What empowerment looks like: Daniella's story

I loved reading Daniella's story for many reasons: her desire to help young children get exposed to science and technology, the photos of her and the “inspired little scientists with shining eyes,” the article in the German newspaper.

I was inspired by how she turned an idea into reality, using her Working Out Loud Circle to create a possibility she hadn’t imagined before. When she started, she had the same doubts and fears we all have. But by taking small steps over time, with feedback and peer support along the way, she made something wonderful emerge.

Here’s the beginning of Daniella’s post on LinkedIn. (You can read it in full by clicking on the image below.) As you read it, think of how empowered you would feel if you could bring ideas to life like that. Think of what your organization would be like if more people approached issues and opportunities like Daniella -  with generosity, creativity, and persistence. It’s an approach you can learn - and spread. 

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn



The bridge from where you are to where you want to be

It seemed like something was missing for her. She was working inside one of the world’s largest corporations and, though she liked her job, what she really enjoyed doing was coaching other people. When she told me how she had looked into professional certifications and coaching jobs, her eyes were shining.

Then she paused. “But there are already 200,000 life coaches in Germany,” she said, “and I have a child.” She knew it would be tough to make a living, and was aware the odds were against her. Yet if she didn’t try, she might always wonder “what might have been.” 

What would you do?

The problem with building bridges

For most of my life, I thought of a career as a set of well-planned steps. Like building a bridge, there’s a grand plan, and you need to spend a lot of time and money (training, entry-level jobs, struggles to get customers), before you can reach the other side.

That’s an awfully risky approach - for two reasons. The first is that there’s a huge gap between the idea of doing something for a living and actually doing it every day, and it’s a terrible thing to realize your dream job is nightmarish in reality. Second is that the job you chose to strive for is just one job you happen to know about, and ignores the much wider array of possibilities you never knew existed.

You might build a bridge only to realize you don’t want to go to the other side after all.

More possibilities with less risk

Now more than ever, career planning is an oxymoron.  Instead, a much better approach is to start with only a general direction in mind, and then conduct small experiments that help you learn what a good next step might be. That’s “purposeful discovery.” Your experiments could be as simple as contributions to people related to your goal, or a conversation with someone who’s already doing what you have in mind.

For the woman who wanted to be a life coach, she might start by offering her services for free to colleagues at work, thereby helping people and gaining valuable experience while still getting a paycheck. She could meet with professional life coaches to better understand what being a coach is truly like. She might even try to find all the other life coaches in her company and connect them online so they could all share their experiences.

These kinds of free experiments would help her refine her sense of what she likes and doesn’t like, and expose her to other possibilities she hadn’t considered. Maybe over time she discovers her dream job is not to be independent after all, but to act as an internal coach in her company, or lead a community there, or offer a coaching framework that lets other companies tap into their own internal expertise. Only with experimentation, feedback, and connection will she discover that.

The bridge between where you are and where you want to be isn’t a bridge at all. Rather, it can be more like a leisurely hike through the woods. You have a general direction in mind and take a few steps, mindful of the signs and clues around you, and a path emerges. This approach gives you access to more possibilities with less risk. It may still be strenuous, but you’re much more likely to enjoy the journey.

The ultimate vanity search

I've done it myself, and I recommend you do it reasonably often. Recently, I learned that “47% of American adult internet users have done it,” though I think the real number is higher. 

It’s a vanity search. You type your name into a search engine and see what comes up, seeing yourself as others might see you.

When I first searched for “john stepper” all I found was stepper exercise equipment and an old article about work I was no longer interested in. Over time, I learned I could shape my reputation through my contributions online. I could amplify who I was, what I did, and what I cared about.

To help others do the same, Week 6 of the WOL Circle Guides focuses on improving your online presence, and the first step is to search for yourself and discuss the results. “Are you and your work easy to find? Are the results what you would like others to see?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking of a different kind of vanity search. As with the original search, I'm not happy with the results, and I'm working on improving them. In this new search, you go beyond your online presence to your overall presence - what you say and do, and how you say and do it.

Look in your email inbox and see the language you use. Watch how people act when they are around you. Look into the faces of your children, and into your partner’s eyes.

