Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live

I was walking through the Frankfurt airport, jet-lagged and rushing to catch a train, when a poster in the terminal caught my eye. I stopped and took a photo. 

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

The tagline made me think of Working Out Loud, and the resistance I sometimes encounter when I suggest people make their work visible. 

“I don’t like to toot my own horn.”

“Why would anyone care what I’m working on?”

“My work should speak for itself.”

“What if they don’t like it?”

“I’m too busy for that.”

“What if I say something stupid?”

“I’m an introvert.”

And so on.

It’s understandable if you feel uncertain or uncomfortable about “being visible.” But you have many options. What you share, how you share it, and with whom you share it are all up to you.

If you do nothing, however, then you have ceded control over your reputation to others. A bad word from the boss or an unhappy client will have more weight than all your many contributions. If you insist on never showing your work, you have given up the chance to be discovered, and have greatly reduced your own odds. Imagine an artist with no portfolio. Or a writer with no articles or books. How would you know what they’re capable of?

Think about your online presence: your profiles, your projects, your ideas, your learning. Are you and your best work easy to find?

Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live.



Sunday Night Syndrome

The symptoms appear gradually. A slight knot in the stomach. A mounting sense of dread, a feeling of irritation, even anxiety, about what’s about to happen. Sunday Night Syndrome affects an alarming number of people, and it’s beginning to feel like an epidemic. 

A telltale sign is when you say, “I wish I didn’t have to go to work on Monday.” 

I suffered from SNS for most of my life. Sometimes the symptoms appeared as early as Sunday morning, even Saturday night, further spoiling the already too-short weekend escape.

Since everyone around me suffered from the same symptoms, I did nothing about it. Week after week after week. 25 years old, 35, 45, 50. I sat there like the proverbial frog placed in a pot of water on the stove, slowly dying inside, never jumping out.

Do you suffer from any signs of Sunday Night Syndrome? Or know someone who does? The only cure I’ve found is tap into a sense of self-determination, a sense that you have some control, that you’re not a victim. 

It doesn’t have to be a big leap. You don’t have to quit or change your entire life with a bold move. I find such remedies too risky anyway, and not terribly effective. Instead, I recommend a small step, an experiment of a kind: block out one hour every Monday to invest in yourself. 

Maybe you use that hour (less than 3% of your week), to work on a new skill or research a topic you’re interested in. Maybe you use the time to shape your reputation, sharing what you’re learning or doing on your intranet or LinkedIn. Maybe you form a WOL Circle and meet on Mondays, taking advantage of the structure, shared accountability, and support to make progress towards a goal you care about.

Don’t be the frog, waiting to be rescued. If you don’t invest in yourself, who will?

Disengaged at work.jpg

“Learning is my shield against irrelevance”

“No one is immune,” he said. “I fear growing rigid in my thoughts and outdated in my ideas.” I was sitting in a packed stadium, listening to the dean of Northeastern University speak at my eldest daughter’s graduation. I started taking notes.

He talked about several students’ projects and start-ups, applying what they learned to address challenges like diabetes in Honduras and supporting small farms in Kenya. “Learning is a lifelong journey,” he reminded the graduates. 

I might have dismissed the speech as just encouraging words for young people, except that I had read very similar words a few months earlier, written by the CEO of a 400,000-person company.

Learning at Work

For most of my career, I invested much more into making my boss happy than into developing my skills. Though I worked in a highly technical field, almost no one around me read books or did research about what we did. We were too busy. Learning was something you did on your own time, something wholly apart from work. The unspoken assumption was that you were supposed to already know what you needed to know.

The words of Bosch’s CEO, Volkmar Denner, were a radical departure from what I was used to hearing. First, he offered some sobering statistics.

“Lifelong learning is essential… But the truth is that people aged 30 to 44 spend just nine minutes a day on average on improving their qualifications. And for people aged 45 to 64, the figure is even lower — only four minutes.”

