, and where you add the most value — is the ground upon which you build a successful life. You’ll be happier if you build upon this ground.

This holiday season, I wish you time and space to reflect on what matters most to you and the people in your life — and may the new year bring you and yours abundance and joy.

A version of this post first appeared in my newsletter. Subscribe to receive posts like this in your inbox every other Sunday.