Search deeply. What do you see? What would you like to see?

When the baby cries

I was in a hotel room, sleeping deeply, when I heard a baby screaming in the room next to ours. Its crying was so loud and urgent that it yanked me awake.

I was immediately irritated, even angry. Goddamit, why can’t that baby be quiet? Then I heard the father yelling, sounding desperate, “What IS it?! What is your PROBLEM?!” I started to judge him for the way he was reacting. 

It was the that I remembered a practice I had read about recently called tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “sending and taking.” 

When the baby cries.jpg

It’s a simple practice. If someone is suffering, you breathe in, as if you’re taking in that suffering, and you send out thoughts of happiness or comfort or whatever might provide relief. It’s an exercise in compassion. 

I tried it. I thought of the baby, breathed in its confusion and pain, and breathed out soothing thoughts. I thought of the father, breathed in his frustration, and sent him calm and patience. I reflected on how I had been in similar situations many times, and how upsetting it could be.

My judgment and irritation melted away, and the baby stopped crying. I was incredulous at first. Did tonglen really work? Before drifting back to sleep, I remember thinking that I had just tapped into some kind of superpower. That feeling didn’t last long, however, as a few hours later the baby woke me up again, and this time I was in no mood for tonglen. Nevertheless, that night of broken sleep made it clear I had a choice of how to respond to upsetting events, and that the compassionate choice made me happier.

You can practice tonglen on yourself too, when you’re hurting in some way. Maybe it's when a driver honks loudly behind you, or you read an upsetting story in the news, or see someone begging on the street. Whatever the emotion is - irritation, anger, disgust - you don’t have to suppress it or berate yourself. Just take a moment to feel it, examine it with a sense of curiosity, and reflect on all the other people on the planet who are going through something similar. Then you breathe in for all those countless people, including yourself, and you breathe out relief.

The next time the baby cries -  when something or someone upsets your - see if you can practice “sending and taking.” Catch the initial feeling; breathe in suffering; breathe out compassion. As you practice, you become kinder to yourself and others, and you see just how related and interconnected we all are.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

A friend of mine went back to his old neighborhood and was talking with friends he hadn’t seen in a long time. At one point, the conversation turned to politics, and the topic of immigration came up. One of his friends made it clear where he stood.

“We have to take care of our own first.”

I immediately wondered who “our own” might actually include. Would it be all Americans or just people in his part of the country? Would it include the many millions on welfare? Those who can’t afford health insurance? People who were otherwise different from him in terms of religion, race, or sexual orientation?

It’s a primal instinct to want to take care of our own. The field of evolutionary biology describes how the bonds formed by many species who live in groups lead to pro-social behaviors that help the group succeed and pass on its genes.

Yet humans have taken this to odd extremes. Our definition of “our own” can change from moment to moment based on the context we’re in. Research has shown, for example, that even 11-year old boys on different teams at summer camp quickly form into us and them, and good and bad behaviors stem from those arbitrary boundaries. The same pattern plays out in large organizations, where no matter how we draw the lines, the infighting remains. 

The suffering that results, in the workplace and around the planet, is incalculable. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re no longer in small hunter-gather groups struggling to pass on our genes, and we don’t need to be victims of our biology.

To improve how we treat each other requires us to be aware of our natural tendencies to divide and diminish so we can extend our sense of relatedness - our sense of “our own” - to a much bigger group.

It requires an open mind to see that the other side is actually not a side at all, but human beings remarkably like us if we give ourselves the space to imagine it. 

It requires practice. Small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support, can help us gradually develop the compassion and empathy we need to make us all happier. 

This is the work we can and must do.

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Man rescued from Houston floodwaters by human chain. Picture: Storyful

Working Out Loud in China 

If you had asked me a year ago whether China could be a good place to spread Working Out Loud, I would have had my doubts. I would have imagined how culture, language, and even technology issues might be barriers. 

Yet this week, I’m excited and optimistic about WOL in China. Here’s why.

A simple beginning

It started seven months ago with a LinkedIn request from Connie Wu. That led to a nice email exchange, and Connie saying that the book and weekly blog posts helped her to be more confident. She said she started taking advantage of more opportunities, including making her work more visible. She told me she worked at Bosch, and would join a WOL Circle soon.