The dean had said, “The world doesn’t stop changing, and we must continue to discover and learn,” and the Bosch CEO embraced the need for people at all levels of the company (including himself) to continue exploring and learning as an integral part of the work we do.

“It’s more than just a challenge our children have to face…In the digital world, people who have achieved success in their careers cannot afford to rest on their laurels and refuse to learn anything new. The more successful the company, the more alert its executives have to be to change, and the more they have to preserve their curiosity.

[It is] important to see working and learning as a whole, and to combine the two. This can only work if further training is no longer seen as something that is merely “nice to have” — a seminar every so often, then back to routine. We want further training to be an integral part of company strategy. It is this that is giving rise to new forms for self-organized learning [such as] “Working Out Loud.”

What’s it for?

The Bosch CEO saw learning as good for the individual (“a way of advancing our personal careers”) as well as for the company. The dean saw it as imperative for the planet.

“Inequality, injustice, and intolerance cast long shadows….Use your gifts to eliminate the dark. You are torch bearers in an age that longs for light.”

What about you? Whether you need your own “shield against irrelevance,” are looking for ways to advance your career, or want to contribute to a better world, standing still is not an option. 

What are you learning? Why?

Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University


How to get better at remembering names

Daria looked at me as if I just pulled a rabbit out of a hat or a coin from behind her ear. “How did you do that?!”  It was no trick, however. All I did was remember her name. But to her it was remarkable.

We were in Germany at a conference, and though we had never met before, her face was familiar. Then, in a flash of recognition, I exclaimed, “I know you!” and mentioned her last name that I remembered from Twitter. It was a bit unusual, so I spelled it out too, to make sure I got it right. 

That moment reminded me how, for most of my life, I told myself, “I’m no good at remembering names.” I figured that, like my bad eyesight or bald head, my poor nominative recall was a genetically-dictated trait.

But then I changed.

A little bit of magic? - Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

A little bit of magic? - Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

You are not good at remembering names…yet!

What opened my mind to change even being a possibility was a book called Moonwalking with Einstein. The author, Joshua Foer, is a journalist who became interested memory tournaments, where people compete for prizes based on remembering an extraordinary number of digits or the exact sequence of a randomly shuffled deck of cards. 

Some of the feats seem impossible, until Foer learns a few techniques and begins practicing. He ultimately decides to participate in the USA Memory Championship and (spoiler alert) … wins. Aha! I realized: my memory can be trained.

The Best Tip for Remembering Names

There’s a lot of good advice available for remembering names. The best tip for remembering them is the same tip as for holding a good conversation: pay attention

The biggest problem that most people have, including me, is that in the moment when you meet someone (in person or, as with Daria, online), you are paying attention to so many other things - what you might say, what they might be think of you - that you never really process their name in the first place. 

Dale Carnegie said, “A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Eighty years later, the Washington Post’s business section cited that quote, and explained why it’s so important to use people’s names. 

“A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person.

It is the one way we can easily get someone’s attention. It is a sign of courtesy and a way of recognizing them. When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important. It makes a positive and lasting impression on us. To not remember a name, especially when someone has had to repeat it several times, is to make that person feel slighted.”

How to Pay Attention

When I meet someone now, I make it a habit to ask their name, and repeat it. If I haven’t heard properly, or I’m not sure how to pronounce it, I may ask them to spell it. For names that are foreign to me, I may ask if it has a certain meaning. Recently, a woman named Chungfeng explained her name meant “Spring breeze” and that people often call her Breeze. How could I ever forget that, or her?

After the initial contact, I’ll pay further attention by using their name whenever I can. Whether it’s in email and social media or in person, instead of “Thanks!” or “Hello!” I’ll say, “Thank you, Sabine” or “Hello, Martin.” It’s such a small thing, and yet that simple act helps me remember their name and further personalizes my communications. 

