Interview with Isabel Wu

Published 2019-11-21.
What prompted you to write this book?
In a single word, fear. We are simply not taking the degree of change ahead of us seriously enough.

I've been participating in 'future of work' discussions for the past decade. The potential opportunities and risks: for business, new jobs, the economy and society, meant there was a lot we had to know and figure out in order to prepare for the technologies that were reshaping how we lived and worked. Over this time, we have seen digital capabilities expand. Advances such as IoT (Internet of Things), AI, machine learning, 3D printing and 5G, are increasingly displacing our old ways of using technology as tools. Instead, we have technology that replaces tasks and augments the work it can't replace.

What isn't happening is a new way of ordering how we work. Industrial laws, education, job structures and employment systems today should be barely recognisable to anyone from the four or five decades past. Instead, they are, apart from superficial differences, identical. We are already feeling the effects of the failure to adapt the way we work with more people engaging in short-term, insecure and poor quality work. Young people are experiencing anxiety that whatever they do will be inadequate. Inequality is raising the level of intolerance in society. Bad actors in power stir these problem to generate support for their regressive policies.

Productive discussions need context and the only context on the future of work provided by the media has been robots are taking our jobs, and that (old) jobs need to be protected. So the drive to write The Michelangelo Project came from the thought that if I could provide a greater context to the changes we are facing, it would encourage better discussions about the future of work. These discussions could then be broken down into actions. More importantly, I think it is giving people the knowledge - the power - to take control of their future instead of relying on our major institutions whose vested interests lie with keeping things the way they are for as long as possible.
What books influenced you and do you enjoy reading?
I have always loved reading. I was the school bookworm! I went to school in the pre-computerised days when to borrow a book, you filled your name out on a card. The school librarian commented that all the readers at school knew my name because every time they borrowed a book, my name was already on the card.

Crime thrillers are my favourite fiction genre. I love facts and trivia and am so easily distracted by looking up facts or checking references in a book, that I need a fast-paced crime/thriller book to keep me reading. Otherwise, I would stop so often, I take ages to finish a book.

"In Search of Excellence" by Tom Peters and Robert Waternan was a significant book in my personal history. The idea of management as more than a functional role was a revelation. The other major influence was Peter Drucker. He wrote that a business has only one purpose: to create customers. That meant a business has only two primary functions: marketing and innovation. I understood then, and still believe now, that an effective management is underpinned by marketing - understanding what customers want - because if you get that wrong, all other decisions won't matter.

Some of my recent favourite reads are: "The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money" by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier; "Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us" by Gordon Rugg; "Status Anxiety" by Alain de Botton; and "Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning" by Regina Lee Blaszczyk.
When and how did you first start to write?
When I started writing for a broad audience - instead of the course materials or professional papers for a fixed audience - I realised I needed to relearn how to write. Functional writing and creative or illustrative writing are very different.

My first attempt was blog articles around 2012. I would labour over the structure and key themes for hours. Then one day I wrote a quick post without my usual rigid logic and that generated more than 100 times the response I was used to receiving. I realised I was getting my writing all wrong, I was torturing my readers by pressing my arguments instead of using my writing to invite readers in.

My first published work other than blog articles was an ebook I wrote in 2014 called "Supercharged". I was gratified to hear from a few readers who found the ebook useful. It was also included in an article on the online magazine MadameNoire with the title, "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Free E-books for Improving your Business and Leadership Skills".

Writing my new book, "The Michelangelo Project: Making It in the Digital Century Workforce" began in 2016. If I did anything right then, it was heeding professional advice to use a developmental editor. He (shout out to Greg Brown) patiently pointed out all the ways I needed to improve. It's a lot of work, learning and writing, but worth the effort. I only wish I had the skills I have now at the beginning of the process. It almost means I have to write another book, just so that learning doesn't go to waste!
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
The earliest books I remember reading were a collection of children's classics my father kept on his bookshelf. (He was a true bibliophile and would read, literally, anything.) I experienced good story-telling's ability to transport you to anywhere. You could see what the writer was seeing, feel what they were feeling. You could believe these worlds were real because the writers created a space for you to join their characters.

Although it has been over 40 years since I have seen those book, I still remember the titles in that collection and their stories: Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer, The Water Babies, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Heidi. That's a pretty powerful impact.
What type of student were you?
I think I was so average that I would be surprised if any of my former teachers actually remember me!

I enjoyed most of my classes but I was quite bored for a lot of the time. I actually liked tests and exam days because they broke up the boredom of lessons. I was a bad student in many ways. I hardly ever completed my homework. I used to bring my homework home then bring it back to school the next day without even unpacking my bag. My parents ran their own business, and I would be roped in as an extra pair of hands at least a couple of times a week. This was probably why I learned to work in short periods of time. I also got very good at maximising every mark in exams.

Having said all that, I am extremely grateful for the education I had. My teachers were genuinely interested in sharing their knowledge. I believe the education you have at school determines your attitude to learning as an adult. If that is true, then I must have had some very good teachers.
What is your top writing tip?
Just write. Write for long enough that the other distractions that constantly pop into your head luring you away from your writing quieten down.