We kept in touch over the next few months, and she connected with Katharine Krentz and the Bosch team in Germany who had been spreading WOL there. In May, she formed a Circle with people from different companies, including her own.

More connections

I quickly learned that Connie is someone who gets things done. At her urging, I had a WeChat account (WeChat is an instant messaging app with about a billion users, 90% of whom are Chinese), and was interacting with her Circle and other people in China. That led to more connections and a video call with over 100 people in China, including Human Resources. Connie wrote a LinkedIn post about WOL, and we began talking about a trip to Shanghai. 

When Connie's WOL Circle was about to have their 12th and final meeting, she asked if I would join, and I was quick to say yes.

The lovely "WOL Circle CN_001" in WeChat

Some wonderful possibilities

The group includes people from a wide range of professions and companies, and they each had their own goals, questions, and challenges. I was struck by how gracious and friendly they all were. The other thing they had in common was that, now that they'd experienced WOL for themselves, they wanted to spread it. 

One of them, for example, is living in Germany for a year, working at Continental where they already have WOL Circles. Perhaps he could help spread it for the company in China, just as Connie might do for Bosch? Another woman is involved in venture capital and innovation. Perhaps she could use WOL to reach more start-ups and also help them build their own networks?

They asked, “When are you coming to China?” and we talked about about things we could do together, like translating the guides into Mandarin; a certification program so I could “train-the-trainer” and they could scale their WOL efforts locally; and even a public event so we could reach more companies.

I thought about what a tiny miracle this all was - meeting such a wonderful group of people on the other side of the planet and talking about collaboration possibilities - and how it all started with a simple message. I’m grateful to Connie for sending that message, and I'm excited about what’s next.

WOL updates after the summer break

School started in New York City this week. We bought supplies, packed the backpacks, set the kids’ alarms again, and now they’re ready to return to a structured routine.

Me, too. 

After a wonderful summer break, which included exploring ideas as well as places, I’m excited about the work ahead. Here are a few things I’ve been working on and thinking about since my last post. If you’d like to contribute your own feedback or ideas in the comments, I would appreciate it. 

One of the highlights of the summer was seeing Niagara Falls for the first time

Two new ways to help people practice WOL

I always enjoy talking with people who are in a WOL Circle. Sometimes it’s helping them one-on-one by email or phone. Sometimes I’ll join a Circle meeting or have a Q&A call with an organization that’s spreading Circles. Since I can only do that for a limited number of people, though, I’ve been looking for ways to scale it, ways I could include elements of my talks and workshops without making the Circle Guides too long.

So I’ve been working on a video coaching series. The idea is that for each week of your Circle, you’ll be able to watch a video on your phone that includes me walking you through the exercises, offering tips on each one, and describing research and examples about why and how they work. I just finished writing the scripts, and I’m working with a fantastic coach to prepare for filming. With some luck, I’ll have a version that I can share with clients in a few months.

The other thing I’ve been working on is experimenting with different workbook formats to complement the videos. A workbook would allow you to have a single place to do all the exercises that would serve as a journal of your Circle experience. It also gives me a place to offer more tips and templates, reinforcing what’s in the videos. These should be available for sale on the site in early 2018.

Some delicious research

The words “delicious” and “research” may not often go together, but that’s what came to mind while I was doing summer reading on the science of relatedness - how we relate to ourselves and to others. The feeling of relatedness leads to certain positive behaviors and feelings that are good for individuals as well as groups (and companies). The more we know about the biology and psychology of relatedness, the more readily we can help people develop it.

Among the books I’ve enjoyed devouring this summer are Mind and The Mindful Brain by Dr. Dan Siegel; Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff; The Compassionate Instinct edited by Dacher Keltner et al; and Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship by Maximillian Holland. That last one is actually a Ph. D. thesis on “inclusive fitness theory,” providing insights on the evolutionary development of pro-social behaviors among “related” individuals.

My intention is to use this line of research to create another set of guides in 2018 that would build on Working Out Loud. My thinking is that, if you’ve already been in a WOL Circle, then you could use a similar social learning format to experience other practices that can make you happier and more effective. 