It’s not fake or a trick. I practice remembering names not to be clever or to get something from the other person. Rather, I view it as a form of respect, a way to say “I see you and care enough to pay attention.” That’s a good basis for any relationship. 


The Coffee Test

Imagine this: You notice a former colleague updated their profile on LinkedIn with a new description, “Looking for a new opportunity.” You haven’t heard from them for a few years, and think back to when you worked together. You remember you got along well, but somehow never managed to keep in touch after you left the company.

The next day, you receive a message.

“Hi! 

It’s been a long time! I hope you’re well.

I would love to meet for a coffee to catch up. I’m ready for a new role, and hoped I could pick your brain.

Would you have any time next week?”

Take a moment and imagine yourself reading this. Which one of the emotions and statements below is the closest match to what you might feel and think?

  1. Happy. I’m glad they contacted me. I’m looking forward to re-connecting.

  2. Mildly positive. It’s good to help out someone in need.

  3. Mildly irritated. Why do people wait till they need something to reach out? 

  4. Angry. So fake! They obviously don’t care about me. They just want something.

Photo by  Danijela Froki  on  Unsplash

What did you choose? 

When I find myself in this situation, I usually experience a combination of emotions and thoughts. I may be pleased that they remembered me, but because their message appears obviously inauthentic, it triggers a negative reaction, even aversion. On top of this, I’m now burdened with responding.

Of course, it’s easy for me to judge the other person and what they wrote. With a bit more reflection and empathy, I can appreciate that they may be in a difficult situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

The problem, though, isn’t with the words they used in their message. It’s what they failed to do before they sent it.

Earning someone’s attention

Primates and many other mammals have evolved highly sophisticated forms of cooperation and collaboration based on giving and receiving, and humans have the most complex systems of all. Our exchanges of attention, appreciation, tangible items, vulnerability, assistance, and more all serve to build a sense of trust and relatedness over time. 

It’s that sense, that development of a social bond, that makes future exchanges easier. Indeed, it fundamentally changes how you feel and think about such exchanges. When there is a lack of exchange over time, as in the Coffee Test, the social bond erodes, and a request for assistance that you might have welcomed earlier is now seen as an unwelcome intrusion.

What do you do?

As easy as it is for me to recognize this mistake in others, I repeat it myself over and over again. When a close colleague left my company, for example, or changed locations, I typically failed to make the required adjustments to maintain the social bond. Even something as simple as the occasional “I’m thinking of you” or “How are you doing?” seemed beyond me. And so, like a door slowly closing, I would be gradually shut off from a human connection I valued as well as all that such a connection makes possible.

This pattern is so common that you can call it “human nature.” Yet we need not be victims of our nature. For human beings have also evolved an incredible ability to learn and adapt, to change our nature by changing our habits. 

Let every cup of coffee be a reminder: Don’t wait until it’s too late. Investing in your social bonds is a habit you can develop, not for some expected return from any given individual, but because it helps you feel good in the present while it enables a richer future, one with more connections and possibilities.


Exhaling on the scale

The first time I noticed it, I smiled and thought, What a strange thing to do. Then I noticed it again the next day, and realized it was an unconscious habit. Every morning, before stepping on the scale, I breath out deeply, as if that will make a difference in the results. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I think I figured out why I do it: it gives me the perception of control without having to do the more challenging work required to affect the outcome. It’s as if I’m telling myself, “Well, I haven’t exercised for the last few days, and I ate and drank too much last night…but I can do this!” Then I slowly blow out a gust of air. Whoooooooosh.

It would be funny except that I do something similar when it comes to work. 

Like many people, I have a fuzzy notion of the important things I’d like to accomplish. Yet there’s usually enough uncertainty or doubt surrounding those things, or they may seem too big, that they trigger anxiety and resistance. To deal with that, I would find myself filling my day with small tasks and activities, chipping away at an infinite todo list. I would feel busy, but all I really accomplished was avoiding the difficult work required to do something meaningful. 

