Jeff Gothelf is a coach, consultant, and co-author of the pivotal book for digital experts in the know; Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams. As a coveted keynote speaker, Jeff Gothelf is in high demand. He gives impactful speeches to leading companies worldwide, and empowers teams with a spark of inspiration and fresh new perspective.
As a coveted keynote speaker, Jeff Gothelf is in high demand. He gives impactful speeches to leading companies worldwide, and empowers teams with a spark of inspiration and fresh new perspective.
As an author, he has published several other books in addition to the ubiquitous bestseller title Lean UX. Both Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking and Sense & Respond contain equally invaluable insights for designers and product leads who want to stand out.
His latest book, Forever Employable, is a must-read; I highly recommend snagging a copy as soon as possible to give yourself an edge against the competition!
Discovering Design Where you Would Least Expect It
Agility, transformation, and innovation are the three cornerstones of design and development that Jeff Gothelf gives a primacy to in his writing and his work. Think back to the earliest moments in your childhood that fully immersed you in a breathtaking, vivid, and sensory experience. Any chance it was at a circus?
“A lot of people say they dream about running away with the circus. I literally did it. […] It was exam week, senior year. I have no idea what I was doing after school is over. I graduated from James Madison University in Virginia on a Saturday. On Monday, I joined the circus.
Turns out, the band leader [in] The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, used to go to JMU and they were passing through town and they needed a sound and lighting guy. He calls the school and the school says, ‘We’ve got the guy for you.’ I’m like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’”
Performance and the arts give us the opportunity to suspend our disbelief and enter an entirely new frame of mind. Similarly, great design can be a transformative experience. It all comes down to developing a product from the user perspective and designing it to create an immersive and engaging digital experience.
The Striking Similarities Between Brands and Start-ups
Growing up, Jeff Gothelf toured the country with bands. His departure from music to tech might not seem intuitive, but he’s always been an early adopter of technology. During the rise of the .com boom, he taught himself HTML, initially to build websites for his band.
When he retired his dream of becoming a rockstar, Jeff Gothelf decided to come back to his roots and “get a real job,” he says. He already had the built-in credentials to pivot into tech:
- Frontend design
In 1999 and 2000, these skills were a true differentiator. In our conversion, he drew an insightful parallel with the startup space:
“Over the years, I recognized how much touring bands function like startups. You have this crazy idea you want to bring to life, and you’ve got to convince a team of people to go out there with you. Once you get it out there for the world to see, you just have to hope that they love it and go in that ride with you.
There’s up and downs, investments, losses, good nights, bad nights, and definitely nights even where you’re like, ‘I’m done. I’m never doing this again!’ But you learn: You learn how to market. You learn how to deliver. You learn how to be on stage. You learn how to run a business.”
Something I really admire about Jeff is his humility and universal respect for everyone he encounters. The performance and music world is a totally different vertical than corporate white-collar boardrooms or a scrappy startup’s coworking space.
Jeff’s richly varied career showed him a wide range of human conditions. Navigating multidimensional and politically-charged environments gave him a deep respect for the dignity there is in any job, and that’s something I really admire.
Jeff Gothelf impresses me as a leader, both the thought and people varieties. He invests so much of himself into lifting up those around him, and generously offers the same type of helping hands to those in need that he’s received from mentors in his life.
Jeff Gothelf takes a holistic approach to relationship building by cultivating a sense of empathy and respect for everyone he meets – and he’s met people from virtually every walk of life.
Top 5 Takeaways From Jeff Gothelf
1. It takes the trust of a team behind you to bring your idea out into the world. Jeff Gothelf’s apt comparison between touring bands and startups earlier in this piece actually applies so much more widely. For virtually any disruptive idea to make it big, the most important investment you need initially is solid buy-in from the people who are creating your vision alongside you.
2. Building a great product isn’t just about a deliverable. The best brands evoke feeling, experiences, and emotions. Products that find success in their vertical are ones that go beyond basic functionality and take on multiple dimensions of meaning, resonance, and appeal.
3. Be prepared to take any opportunity that arises. Up until exam week his senior year, Jeff had no idea what he was doing after he graduated from JMU. A serendipitous call came in from the least expected place ever, and it turned out to be life-changing.
4. Turn every experience you encounter into a learning opportunity. If a challenge passes your plate that fills you with anticipation, take it. Face that fear head on and do it anyways. Pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone is the best way we grow.
5. Whatever you commit to, jump in with two feet. As Jeff says in one of my favorite moments of this episode, “I went all in. There’s no half assing the circus.” He’s applied this same mentality to every aspect of his career, to great avail and consistent success.