Not a map but a direction

Are these the right next steps for Working Out Loud? I don’t know. What I do know, based on emails and other feedback I’m receiving, is that WOL Circles are helping people make progress towards goals while they’re feel more curious, more confident, and happier. That’s enough for me to keep looking for ways to reach more people and develop more practices. It’s all in the service of the broader WOL mission: “changing how we relate to each other, to ourselves, and to the work we do.” 

That may sound ambitious, but you needn’t reach everyone to make a meaningful difference. A quote from the Dalai Lama helps me put things in perspective. (It’s from an interview I read this week in The Compassionate Instinct.) 

“Our responsibility is to try our best and do what we can. Then that will be a part of things that we may achieve. Ten people follow a practice - good. One hundred - better. A thousand - still better. Not all 6 billion.
If the work is something that is worthwhile, then, regardless whether we can achieve it or not, make attempt. That is, I think, important. Courageous.”

Start where you are. Maybe you’ll join your first Circle, helping yourself and four other people. Or maybe you’ll wind up spreading Circles in your organization, ultimately helping hundreds or thousands or even more. Courage is in making the attempt.

Blog changes!

Hi, everyone. Summer is a good time for some fun and reflection, and that's resulting in two changes to this blog. 

One is that I’ll take a break for 5 weeks or so, taking some time for vacation and for working on a new project I'm excited about. The other is that I’ll shift to publishing once a week, on Wednesdays.

Thank you all for reading and engaging here. I appreciate it.

See you in September! 


p.s. Here’s a photo from yesterday to show you what I’m doing this week instead of blogging. This might be the clearest evidence I have that life isn't about what happens to you, but how you react to it. :-)

Pema’s dishes

When I first read this story, it made me optimistic. “If this can happen to her,” I thought, “then there’s still hope for me.” It’s from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, the renowned Buddhist nun.

“I had just finished my evening practice. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly state of mind. But as I came out of my room and started to walk down the hall, I saw that in our serving area someone had left dirty dishes. I started to get really angry.
Now, in the retreat we put our name on our dishes…So I was walking down and I was trying to see whose name was on those dishes. I was already pretty sure whose name was on them, because there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. She was always just leaving things around for other people to clean up. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this. I was thinking, “I’ve known her for a long time, and everyone thinks she’s a senior practitioner, but actually she might as well have never mediated for the way she’s so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet.”
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was “Pema,” and the name on the cup was “Pema,” and the name on the fork and on the knife was “Pema.” Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”

My first reaction was “So it’s not just me.” Even the most spiritual, compassionate, highly trained person gets angry sometimes, and makes up stories in her head. It’s part of the human condition. 

Then I noticed how she handled it. No additional drama. No self-recrimination. I imagined her smiling and shaking her head, thankful for the lesson manifested by some dishes. People make mistakes, and part of the practice is learning how to pause before you get carried away with the storyline, to be open to other possibilities before you react and to offer loving kindness for yourself and others when you do.

“Everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.”

Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

"Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

A tale of two inboxes

Imagine you’re on holiday and you think about checking email from work. How does that make you feel? How do you deal with that feeling?

I’m off this week, so this was more than a thought exercise. Over several decades, I have learned to dread email while I’m on vacation. When I ignored it, my background stress would accumulate and burst into the foreground. When I checked it often, there was bound to be something upsetting that would color my mood for the day. Gradually, I developed a system whereby I would hide my phone and limit my email-checking to specific times, but even that didn’t eliminate my anxiety.

This week was different. As I thought about the mails I had received, they were almost all positive and helpful. For sure, some involved “work” - follow-ups or requests or some kind of issue - yet even those emails were friendly and nicely-worded. “It’s odd,” I told my wife, “but I actually look forward to checking email now.” 

Of course, I’m working for myself for over a year, but I don't think that explains the difference. Companies aren't necessarily bad and being independent isn't necessarily good. Instead, I think the difference between inboxes isn’t due to whether you’re an employee or not, but due to the culture of your organization, and how people feel about being a part of it. 

I claim that even in big companies we can learn to relate to each other - and to ourselves - with more compassion and generosity, with more kindness. We can discover how much more effective and fulfilled we can be. It requires behavioral change at scale which makes it difficult - and yet that’s something I’m confident we can accomplish. 