I found it helpful to have a particular place that became my writing space. Live plants are good to have around too. Writing feels very easy when you have a grand idea or thought. Translating that word by word isn't easy. For some reason being able to look at plants with their tiny details seemed to help keep my mind focused where it should be - on the details.

I had to remind myself more than once of a technique I had read another writer used: 'bum glue'. The knowledge that I had to stay glued to my seat helped to eliminate the multiple reasons I could think of for stopping. I also remember another writer saying that writing makes minor housework chores seem urgent. I could relate to that and I hate housework!
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
At the start of each day I try to think of something that I want to produce in the day. By thinking of 'producing', the day ahead feel full of possibilities. If I just thought about things I had to do during the day, it would be a laundry list of chores and that would make the day seem hard before it's even begun.

I was inspired by Steve Jobs who used to look in the mirror every morning and ask himself, 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' I also think about the important people in my life, and whether filling my life with chores and priorities that aren't really that important in the scheme of things, really honours the relationship they have with me.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
I am a convert!

I can't recall exactly when, but I added Smashwords to my publishing to-do list quite early in the writing process. When I was picking my way through the process that is self-publishing, I had gotten used to everything being hard, or slow, or both. Smashwords turned out to be neither.

It really is an author's tool, getting their work into more hands. Someone once said that everyone has a book inside them. Smashwords makes it possible for anyone who decides to bring that book out of them to get it out to their audience.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
The greatest joy is of writing is the conversations you have with other people. I love hearing people's ideas and having a book to your name seems to invite people to share their views. When people tell you how much they enjoyed or appreciated something you wrote, of course there is pleasure in that, but more important is the reminder that writing is a responsibility. Words have consequences.

On a more personal level, writing helps you to think. If I didn't write, I would not have known of or articulated concepts that were living somewhere in my brain. When you are searching for words to capture an idea, you often awaken another idea. Once you acknowledge that idea, you have the opportunity to learn and explore. If you have ideas to develop, test and expand, you can never really be bored.
What's the story behind your latest book?
The Michelangelo Project was originally the name of a program I was exploring to help the disadvantaged into employment. I could see smart technology deconstructing the fixed block of tasks that typically formed 'the job'. That would make it easier to employ people just for the things they could do, not preclude them from work because they couldn't do the entire block of tasks.

It turned out, however, that people found it really difficult to see work in any other form than the jobs defined by their titles. They saw abilities as defined by these job titles; jobs are an artificial construct, an artefact created by early industrialists who needed a cheap and easy way to get thousands of workers to operate their factories. But people were treating jobs as though they are a force of nature. Instead of finding ways to wrap jobs around abilities, people are made to reduce themselves to the least they need to be to fit a job.

This problem was brought home in a television show I happened to catch, a program called "Employable Me" (ABC Australia) which follows people with disabilities in their quest for employment. In one particular episode, Paul, a train enthusiast who can recall the make, model, timetable and route of every train through his local area, applies for a job as a cleaner with a train company. When he is unsuccessful, he laments his failure to land his 'dream job'. Dream job? Emptying bins and cleaning up other people's mess? The Michelangelo Project was an idea about helping people find the most they could do, not the least. In short, it didn't go very far.

Then, when I was almost finished writing my book - and was struggling to think of a title for - I came across a story in which Michelangelo, the famed artist, fears for his career when his employer dies. He realises that the only source of job security was his own abilities. His extraordinary works are the result of his self-taught skills, his continuous experimentation and practice, and his meticulous research. He hated job titles and resented being labelled. He was also reportedly highly insecure and constantly in fear of failure. I had to work his story into the book because it was all our story too. After that, the title of the book was inevitable.

By the way, there is a happy ending for Paul. He now works as a strategic planner for a national rail freight carrier and runs a YouTube channel on the side on his favourite topic - trains, of course.
What are you working on next?
My goal now is to spread the word about the importance of engaging with a digital future and a digitised future of work.

Within the next 3 to 5 years, there will be so few organisations that don't use some form of artificial intelligence that people who don't make the transition to working digitally will have an almost impossible divide to cross - at least not without significant investment. The skills gap between the structured, process-driven work of today and the unstructured/unscripted work that goes with digital technology can be closed in a matter of weeks. The more time goes on, the longer it will take - months, if not years - for a person to close the gap.

Anyone who has ideas for the mass transition of the workforce to digital ways of working, please let me know! If I can help you, I will. You can contact me via the website or on Twitter @metamanagement.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author or publisher.

Books by This Author

The Michelangelo Project: Making It in the Digital Century Workforce
Price: $3.29 USD. Words: 82,650. Language: Australian English. Published: November 18, 2019. Categories: Nonfiction » Business & Economics » Careers
The Michelangelo Project explores the evolution of work since the First Industrial Revolution to an uncertain digital future of work. Using Michelangelo’s story as a narrative framework, readers will learn to build their value-creating skills and lose their fear of dwindling jobs to pursue their careers with confidence and purpose.