I really marveled at Jeff’s diverse array of experiences:
- Joining a circus
- Being in a band
- Working in the corporate world
- Becoming an entrepreneur’
- Publishing several bestselling books
Jeff’s latest book, Forever Employable, is one of my favorite recent reads. It’s all about people, and if you know me at all you know how deeply that resonates. Skilling up will always be important, but I really liked how Jeff elucidates the human power we have at our disposal.
Staying cognizant of the people in our networks and thoughtfully assessing the mutual value within these connections will give us the key to unlocking the opportunities we truly crave.
Reading the twists and turns of Jeff’s story reminded me of how important it is to remember that we’re all at different stages of the self-discovery process. Nowadays, especially in places like the DC area, it’s so common for the first question you ask when you meet someone to be “where do you work?”
Judging peoples’ worth based on where they’re at in their career today is always going to be misguided and shortsighted, because:
A. People are inherently so much more than a profession, and
B. You never know where that person who’s being looked down on right now is going to be five years down the line, if not sooner
Thinking of people in human terms, rather than just what’s on their resume right now, is something we should aspire to do more of. We are all figuring out how to make a name for ourselves, and what we want our legacy to be.
Get out of Your Comfort Zone and say yes to the Unknown
If you don’t know what you’re passionate about, no matter what age you are right now, that’s way more normal than you probably think! If we look to Jeff’s story as an example, it goes to show that a spark of passion and purpose can come from the least expected places.
“I’ve learned over the years that whenever an opportunity presents itself that makes me feel a little queasy or uneasy, not in a negative way, but sort of nervous and anxious, that’s probably the thing I should be doing. Otherwise, you’re not growing. You’re not stretching. You’re not pushing yourself. ”
Take on every opportunity that makes your stomach flutter with nerves. Even if it’s not your calling forever, you can always come out better and smarter on the other side. All this requires is reframing these moments and decisions as a chance to grow. Education and skill building are often hidden in the last places we would ever think to look.
I hope this episode inspires you to take that next big risk or leap of faith, full-throttle, and stop doubting yourself. Watch it on YouTube up top, on Spotify, or on Apple Podcasts. A transcript is provided below for your reading pleasure.
BRYAN WISH: Jeff, you have a pretty interesting background in how you came into tech. Would you mind sharing these One Away experiences that have helped you get on the right path?
JEFF GOTHELF: When I was a kid, I was way into computers. I had a Commodore 64 and a Commodore 128. I was writing programs in BASIC and dialing into BBSs with my 300 baud modem. Now you know how old I am. What’s interesting is as I went through high school and college, I got a lot more interested in music and the computer stuff kind of took a bit of a backseat. I ended up being in touring bands for a while, which were a lot like startups.
Over the years, I recognized how much touring bands function like startups. You have this crazy idea you want to bring to life, and you’ve got to convince a team of people to go out there with you. Once you get it out there for the world to see, you just have to hope that they love it and go in that ride with you.
There’s up and downs, investments, losses, good nights, bad nights, and definitely nights even where you’re like, “I’m done. I’m never doing this again!” But you learn: You learn how to market. You learn how to deliver. You learn how to be on stage. You learn how to run a business.
Even our bands, which didn’t make tons of money, but we learned how to run the business. You’re always learning stuff. I thought that was really interesting. When that was coming to an end, I was graduating from university and another opportunity dropped in my lap, which was to join the circus.
A lot of people say they dream about running away with the circus. I literally did it. I graduated from James Madison University in Virginia on a Saturday. On Sunday, I took all of my stuff. To be clear, when I was 22, the sum total of my stuff was my motorcycle, a mattress, and a Bob Marley poster. I put all this stuff in a storage shed on Sunday.
On Monday, I joined the circus. I got a degree in audio and media production. I’m joining the circus as a sound and lighting guy. It was exam week, senior year. I have no idea what I’m doing after school is over. The call comes in. Turns out, the band leader in this particular circus, The Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, use to go to JMU and they were passing through town and they needed a sound and lighting guy. He calls the school and the school says, “We’ve got the guy for you.” I’m like, “What did I do to deserve this?”
The school comes to me, “There’s a guy coming through town. He works for the circus. There’s a job for you there if you want it.” This kind of speaks to preparing yourself for any opportunity that comes up. I have to admit, I didn’t see the circus coming up as an opportunity. I said, “Why not?” I called my parents first and I said, “I know it’s not law school or med school, like you’d hoped, but I got a gig at the circus.” They said, “Go for it.” I was like, “Really?”
I was kind of shocked. I can’t imagine my mom, as I was growing up, saying, “My boy will grow up to be in the circus.” I took the lead. The opportunity presented itself and I said, “Why not? It’s a learning opportunity.”