My old inbox used to contain things done to me, and my new inbox seems to contain things done for me. Which inbox would you rather have?

A workshop for 550 engineers

I was nervous about this one. Although I’ve delivered workshops before, the crowds have ranged from 25 to 100 people or so. This would be five times the largest one. An even bigger challenge would be that they were engineers at Bosch, responsible for manufacturing and logistics in plants around the world. Not a typical WOL audience.

Here’s how it went.

The talk

I was to open the second day. The attendees had already heard from speakers who talked about innovation and technology trends. Bernd Häuser, the senior vice president responsible for manufacturing at Bosch, was the man responsible for making WOL part of the conference. He introduced Working Out Loud as “something practical,” something they could each apply themselves.

My talk usually covers the basic questions:

  • What is Working Out Loud?
  • What are the benefits?
  • How does it spread?
  • Who else is doing it and why?

But I adapt each talk depending on the audience. For this group of engineers, I focused on how Working Out Loud can help you be more effective, giving you access to more knowledge while accelerating the rate of innovation and continuous improvement. 

I also sought to demystify the practice, telling stories about engineers as diverse (and as old) as Alexander Humboldt and W. Edwards Deming, showing how even they were proponents of elements of Working Out Loud. Towards the end, I gave examples of how WOL Circles are spreading in other engineering companies.

“Now it’s your turn,” I said.

The workshop

We had prepared tables at the back of the huge auditorium, and asked everyone to form into groups of five, preferably with people they didn’t already work with. I was joined by Sabine Kluge from Siemens, Katharina Krentz who introduced WOL at Bosch, and Bosch’s WOL co-creation team. (The team is comprised of remarkable volunteers who want to contribute to spreading the practice. You can read more about their work here and watch it here.)

The plan was that, together with Sabine and Katha, I would guide the 110 groups through WOL Circle exercises from Weeks 1 and 2. But the three of us weren’t convinced this would work. What if they took too long to self-organize? What if they thought the process was too “soft”? What if we lost their attention or never got it to begin with?

The results

We needn’t have worried. The crowd had already been together for a day, and they were eager for more interaction and connection. I gave brief instructions before each exercise, and Sabine and Katha offered their own insights. While the Circles were working, the co-creation team would walk around the room and offer “micro-coaching” to answer questions or clarify things. 

The room was buzzing. We began with an exercise Sabine suggested which immediately helped the Circle members to relate to each other and feel comfortable. Then they went on to share their individual goals, write down lists of people related to those goals, and offer contributions right there in the room.

The last step was to offer them the chance to keep going. “You have already experienced what it’s like to be in a Circle,” I said. “Now you can continue that experience after the conference. It’s as easy as writing your email address on a piece of paper.”

200 people signed up.

Afterwards, we all breathed a sigh of relief, and we talked about what worked and what could be better. Perhaps the best thing about the workshop, beyond the level of engagement and the number of new Circle members, was that we were able to reach people in the core business from around the world, including senior management.

“This is an important milestone for us,” Katha said. “We reached a new level.” 

A teacher on the train to Munich

Her name was Helga. She looked to be in her late fifties or so, and she had a big pleasant smile and shining eyes. I could tell she was friendly early on when, shortly after we departed, I closed my eyes and she said she'd wake me up when we got to Munich. After my short nap, we started to talk. 

She told me she teaches young children, from first through eighth grade, sometimes high school. She loves watching them develop, she said, and feels attached to them. She told me about one girl who invited her to her first communion and later her confirmation at church. The young girl told Helga, “When I get married I will invite you.” Two decades later, an invitation arrived in the mail, and Helga went. "They become attached to me too," she said. 

“Scherben bringen Glück”

As part of the ceremony, she told me people would bring porcelain plates or bowls and break them. She said the German expression was “Scherben bringen Glück” and we struggled together to come up with an English translation: “Shards bring good luck.”

She said it always reminded her of something that happened when she was a child. She was five years old, washing and drying dishes by hand together with her grandmother. (“There were no machines,” she said. “It was a different time.”)

