What happened to “Working” in the last 45 years

I vaguely remember when Working came out. It was 1972. I was 8 years old. Calculators were becoming popular, and people were just starting to talk about computers.

The subtitle of the book is “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” It’s based on over 100 interviews with people in a wide range of jobs across the US - from gravedigger to TV executive, and consists almost entirely of the words of those people. (You can also listen to the original audio recordings.)

Despite all of the changes since those interviews over four decades ago years ago, many of the themes remain the same. Perhaps primarily, there was the need to make a difference, a search for meaning.

“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us…have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
“You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. Your job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine. A monkey could do what I do . It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that.”
“A man’s life is his work. You see humanity in a chair. It was made by some man’s hand. There’s artistry in that, and that’s what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.”

Many people expressed the feeling of not being treated or respected as a full human being, 

“That’s the thing you get in any business. They never talk about personal feelings. They let you know that people are of no consequence.”
“They call us professional people but they talk to us as very young, childishly. They check on us all the time.”
“These big corporations are gonna keep on growing and the people become less and less. The human being doesn’t count any more.”

Even back then, there was an awareness of the threat of technology, of dehumanization.

“You won’t know their names…You have a number - mine’s 407. You’re just an instrument.”
“It was almost like a production line. We adjusted to the machine. The last three or four years were horrible. The computer had arrived….I had no free will. I was just part of the stupid computer.”

As a result, many people felt stuck, like they had little control and few options.

“I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out.”

Do these themes sound familiar to you? Our needs for feeling effective and fulfilled - for meaning - aren't new. Helping people fulfill those needs is as important as ever.

“People are messy” (and other lessons from self-managing teams)

A friend once shared some pithy wisdom about humanity that I’ve returned to time and time again. “People,” she said, “are messy.” 

As human beings, we’re wired to want control, and self-determination theory describes much of what motivates us. Yet we’ve also evolved a highly sophisticated sense of hierarchy and social status, spending much of our brain activity on calculating how everyone relates to everyone else.

The tension between these innate drives is particularly evident at work, where we desperately strive to find our place in the very hierarchy we don’t want submit to, and where we need to cooperate and collaborate to get things done. It’s even more acute (and interesting) when it comes to self-managing teams. 

Here are some things I’ve learned from observing such teams trying to spread Working Out Loud in their organizations. 

“Who will lead our self-managing team?”

The spread of WOL Circles in an organization usually begins when someone tries one, tells their friends, and Circles organically multiply. As they spread over a few months, a number of individuals emerge who care about WOL and want to do more. Now what? 

This is a critical juncture. If these early adopters don’t coalesce, the movement grows slowly or fizzles out as the early adopters move on. But sometimes the individuals tentatively come together to discuss their motivations and aspirations. They start to coordinate the next steps, and the first few seeds become the beginning of a grassroots movement.

Critically, leadership comes from contribution, not appointment. The people who care more tend to do more - more organizing, more experimenting, more outreach - and a “co-creation team” forms. It can be fragile, though. Conflicts at this stage, whether due to differences in style or substance, can cause the group (and the movement) to split or disintegrate completely. Somewhat ironically, ego can be the bane of self-management.

“The Grass Ceiling” 

As the WOL movement in an organization starts to grow, other possibilities and challenges emerge. The opportunities to integrate with existing programs and to scale to more locations and divisions may well require resources and the shifting of priorities.

This is another critical juncture. If the co-creation team continues to run without a budget and relies solely on volunteers, the grassroots movement hits some hard limits. Over time, the enthusiasm for the original idea is worn down by the slow pace of change and the bureaucratic resistance of the organization. 

Instead of trying to fight the way things are, successful co-creation teams leverage them. They shift from being a completely independent group to partnering with HR & other transformation managers responsible for existing programs. They seek executive sponsors for political cover and for resources.

The team may still be self-organizing, but they attach themselves to the hierarchy in a way that enables them to make a bigger, more sustainable difference.

A different kind of "secure attachment"

A more subtle example of self-management is a WOL Circle itself. Circles are purposefully designed so anyone can start one without budget or permission. The Circle Guides give people some structure, but how and when to do the work is up to the Circle members. They’re self-managing and often (but not always) self-organizing. 

