An American Editor

November 16, 2015

The Proofreader’s Corner: Tackling Editorial Learning Anxiety (or Embracing Change Rather Than Resisting It) — Part I

by Louise Harnby

In this two-part series, I consider how resistance to change can stop us from learning new skills or testing new methods to make our editorial businesses more successful.

Part I looks at “learning anxiety” and how it can stop us from embracing change. It introduces three ideas for how to tackle our anxiety: planning the change so that it’s considered and systematic; redefining “failure” as “lessons learned”; and doing a cost-to-benefit analysis.

Part II presents a personal case study of how I dealt with anxiety about offering a new customer-engagement service with regard to quoting. I explain how I used a cost-to-benefit analysis to identify my concerns and come up with a solution that enabled me to move forward rather than rejecting change.

“I’m not trying that!”

Editors, like any other professionals, can fall into the trap of resisting change – for example, not trying out a new marketing strategy; claiming they have no need for business tools such as macros; or refusing to take on work that requires using a new platform, software package, or format. All of us have either said, or heard one of our colleagues say, “I don’t work in that way,” “That’s a bad idea,” “I don’t like the idea of that,” “That’s not the way I do things,” or “I just couldn’t bring myself to do that” at some point in our careers.

We work in a highly competitive, crowded, and international marketplace. We’re business owners, not hobbyists. That means our businesses have to earn us a living. Our market isn’t static – it’s always shifting. New software and digital tools are developed; new platforms on which we can make ourselves visible emerge and expand in terms of their importance; our clients ask us to work in ways that colleagues in the editorial field 40 years ago likely never anticipated; the types of clients for whom we are discoverable, and the ways in which they find us, are more varied than I expected when I set up my proofreading business only a decade ago.

All of that means that resisting change and failing to learn the new skills or to try new methods (whether technical, promotional, or practical) simply doesn’t make sense for today’s editorial business owner. If we refuse to change, we refuse to compete – and that’s a path to business failure.

So why do we resist change? According to psychologist Edgar H. Schein, Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, it can be a result of “learning anxiety” (Diane Coutu, “The Anxiety of Learning,” Harvard Business Review, March 2002). Says Schein:

“Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity.”

Back in 2002, Schein discussed the issue in relation to the challenges of organizational change and transformation, corporate culture, and leadership. But that quotation can apply just as well to the editorial solopreneur in 2015. We may be anxious about making a change for fear of not doing it well; equally, we might have heard or read negative opinions from our colleagues about using a particular technical tool, testing a new marketing effort, or changing to a new way of working — and that makes us wary of being seen publicly to be trying such things, lest they draw negative attention.

So how might we go about tackling learning anxiety so that we can embrace change rather than resisting it? There are several options:

  • Plan the change so that it’s considered and systematic
  • Redefine “failure” as “lessons learned”
  • Do a cost-to-benefit analysis

Plan the change so that it’s considered and systematic

If you think there are changes that should be made, or new skills learned, approach them as you would a business plan. By breaking the changes down into components, they will seem more manageable and less anxiety-inducing.

  • Write down the proposed changes (e.g., learning how to use macros; working with a new editorial tool; working in a new format, such as PDF using digital markup; studying a new editorial skill such as proofreading or localization; testing a new marketing technique or pricing model; making yourself visible to a new type of customer group such as self-publishers, students, or publishers).
  • Make a list of the objectives (e.g., increased productivity, new work stream, more diverse skill base to offer potential customers, enhanced customer engagement).
  • Make a note of how difficult you think the task(s) will be to learn and implement.
  • Make a note of how making the process of bringing in these changes makes you feel (e.g., reluctant, anxious).
  • Record the financial outlay required to make the changes to your business.
  • Consider the time frame in which you think you could make the changes. If there are several, you can stagger them so as not to overload yourself in terms of action and pressure.
  • Ask yourself whether you will need assistance to make the changes (e.g., a trainer or mentor) or whether you can implement them on your own.

Redefine “failure” as “lessons learned”

We must accept that change always brings risk. However well we plan change, however well it appears to meet our business objectives, the outcomes aren’t always what we hoped for or expected. The key here is to redefine those results in a positive light whereby “failure” becomes “lessons learned.” What if that cold-calling session to local businesses doesn’t bring in any immediate new clients? What if that training course in a particular software program won’t pay for itself because no clients will ask you for that skill? What if some people in your social media network think that the directory you’ve chosen to advertise in is disreputable and encourages a race to the bottom, rates-wise?

All those outcomes could occur; but it’s also possible – particularly if you’ve made thoughtful, informed decisions about what changes to test – that you might acquire a new lead, take on a piece of work using your software skills, or generate interest from your online colleagues about your marketing efforts. And even if you do end up in the worst-case scenario, who’s to say that the changes you’ve made won’t reap rewards farther down the line? Who’s to say that those colleagues who were disparaging about your efforts are correct in their assumptions?

Being prepared to try new things is how we learn. When the outcomes are not as expected, that’s not failure; that’s information on which we can make future decisions about what not to do, what needs tweaking, and what needs retrying. Not being prepared to learn and change in a competitive market is more likely to lead to failure that trying something new. If you don’t try, you don’t know.

There’s nothing wrong with trying something new, only to find that it didn’t work. Any normal human being trying to be creative when running their business is not going to get it right every time. And if things don’t go to plan, you’ll be in great company. Here’s Woody Allen: “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” And here’s Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Do a cost-to-benefit analysis

If you’re nervous about making a particular change, do a cost-to-benefit analysis by considering the following questions:

  • What will I gain from the change?
  • What will I lose if I change the way I do things?
  • What will stay the same, even though I’ve changed things?
  • How will the changes make me feel once I’ve completed them?

Working through these questions can highlight benefits and challenges, and help you to think through ways to maximize the former and minimize the stress of the latter.

In Part II, I’ll discuss how I used a cost-to-benefit analysis to help me introduce a change to the way in which I invited customers to engage with me over pricing. I wanted to make things as easy and as quick as possible for my customers to ask me for a price, but in a way that wouldn’t ignore value. Up until this point, I’d let my anxiety stop me from testing a new method. However, by thinking about what I might gain, what I might lose, what would stay the same, and how any changes would make me feel, I was able to come up with a solution to test.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

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