Helga dropped a cup and it smashed on the floor. Her grandmother reassured her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s okay. Scherben bringen Glück.

Lessons for a lifetime & beyond

Helga told me how her grandmother encouraged her to keep trying. “If you don't work, you make no faults.” Of course, she said, you may avoid mistakes if you don’t try things, but that is not the way to live a life. Helga said she often told her students stories about her grandmother. “The children love them.” 

I thought of how many things I avoided in my life because I was afraid to “make faults.” I thought of how the spirit of Helga’s grandmother lives on in her and, through her stories, in her students. 

The train rolled on. We talked about Helga’s three sons and her two year-old granddaughter. I showed her photos of my own children. As we pulled into Munich and said our goodbyes, she told me, “I'm sure you’re a lovely father.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “I know you’re a wonderful teacher.” 

A Working Out Loud Conference in December(?)

A few months ago, a group of companies in Germany met for a day to exchange how they might help spread the practice of Working Out Loud. We exchanged ideas and challenges, and got to know each other better. It was lovely.

This week we met again (see this Storify of the event by Daimler), and the progress in the past few months has been extraordinary for some companies. One got the attention of board members for supporting WOL programs. Another started their on-boarding pilot. Another is actively spreading it in China and India. In the afternoon, we worked together on different topics that would be of use and interest to all of us, and that would advance the practice. It was good work with good friends.

But something was missing. We all want help other organizations build their own WOL movement. There’s a growing list of companies that are starting to spread Working Out Loud, and even more that are interested. Yet while we don’t want our working group to be an exclusive club, we also recognize that working groups become unworkable if they’re too big. And it’s the rare company or person that would invest this much time helping others.

So what could be a way to help others get started and benefit from the lessons of the early adopters?

That’s when we began considering a public WOL conference. The first experiment would likely be in Stuttgart, and limited to 100 people or so. The objective wouldn’t be money or marketing, but helping companies who are actively engaged in spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.

If we organized such an event this year, perhaps in early December, would you be interested in attending? If so, what would be most valuable to you?

What to do when you’re in a room full of strangers

How do you feel when you’re about to go to a conference or a party and realize you may not know anyone there? What do you do?

Recently, someone sent me a LinkedIn message saying she was stressed about going to an event because “a lot of networking is expected” and she didn’t know what to do.

We had the following exchange:

Me: “Here’s a pro tip: Imagine that everyone in that conference has a story, one that makes them human and interesting and special. Now imagine it's your job to discover that in each person.” 
She: “My biggest issue is that I have nothing to offer those people except my attention, appreciation and huge interest.”
Me: “Nothing to offer except...the most precious things we all want!!!! The problem isn't that you don't have enough. It's that you don't know the value of what you already have.”

I can relate to how she feels, though. Just yesterday I went to an event in a foreign country with hundreds of people I didn't know. Everyone was talking (in another language) and laughing, and I was sitting by myself. I felt like a small child alone on the playground.

Then I remembered my own advice. I began asking more questions. Not the usual smalltalk but something that showed I was genuinely interested. Not “What do you do?” but “What’s the thing you’re most excited about now?” If they happened to mention they had come from another city, I asked about where they grew up, what they missed, and what they liked about their new place. If they mentioned children, I asked their ages and we would talk about parenting. 

All I had to offer was my attention and a bit of vulnerability as I asked questions that were more personal. It led to them asking me more questions too.  It changed my experience of the event from potentially stressful to positively lovely.

A few days after that LinkedIn exchange, I got an update.

“It was great and your tip worked very well. The idea that I am actually discovering another person rather than networking or building connections made me more relaxed and I think even more natural. I got rid of the feeling that I have to entertain the other person… I feel very good!!”

“Discovering another person” is a beautiful way to put it. You’re not networking to get something, but to discover something, and that makes all the difference.

A year on my own

A year ago, after having worked in big companies my entire life, I decided to start a company of my own. I figured I would mark my anniversary by answering the question people ask me most:

“How’s it going?”

The trade-offs quickly became obvious

It didn’t take long for me to experience the advantages. Immediately, I was in control of my time and my work, and that was both empowering and fulfilling. Like shedding a heavy overcoat that had grown increasingly uncomfortable, I left behind the mundane anxieties, the manufactured drama, and the sheer senselessness of some of what I did each day. I felt lighter. I felt liberated.