But how do you get them started? What do you do when a Circle needs help? What if they struggle midway through or someone drops out? 

The varying responses to supporting Circles reminds me of attachment theory in parenting. Some organizations are completely hands-off. Others insist co-creation team members attend some Circle meetings or involve themselves in fixing issues a Circle may be facing.

The results are predictable. Without any help at all, some Circles aren’t as effective as they could be. With too much meddling, the Circle members lose their sense of autonomy and accountability, and start to see their helper as the person responsible for their progress (and issues). The co-creation team suffers too, as they struggle under a growing support burden they created.

The best approach is a kind of secure attachment. Circles are left to manage themselves and do the work on their own, but they know they can reach out to someone for support when they really need it. To facilitate this, some organizations are creating networks of certified experts across the company to ensure Circles can readily find trained help if (and only if) they want and need it.

Some remarkable results

Is this revolutionary? No. But it is remarkable that people can drive change using this kind of hybrid approach, combining self-managed initiatives with institutional support. 

As evidence of this are the results of the HR Excellence awards in Berlin late last week. One of the winning submissions was from a group of eight companies - Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Telekom - who are spreading Working Out Loud. 

The recipients were the self-managing teams who, without budget or permission, introduced and spread a movement inside their respective companies. Even more remarkable, they decided to organize themselves into a cross-company community of practice to share innovations that could help everyone accelerate the growth of those movements. Their companies all celebrated their achievement, and several now have board-level support.

Yes, people are messy. But given enough space to experiment, enough confidence to resist fighting for status, and enough support to keep going, we can make work more effective and fulfilling than it’s ever been.

100 slices of Thanksgiving

Isn’t it strange how a label on a calendar can make a difference? It’s Thanksgiving this Thursday in the US. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been wondering the same thing. When I mentioned it to someone in an email this week, she said she felt the same way.

“Is it me or does NYC feel different on Thanksgiving week? I might be projecting, but it feels like a kinder, more caring place, and I love this time of year.”
“I agree with you about the holiday season in New York.  There is a special feel to the city.”

Yes, we all know that being grateful is good, both for ourselves and the people around us. Yet who has time for that? Thanksgiving is different. There’s something about the simple structure of it, and the synchronization. It’s on the calendar and everyone does it.

But what if we carved up that day a little differently?

1440 divided by 365

A few months ago, my good friend (and founder of Fearless Inventory) mentioned the five-minute journal. “It’s a gratitude journal,” he told me, and he said it was helpful, so I ordered one.

You use it twice a day. In the morning when you wake up, you write down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would would make today great. Before you go to sleep, you write down three things that actually made the day great, and something that might have made the day even better. (That last bit is meant less as a judgment and more as learning for future days.) I found it takes me even less than five minutes to do it.

Given a day is 1440 minutes long, writing in my journal is like a little slice of Thanksgiving every day. The simple structure helped me do things I somehow never had the time or attention to do before. After 100 days, I noticed some changes.

Intentional consequences

When you do something mindfully 100 times in a row, you notice some patterns. I would often write similar things day after day. Gratitude for my family, our health, the chance to do meaningful work. The things that usually made each day great were often about being present for small moments during the day, especially those with my family and people close to me. 

Over and over I would realize that a “better day” would have meant paying more attention to people and less to technology and other distractions, that I would have been calmer and more joyful. An affirmation I’ve written down many times is "To let the gratefulness shine through me."

I also noticed that the moments of reflection actually shaped my days in ways I didn’t expect. In the morning, writing down my intention for what would make the day great would attune my attention, making me more mindful throughout the day of what was truly important. Oh, that’s right! Watching the kids’ swimming lesson is one of the things that was going to make today great. I’ll focus on that instead of taking my book or laptop.

My attention also shifted when it came to gratitude. Instead of just thinking of things I already had, I noticed I was actively looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day. I’d be in the supermarket and think Aren’t I lucky that I can choose from so much abundance? In the doctor’s office I’d be thankful for having access to medical care and health insurance. A cold day would make me appreciate a hot shower and a warm comfortable bed. Later, I’d write those things down in my journal, reinforcing those thoughts and further attuning my attention.

