A Book Apart

Get to know Vanessa Gennarelli

Sep 27, 2023

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Author Vanessa Gennarelli, a white woman with brown hair,wearing glasses and smiling.

Meet Vanessa Gennarelli

Up next in our Meet the Author series, we’re getting to know Vanessa Gennarelli—author of Surviving Change at Work. She tells us about the neon peach emoji in her office, the "Bat Signal" she uses to check in with friends, and a recent trip that illuminated her world.

A Book Apart: What is your favorite thing about your workspace?

Vanessa Gennarelli: The color palette in my office is one of my favorite things: the lamps are pale pink, the walls are deep blue, and the couch is kelly green. When I’m in a meeting, or even just reading, I love noticing how the colors complement each other. Also, lamps are really important to me, because overhead lighting is punitive. Then there’s my wraparound monitor makes me feel like a mad scientist. Finally, my “peach emoji” neon sign, which a friend of mine had made for me—it’s in the background of all of my Zoom calls.

ABA: What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?

VG: On Sundays, I write down the big tasks that need to get accomplished that week. Then each day, I get my coffee, and then my pug, Tuna, sits on my lap at the bay window and we plan our day.

ABA: In your opinion, what should someone consider before starting out in web design / development?

VG: I’d suggest thinking about what stage of organization you’d like to be a part of, and where you would thrive. Are you a generalist, or a specialist? What’s your appetite for ambiguity? I talk about this (and more) in my book, and provide tools and guidance to help folks identify their “sweet spot.”

ABA: Is there anyone you’re following the work of right now, who you’d recommend others pay attention to?

VG: Kate Tyson’s newsletter, Thougthful as Moss, in which she questions assumptions surrounding success—her work is so thoughtful, and while her focus is on small businesses, so many of the lessons apply to organizations, writ large. And Krista Tippett and her work through On Being, always and forever—she asks high-level, generative questions that make you think differently about time, motivation, meaning, and expectations.

ABA: In moments of self-doubt, how do you recharge and rally to keep going?

VG: I gravitate towards people who care deeply, and are intentional about how they design their lives. My “Kitchen Cabinet” is a group of eight to ten friends, and there’s a lot of overlap between our work projects and personal lives. Usually I’ll reach out with a “Bat Signal,” asking if they are in a place to gut-check my thinking. I make short videos to express my context / crisis / vibe, and seek a dose of confidence or clarity that way.

ABA: What is your go-to source of inspiration when you’re trying to get out of a creative rut?

VG: Though my travel schedule has slowed down considerably in the past two years, I try to leave the country twice a year, and I’m grateful to be able to do so. Travel prompts me to shift perspectives—seeing other ways of moving through the world, learning other ways to solve problems, experiencing other customs and expectations. I always come home with a re-centered and refreshed awareness, if a tired body. I recently attended a traditional wedding in Ghana, and the kinship rituals were so deep and fascinating. It’s a whole weekend of activity designed not around bringing individuals together, but two whole communities together, and it made me think differently about human commitment.

I also love the performing arts—I try to attend one play, performance, or creative happening a week. We’re so lucky to have a thriving arts community in Philadelphia: the Fringe Festival, Crane Arts, Plays and Players, the Wilma, BalletX. I think it reminds us to use play and curiosity in our work.

ABA: What is a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?

VG: Michael Lewis, of Moneyball fame, did a podcast series about our changing notion of the referee—how we’ve shifted from a respect for impartial arbiters (voting observers, judges, art authenticators) to an assumption of corruption, fueled by suspicion and vitriol. One of our idealistic goals for the read/write web was to erode traditional gatekeeping around information, but we’ve swung too far in the other direction.

ABA: What characteristic do you most admire in other creative people?

VG: A high bar for quality. The audiobook for Surviving Change at Work is an example—my best friend Rob Spectre produced it, and he would not rest until it sounded polished, seamless, and perhaps even fun. His expectations as a consumer are quite high, and he brings the same view to his own output.

At the same time, I admire folks who intentionally rest—who have made trade-offs with regard to output / work, personal interests, relationships, and caretaking of their bodies. The Nap Ministry’s message of resisting “grind culture” comes to mind, as well as Jenny Odell’s writings.

ABA: What tool, object, or ritual could you not live without to get you through a week?

VG: My Iron Flask for hydration, because it keeps water cool and it’s always full (and on my desk where I’m frequently likely to reach for it). And lemons, parsley, and capers because they make almost everything tastier.

ABA: What is a piece of professional or life advice you’ve gotten that has always stuck with you?

VG: When you’re in a relationship with a challenging colleague, find something to appreciate about them. Something they can teach you. I talk about this a bit in my book, and the advice comes from the Conscious Leadership Group. This small step can really change your perspective, because it shifts the narrative in your head from anger to curiosity.

ABA: What are you reading right now?

VG: Mating in Captivity—I’m late to the Ether Perel train, but I’ve punched my ticket and am digging the ride. And Chlorine by Jade Song—take competitive swimming, and make it about folklore and mermaids. Into it.

ABA: What’s the last book you read that you wanted to share with others?

VG: Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. Cookie was part of John Waters’s Dreamland crew, and this is a collection of her posthumous essays. You never know where the next essay is going to begin (like escaping a hotel bill by fleeing over the Berlin wall in a skirt) or where it’s going to take you (her vignettes of Provincetown are unreal).

ABA: If you could write a book in any genres, what would it be?

VG: Anything that’s a modern-day take on mythology. One day I’ll write a book about the various Etruscan deities my ancestors worshiped.

ABA: What’s your favorite place to read?

VG: On my ottoman, with my pug, Tuna, on my lap.

ABA: What’s in your To Be Read pile?

VG: Oh this is shameful and painful. OK…


Learn more about all our authors—check out the rest of our Meet the Author series!