The disadvantage was equally clear: the paycheck that was deposited twice a month was no longer going to arrive.

Building my way forward

Though I had published Working Out Loud a year earlier, and had interacted with people and companies in different countries, I had no firm idea how I would make a living. I figured I could deliver presentations and workshops, and do some consulting. But I knew many people who were doing the same and were struggling. Why would I be different?

So I tried experiment after experiment. Most didn’t amount to much, but each one helped me practice my craft or get feedback on a new idea. They refined my sense of the work I wanted to do as well as what other people valued. After six months or so, I had a few more customers and an emerging sense of what I could offer them.

And so it continues. I’m writing this on a train in Germany where I’ll work with five different companies in four cities. More experiments. More learning. My fledgling business isn’t a success, it's a work in progress. Step by step.

I can’t say I’d recommend what I’m doing to someone else. The odds are too high. Most days it feels like there’s no ground beneath your feet. As a result, I have more compassion for my former self, working at big corporations for so long. I also have more respect than ever for anyone who tries to build something on their own, whatever it is.

Finding my ikigai

A year ago, I named my new company “Ikigai” after the Japanese word for “a reason for living.” I feel like I’ve found my ikigai now. It’s to change how people relate to each other, to themselves, and to the work they do. When I get it right, the methods I’m developing help individuals be more effective and feel happier. They make work more human, compassionate, and connected. Maybe someday they’ll change the culture of a company, or even a country. Step by step.

I think the photo of me and my daughter on a rollercoaster captures how I feel after my first year on my own. I’m happy and excited and scared all at the same time. There’s so much to do and so much I don’t know. But the feeling of purpose makes it worth it. Just like that rollercoaster, I can’t wait to get back on for another ride.

You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself? 

The missing piece in most quality programs

I fell in love with W. Edwards Deming over twenty-five years ago. He was already in his 90s by then, but his philosophy of work and management was only gradually spreading. I felt like I had discovered A Fundamental Truth. But like other Truths, it was inconvenient to people in power, and was ignored or purposefully misinterpreted.

So when I saw a recent article titled “Deming, Finally!” I was curious. When I noticed it was co-authored by Celine Schillinger, I made a point to read it carefully, since I greatly respect her work driving change at the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi.

“Today, everyone in the manufacturing quality world has read, heard, spoken about Deming. His vision for quality and “14 points of management” as well as the “System of Profound Knowledge” in particular are inescapable reference points.
However, Pharma may have got this all wrong for the last 30 years. By focusing on processes, control and exhortations, manufacturers have missed the essence of Deming’s message.
Deming advised us to actually put the Human at the center of quality and to focus on how the system works.”

The missing piece in most quality programs is the human being. Deming understood that and most of the elements of “the Future of Work” decades ago, but he wasn’t really heard.

Deming would have benefited from better communications & behavior change methods, and I think Working Out Loud Circles can help with both - whether it’s work in an office or in manufacturing plants, in hospitals or schools. I’ll offer some specific suggestions in an upcoming post. In the meantime, read Celine’s article if you can, and let me know what you think about the topic. 

How would you make quality and continuous improvement more human?

When you’re looking for your purpose, “Build your way forward”

Even if you’re fortunate, it’s a common pattern. You begin with a sense that you’re meant to do something purposeful, that you’re special. With the passing of time and with each job, however, that sense of specialness fades. It’s replaced by a nagging disappointment or, worse, resignation. I guess that’s all there is. 

That certainly was my own experience. When I was young, I had high hopes but I also had no idea of what I wanted to do. So I simply reacted to whatever presented itself. As I got older, I relied on my experience in my first jobs to advance and make more money. Doing anything different seemed increasingly impossible. How could I start over?

Recently though, I’ve observed a different pattern. It’s one that gives me hope, and is something anyone can implement on their own. The pattern has three stages: Interest, Practice, and Purpose.

1. Interest

The best description I’ve found of how to explore your interests is in Designing Your Life, based on a course taught by two professors at Stanford. They refer to it as “wayfinding.”