After 100 days, I felt…happier. I realize now that happiness, like being grateful or kind or almost anything you can say about a person, isn’t so much about who you are. It’s about how much you practice.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Every day. 

 

 

 

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German

It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.

Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.

“Shining eyes”

He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way. 

"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
(Laughter)
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”

The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.

“Ode to Joy”

Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.

He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.

“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”

We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING! 

At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.

When the music stops

Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.

“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be. 

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

These people are experiencing the future of work. Now. 

Usually, discussions about the “future of work” focus on how things will change in years to come. We’ll all self-organize more, for example, and work in networks instead of rigid hierarchies. We’ll find and share information on social networks instead of email and one-way intranets. And so on.

Anticipating this, almost every company today has launched one or more large transformation programs, trying to become more agile, more collaborative, and more “digital.”

A few people, though, aren’t waiting for those programs to be implemented. For them, the future of work is now, and I got to see evidence of that last week in Munich and Erlangen. 

Part of the WOL CO-creation team at BMW

A chasm between here and there

Imagine you’re a company with a few hundred thousand people. You’ve been successfully working with a traditional command-and-control structure for over 100 years. Now, top management sees that you have to change. “In a VUCA world,” they’ll say, “we must move more quickly.”

But after the CEO’s speech, everyone will go back to their desk, surrounded by the same people, systems, and processes from the “legacy” way of working. Some will decide to wait and see if this change passes, like so many before it. For many others, their habits will be so deeply rutted that they won’t have the time or attention to change things. Even if they agree there’s a better way, they’ll be stuck.

Taking a step instead of a leap

When people at BMW and Siemens thought Working Out Loud could help their companies change behavior and corporate culture, the prospect of getting management support and changing so many minds and habits seemed daunting. 

So they tried a different approach, and it gave them a taste for how the future of work could actually work - not in some vague or abstract way, but in a way they could apply to other kinds of projects and programs. Here’s a summary:

  • The idea started with a few people and formed a cross-functional team.
  • They didn’t ask for permission or a budget.
  • They tested the idea with small, cheap experiments.
  • Word spread via internal and external social networks. 
  • Social networks helped them build a tribe inside the company - and learn from the outside.
  • They used feedback and social proof to get management support.
  • They opportunistically integrated their work into institutional programs to scale the movement.
  • They keep iterating and adapting, influencing more people, and the movement keeps growing. 

Two companies. Two events. Two milestones.

In Munich and Erlangen, what started as grassroots movements began to morph into something else last week. At a BMW event (tagged #BMWWOLCON on Twitter), a board member endorsed the WOL team's work and their growing movement in front of more than 500 people, giving it new authority and importance.

At the Siemens event, they reached over 200 people, signed up almost half to join the movement, and got four different groups (including HR) to commit “to bring WOL into official initiatives.” Here's a summary from the organizer on LinkedIn:

“Some numbers: Working-Out-Loud, Kick-off at Siemens Healthineers/Siemens, Nov 03
  • 200 participants, incl. folks from US, Brazil, UK and France
  • 20 people listening/ watching to streaming
  • 16 circles formed
  • 20 people directly registered to join a circle after the event 
  • 4 groups out of six formed to bring #WOL into official initiatives
... I am completely overwhelmed and glad. A huge thanks to all that made this self-organized grass-roots event & initiative happen.”

Organizational change that feels good

This is what the future could be like. The WOL movements at BMW and Siemens are examples of how good ideas can come from anywhere. Then they spread using elements of agile, lean, and design thinking: experimenting and getting feedback, learning in ways that are low-cost and low-risk, then leveraging the institution for scale when you discover what works in your environment.

I’ve seen that same approach at Bosch, Daimler, ZF, and other companies. I’ve seen the same passion & persistence when “work” isn’t just a set of instructions from the boss, but is something powered by people across the company who care deeply about a topic. After these events, someone inevitably volunteers "to spread WOL in my area too.” I think they do it not just because they’re fans of the method, but because they’re hungry for a taste of what work could be like. 