I’ve learned over the years that whenever an opportunity presents itself and I feel a little queasy, uneasy; not in the negative way, but sort of nervous and anxious about it, I’ve learned that’s probably the thing I should be doing. Otherwise, you’re not growing. You’re not stretching. You’re not pushing yourself.
I did it. I jumped in with both feet because there’s no half-ass in joining the circus. You can’t go part-time. You’re not only full-time but you’re living in it. On Monday, I packed up my stuff and I joined. I went right in. I spent 6 months on the road with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus.
I ended up having this tremendously enlightening experience. I learned a ton about myself. I learned about the circus. I learned about a sub-culture that exists on the fringes of normal society. It’s super interesting. I learned about creativity. I learned about improvisation and resilience.
The equipment that I had, as a sound man, was pretty low tech and largely insufficient for the size of the circus tent. This was a three-ring circus. The harsh conditions of the road would cause the system to break down. Every now and again, something would break. The amplifier would break. A microphone would stop working. A cable would snap. We’re doing two shows a day, three shows on Saturdays. There’s no days off.
I remember I learned how to solder. I was fixing microphones while hitting my lighting cues on the table. It was crazy. The necessity was the mother of reinvention in this particular case. What I learned from that is when these opportunities present themselves, just go for it.
If you feel that queasiness or uneasiness; I’m not talking about that gut feeling that says, “This is a terrible idea,” but more like, “This is interesting. I don’t know what’s going to come out of it” – give it a shot. Inevitably, you’re going to learn something and then you never know what opportunities that will open up moving forward. For me, it built up that confidence to say, “When the next thing comes along, the next circus, whatever that is, I’m going to do it.”
BRYAN WISH: I can resonate with that. When we have that queasiness of that interesting feeling that is daring and scary, do we listen to that? Do we jump into that circus? From that “circus” of the band experience versus the real circus, what were the one or two skills that you have taken with you as you have transitioned into your career in tech and digital transformation?
JEFF GOTHELF: There’s two really good stories. From the band days, the thing that I learned was stage presence and confidence no matter what’s going on off the stage. First of all, being on stage. Getting comfortable in front of people, performing, sharing something that we loved and truly believed in.
People didn’t always love it or believe in it. That was interesting. It’s easy to do it when there’s 300 people in the room. It’s much more difficult to do it when there’s three. More often than not, our attendance was closer to three than 300.
We called those nights, manufacturing the love. You believe in your thing. You know in your heart that it’s good. You know that people should love it. You don’t know who’s out there. So, we’re going to put on our show – it was a high energy show – whether there’s three or 300 people in the room. For me, that was the stage presence and the confidence to put my ideas forward no matter what else was going on. That’s what I learned in the band.
In the circus, one of the really interesting things that I learned was how to navigate a multi-tiered politically challenging situation. The circus was about 200 people that traveled together as a moveable city. Just like any city or society, there were different cultures, different communities, different roles, and people kind of hung out in their little communities.
There was a community of folks where they were the guys who put up the tent and took it down, most of the time. They were always maligned as the bad part of town. For me, I didn’t see it that way. I saw them as another segment of this particular population and I befriended them.
We developed relationships that other people, like members of the band that I worked with because I was doing sound technician work, and performers, and circus management, never paid any attention to these folks. I was involved in conversations with them and developed friendships and relationships that ended up being mutually beneficial over time.
What I learned there was not to dismiss people just because somebody else dismisses them and to really understand how the culture of how an organization works, you have to talk to everybody. You have to get that cross section in there as well. Again, I do that today.
Every time I start a new engagement with a new client or company, the immediate thing I do is I say, “I want to talk to a cross section of your organization. Not just the leadership. Not just middle management. I want to talk to the people doing the work. If there are admins helping the teams, assistants, I’d like to get a sense of how they contribute to the work as well.”
BRYAN WISH: When you made the transition after the circus, what gave you the insights or the internal desire to say, “I’ve had some really unique experiences. I’ve done some things that maybe aren’t traditional to the normal path of being under 25.” What was next for you and what gave you the insight to say, “I’m going to go here now that I have these experiences under my belt that have given me the confidence to show me how to act on the stage and meet people of different walks of life?”
JEFF GOTHELF: It was a confluence of things. It was the late 90s at this point. I graduated from school. I had the musician experience, the circus experience. I went back to being a musician for a little while with the same guys in the band. It was definitely waning. We had peaked for sure and it wasn’t going up anytime soon. It’s late 90s. The band stuff isn’t going to be my career, it turns out. The original .com boom is on its way up and I just met my wife. This confluence of events basically says, “Look. The circus taught you a lot. The band was fun. But if you want to go on dates with this amazing woman, you just met…”
I had no money. I was flat broke. I had nothing. I had to get a job. What’s going on in the world?” Let’s assess trends. Let’s assess opportunities. Let’s see where I can do it. This is where the whole computer stuff comes back into play. I’d always been comfortable around them.