“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map - a direction… Since there’s no one destination in life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you and make your best way forward.”

Maybe you have an inkling of what you’re interested in. Maybe you took a test and it pointed you in a direction. Then what? What would you do next, and how might you explore other interests that might be even better for you?

“Try reframing the challenge as an exploration of possibilities (instead of trying to solve your problem in one miraculous leap)…The way forward is to reduce the risk (and the fear) of failure by designing a series of small prototypes to test the waters….one of the principles of design thinking is that you want to ‘fail fast and fail forward’ into your next step.”

The book is filled with many examples of such prototypes, and the simplest and easiest one is a conversation with someone doing something related to your interest or goal. If you’re interested in real estate, talk to people already working in different real estate businesses. If you have a hobby you love, seek out and connect with people who’ve developed that into something more. 

2. Practice

Now comes the part most people miss: deliberate practice. The goal of prototyping and experimenting isn’t to get to some finish line. It’s to get you to the next experiment, to help you explore possibilities while you learn and develop new skills. It’s the combination of doing, interacting, and getting feedback that enables you to advance in the direction you’re interested in. 

For example, I’ve always had an interest in writing, yet for decades I didn’t do anything about it. I started by simply reading more, which sparked my curiosity. My first experiment was to write a blog post on my company’s intranet. I was in my 40s. Then I talked with a journalist who encouraged me and gave me constructive criticism and advice. In the first year, I only wrote 6 posts. I struggled, got more feedback, and learned. I began writing once a month, and later wrote my first public post. Writing became a habit, leading to hundreds of blog posts and a book. The skills I developed along the way - and the relationships I developed as I did it - enabled me to discover a new career in my 50s.

“Deliberate practice” isn’t just for one particular skill, it’s for life.

3. Purpose

Angela Duckworth describes the three phases - interest, practice, and purpose - in her bestselling book, Grit. Her research brought her into contact with thousands of accomplished people and she found few “naturally talented” people. 

“The more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.”

It’s that third stage that is perhaps most surprising to me, and I’m only now starting to understand it. It feels like an awakening of some sort. A psychologist interviewed for Grit described the third stage as when “the larger purpose and meaning of work finally becomes apparent.”

Your next step

The way to design your life is to “build your way forward," using a series of prototypes and interactions to enable you to make it through the three stages. For me, Working Out Loud is what helped me explore my interests, and my WOL Circles have helped me to keep practicing, to continue experimenting and connecting and learning until a purpose emerges.

If you’ve ever felt there is a gap between what you do and something that would be more meaningful, the way to bridge that gap is not with a daring leap but with hundreds or even thousands of small steps. Purpose isn’t something you discover or are born with as much as something that emerges from your passion and perseverance. 

It can be as easy as this

Peter was at a work event, and needed information on a topic that was unfamiliar to him. He had done some research online, and now he was looking for advice.

If you were Peter, what would you do next?

Giving & receiving

You might keep on searching and reading. That’s not a bad strategy. Or you might ask some people at the event or send a few emails to people you think might know something. Instead, Peter posted a simple question on a community site related to the topic. The topic was Working Out Loud. 

“At this very moment I am facilitating a networking event around #NewWork at Deutsche Bahn. One specific session just strived to understand #WOL. Any help or advise is highly appreciated. We have the rest of today plus tomorrow and would love to get started in that timeframe. What immediate first steps would you recommend?”

Within a few minutes he had responses from people in three different cities and companies. Within a few hours, people from Deutsche Bank, Bosch, and BMW as well as independent consultants all offered suggestions and asked questions. As the world turned, more people joined from five different countries. Many more people viewed and reacted to the post.

One of the commenters actually drove to the event to bring Peter a copy of Working Out Loud.

Peter started the discussion by simply offering his attention and vulnerability - “We’re working on this and interested in what you do. Could you help us?” - and the community responded with specific, constructive advice, encouragement, and even a sense of humor.

Maybe it ends there, with a nice discussion. Or maybe Peter tapped into a valuable practice he can spread inside his company and a global network that can help him - all with a simple contribution. It can be as easy as this.

Simon Terry, consultant and leader of Change Agents Worldwide, summed up what many of us in the discussion were thinking.