You can do it too. Try your own Working Out Loud experiment, create a movement within your company, and experience the future of work for yourself. Now.

Which seeds will you water?

Working in big companies, I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide range of human behavior, and it can be disheartening. Not only the big systemic injustices, like unfair performance management systems or abuses of power, but the personal, day-to-day exchanges between people.

Sometimes it’s the language we use. Where I’ve worked, it was routine to label entire divisions of our own company as “morons” (and much worse). Emails were often so threatening and mean-spirited that merely preparing to look at your inbox would evoke a stress response. 

Sometimes it’s a feeling you get when you walk down the hall or step into an elevator. In one location I visited for lunch, I said thank you to the woman clearing the trays and was told, “People don’t do that here.”

Sometimes, it’s how people from different jobs (titles, divisions, locations) relate to each other in person. I heard an executive tell someone they wouldn’t connect with them on LinkedIn because they were of too low a status, and their more important connections might notice. 

When you see these kinds of behavior, or experience it yourself, what do you do?

I used to get angry and frustrated. I would be quick to identify the villain - the bad boss, the sender of the nasty email - and blame them for my unhappiness at work. But after thirty years of working in corporations, I realized there is a never-ending supply of villains, bad behavior, and potential unhappiness.

Lately, I’m trying to respond differently. I ask myself, “Which seeds will you water?”

It’s a simple metaphor I found in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the question has been helpful in determining where I put my energy.

“In the depth of our consciousness, there are all kinds of positive and negative seeds - seeds of anger, delusion and fear, and seeds of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. Many of these seeds have been transmitted to use by our ancestors. We should learn to recognize every one of these seeds in us in order to practice diligence…The practice is to refrain from watering the negative seeds…and recognizing the best seeds in others and watering them.”

When something negative comes up, I have a choice. I can nurture my anger and indignation. Maybe I even spread the story so I can shame the villain while infecting more people with negative feelings. Or I can recognize that, if I look, I can find many more examples of behavior worth celebrating, I can also choose to lead with my own positive examples, practicing the kind of empathy and generosity I wish to see in the workplace.

This doesn’t mean I have to ignore bad behavior entirely, or never act on it. I just don’t have to strengthen it.

The older I get, the less I think of the workplace as being comprised of good people and bad people. Instead, we’re all just people, each with our own stories and struggles, our own good and bad seeds.

Which seeds will you water?

Your perfect month

The inspiration to do this exercise came from Moyra Mackie, the first person I ever called “coach.” At the time, I was working at Deutsche Bank, struggling to write drafts of Working Out Loud, and feeling like I was paddling in a leaky canoe - lots of activity but not much progress or direction. 

On one of our phone calls, Moyra suggested that I write down what my “perfect month” might look like in a year or two. That timeframe was far enough away to give me the latitude to do different things, yet close enough that I needed to be practical. My perfect month wasn’t just about sitting on a beach in Okinawa, but about a way to earn a living while living a balanced life.

So I took a piece of paper, wrote down the days of the month, and started to imagine what I would do each day. 

The things I began listing I had considered before. Yet something about mapping those ideas to specific days in the month made them seem more real - and made me ask myself more questions. Yes, I would like to travel, write, do research, etc. But how much? One day a month? Five? Ten? I found myself visualizing my days and weeks. I imagined how it would feel - how I would feel.

I could see this was a good visioning exercise, and I enjoyed doing it. (It’s a nice companion to the “Letter from Your Future Self” in Week 7 of a WOL Circle.) Then I put the piece of paper away, and forgot about it. 

That was a few years ago. I happened to find that piece of paper recently and was struck by how much of it describes my last month, and the month before that. Though my “perfect month” wasn’t meant as an exact prescription or prediction, it captured a direction I wanted to take. It enabled me to see an example of what a more balanced, creative, fulfilling portfolio might look like.

That exercise helped me appreciate how articulating your intention can be extremely powerful. It can help you identify what experiments you might do to see if the direction is a good one for you, and who you might build relationships with to discover more. It can help you make that all-important shift from feeling stuck to taking a step.

When you reflect on your own career and life, where are you heading? What’s your perfect month?

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! 

John

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.”