I’d always been an early adopter of technology. With the .com stuff coming up, I taught myself HTML and immediately began building websites initially for my band and then for other bands so that when I decided to jump out of being a musician or attempting to be a full-time rock star, it was relatively easy to get a gig doing frontend design and development work, and HTML work in 1999 and 2000 in the .com hay day. That really began my transition into tech; coming back to my roots as a kid and getting a real job.
Back then, if you could spell HTML, you could get a job. Those were the criteria. It was easy to get in. You could prove yourself and grow from there and start making a real salary, be able to actually take my wife out on a date.
BRYAN WISH: Buy a ring.
JEFF GOTHELF: Ultimately, that was hard work. There was a lot of hard work to get there. That’s where it came down to it and how I made the transition.
BRYAN WISH: You worked in the career path of ascending the ladder and yet you had this underlying creativity, this confidence, these skills developed at a much earlier age than most, and you got to the point where you said, “I can’t really climb any higher to achieve the lifestyle that I want.”
You said, “I’m going to step away and do something completely different.” Walk us through that transition and this concept you’ve developed called Forever Employable, what you’ve learned from this experience, and how you want to help other people be able to do the same and with your new book coming out.
JEFF GOTHELF: In hindsight, looking back at the last 25 years, I can see a trend of continuous reinvention. Opportunities arise. I take a new path. I move into a new direction. I learn something from that. That opens up a new door. I continuously reinvent.
Bands, circus, band, tech, and then in tech, I was an information architect. I was a frontend coder. I was a designer. I was a manager, product manager, etc. I’m continuously reinventing myself as new opportunities arise, as new trends arise, as the needs show up around me. I’m finding ways to fit myself into those conversations. I think part of that is I’ve been more of a generalist my whole life rather than a very specific kind of practitioner. What’s interesting is that when I hit that point where it was like, I’m a design manager, a leader of a team; I can become a super duper manager, the further you go up the pyramid, the fewer opportunities there are. For me, I stepped out of that climbing the ladder a bit reluctantly.
I was a reluctant entrepreneur. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I didn’t feel like I was an entrepreneur. I felt like I was somebody who had executed vision for somebody but not the guy who came up with the ideas. It turns out, if you’re coming up for ideas for yourself, you’re being entrepreneurial.
For me, that was the beginning of this kind of Forever Employable personal movement for me. I can chase jobs for the rest of my life and it will become increasingly more difficult to get because of the salary demands and the experience levels I have, or I can turn it on its head and let the jobs, let the work begin to find me. Create the kind of presence that’s required so people are aware of me. They understand what I do. They understand what value I can bring so that they start to find me.
The band days taught me to create good content and they taught me to put that content out there in front of people. That’s what I’m doing and been doing. I’ve been writing about my experiences and I’ve been sharing that through videos and talks and workshops, blog posts, and articles. I’ve been lucky and fortunate that this has built up into a movement because I was solving real problems for real people.
Looking around. What are the challenges that people want to talk about? Where are they not succeeding and how do we move that forward? That led to the first book Lean UX and ultimately, that helped scale it. For me, it’s this idea of continuous reinvention and really taking control of my future and saying, “Whether I’m going to stay in-house or whether I’m going solo, I’m not going to chase jobs anymore. People are going to come to me and say, “That Jeff Gothelf guy, we’re going to promote him.” Or “I’m going to try to poach him for my company.” That was the fundamental shift for me.
BRYAN WISH: I’m 26 years old. I want to become forever employable. How do I do it?
JEFF GOTHELF: You plant a flag of what you know today. Where your passions are, where you believe you can live with the most value today, and where you believe your strengths lie, and start to really promote that in whatever ways make sense for you. If you’re good in front of the camera, record some videos.
Talk about the things that you’ve learned, the things that you’re good at. If you can write, practice writing. It’s a great way to get it out there. If you can teach, you can teach it out there. Start building a foundation and a presence outside of what you’re doing every day. Your flag, the thing that you’re going to own, will probably change over time especially from 26 to 36 to 46. You’ll get the experience needed to continuously reinvent over time. Just start getting the word out there any way that you possibly can.
BRYAN WISH: Where do people find you? How can they connect with you? Where can they buy your book when it comes out?
JEFF GOTHELF: The easiest way to find me is on my website Jeff Gothelfgothelf.com. All the links are there. You can connect with me on LinkedIn which is super easy. I do a lot of writing on my blog at Jeffgothelfgothelf.com. On Twitter, you can find me as well. It’s jboogie which is a much longer story for another podcast.