So lately I’m trying something new. Every Monday I have a short call with a friend, and we each share the top three things we need to do during the upcoming week to make progress towards our big goals. We don’t talk about everything we might do or could do. We just list three specific things we will do, work that will move us in the right direction.

On the next call, we’ll talk about what happened in the past week, discuss adjustments we might make, and share our goals for the following week. There’s no judgment or competition. Just learning and encouragement to focus and to keep going. The mutual accountability helps us maintain both motivation and momentum.

A nice phrase to describe what we’re sharing is our “essential intent,” a phrase from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The phrase is usually applied to longer timeframes, but I’ve found it useful as a way to describe nearer-term goals, too. What is the essential thing you intend to do this week/month/year/life? Think of it as a way to distill the truly important from the sea of possible activities, and to state it in a way that’s both actionable and measurable.

Reflect for a moment on your own big goals for your work and life. Do you know your essential intent for this month or this week? For tomorrow? Are you doing work what matters, or are you exhaling on the scale? 


New: Version 5 of the WOL Circle Guides

She said it in such a serious, deadpan way that I knew she wasn’t kidding. “Please,” she told me, “don’t change the guides.”

That was Katharina Krentz from Bosch. She had created materials related to each of the 12 weeks, and changes would mean a lot of extra work. The translations, now in eight other languages, would also have to change. Besides, she pointed out, with more than 500 Circles at Bosch and over 5000 members in their internal WOL Group, there was no need to change anything.

“Yes, and…,” I thought. Since the last update, there have been so many useful resources I’ve wanted to add. And the new, professionally-designed materials - videos, a journal, and soon a workbook - made the old version of the Guides look like, well, like I designed them myself. 

So I tried to modify the material in a way that won’t cause undo work for people already using them, and yet will still be a significant improvement. The result is version 5 of the WOL Circle Guides.

What’s new?

The biggest change is that I added a new section to the website: workingoutloud.com/resources. I removed the lists of links in the PDFs, and created a webpage for each week that includes a wider range of resources - media, examples, more exercises, more FAQs. This is much more flexible, and makes it possible for me to regularly add new resources that the WOL community finds useful. (I especially enjoyed creating a new photo gallery in Week 12.)

The guides have also been professionally redesigned, using a new style and layout that matches the journal and the other materials I’m working on. I find the new design much cleaner and easier to read. 

The final change is to the licensing language that was on each section of the guides. Older versions used a restrictive Creative Commons license that confused some people, especially the "non-commercial" part. That has been replaced with standard copyright language that’s more precise about what companies can and can’t do. To me, it doesn't change what organizations have already been doing. My intention is just to make it clearer.

What’s next?

Today, I published the English version of the new Guides, and German will be available soon. (I’ll be sure to create German versions of the Resources pages too.) Then I’ll apply the new design to all the translations.

With the maturity of the Circle Guides comes the chance to develop new products and new practices. Here are a few I’m working on:

  • The WOL Circle Video Series & companion journal are being used in company pilots now. They’re part of a new WOL Library that includes assets that make Circles more effective and help companies spread them. (The new “What is Working Out Loud?” video will give you a feel for what the videos look like. It’s also subtitled in German and Turkish, with more languages coming soon.)

  • A beautiful new workbook is under development, and will be for sale via the website. It will be a hardcover book that includes the guides, extra content, and the chance to do the exercises and capture your progress in one place. 

  • The WOL: Self-Care pilot is coming to an end. I’m grateful to the 100 people who participated, and will incorporate what we learned into a next version of the WOL:SC guides that I’ll publish in May. 

  • WOL: Purpose, another new practice, and experiments in healthcare and manufacturing are all just beginning. I’m extremely excited about each of them.

The only reason any of this work is possible is because of you and the WOL Community. I’m grateful to all of you who’ve tried a Circle and those who’ve generously spread the word.

I hope you like the new Guides. If you’re in the middle of a Circle, you can begin using them right away. If you have a resource you think should be included in the new section on the website, please send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. I’ll be glad to hear from you.

Clink on the image to see the new Getting Started section

Clink on the image to see the new Getting Started section

A letter from my future self

I’ve been meaning to write a new letter for years now, but something inside me resisted it. Perhaps I’ve been afraid of what’s ahead, or afraid that writing down what success will look like is presumptuous, something not yet earned. 

Recently, however, someone posted that this letter exercise in Week 7 was hard for them, and that gave me the nudge I needed. I thought, If I can’t do it, how can I ask others to try? So here it is. To help me write my letter, I put the timeframe further out than usual. That made it safer for me somehow.

The instructions say to write this letter for yourself, not to impress someone else. That’s what I tried to do. I share it here to offer another public example of what such a letter might look like, and also to serve as a visible reminder of what I aspire to accomplish.

April 24, 2034

Dear John,

Well, here we are: 2034. It’s a number I thought I’d only see in Science Fiction stories. (I still remember when Orwell’s 1984 was a distant future.) Now I’m 70 years old. More precisely, we are 70. Congratulations to both of us for making it this far.

A lot has happened, some of which you hoped for, and some which you didn’t dare to dream about at the time. Brace yourself, though. It wasn’t easy.

Our family is doing well. The kids are great. As you grew to be more comfortable in your own skin, that made it easier for others to be comfortable with and around you. It took much longer than we both might have hoped, but you made steady progress. The yoga and meditation helped. The move to Japan helped a lot, too. Life is simpler here. You became clearer about what’s important and why.

I remember how fragile you were when you started on your own. You were so worried all the time, about making a living, about being a good provider, about your status after having lost your job. If it wasn’t for your wife’s strength, support, and love, you never would have made it through this period. Be good to her.

The funny part is that things picked up when you stopped trying so hard to make it all work. When you focused on the contribution instead - on making things other people found genuinely helpful and useful - all of the other things you wanted flowed from that. 

To be sure, there were blow-ups. Some were near fatal to your business and movement. But then someone would send you a note, saying that you made a difference, and that was enough for you to keep going. The kindness of your WOL community was a source of strength. Never underestimate how important they are. 

A key turning point was around 2019 or 2020. Back then, you were like a little boy on a diving board, looking down, uncertain whether to make the leap or climb back down to earth. Some big companies were Working Out Loud, but you were cautious, always unsure or afraid of whether the little success you had would last. 

Then you leapt. You started to work with people in factories, hospitals, and schools, looking to help people who need it most. You expanded WOL to include practicing self-compassion, and enabling people to make the work they do more purposeful.

In the last fifteen years, you reached a million people. That’s a big number In ways large and small, you changed how they related to themselves, to others, and to they work they do. You can let yourself be proud of that.

If I have any advice for you, it’s this: Think ten times bigger. A hundred times bigger. Worry less about making mistakes, or about “who am I to attempt such a thing?” Dare to make a difference. Not for yourself or for your business, but for other people. The world could still use it, maybe now more than ever.

With love and respect.

Your Future Self

Screen Shot 2019-03-05 at 3.44.53 PM.png

Perfect just the way you are. And...

That’s the thing about Zen masters. You never really know when they’re joking.

Shunryu Suzuki is best known for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and one of the most influential Zen organizations in the US. In the late 1960s, he was giving a lecture on “non-gaining mind” in which he was emphasizing practice for its own sake, as opposed to some benefit in the future. The striving and clinging to expectations not only distorted your practice but could also leave you miserable. 

“You become very idealistic with some notion or ideal set up by yourself and you strive for attaining or fulfilling that notion or goal. But as I always say this is very absurd because when you become idealistic in your practice you have gaining idea within yourself, so by the time you attain some stage your gaining idea will create another ideal…Because your attainment is always ahead of you, you are always sacrificing yourself for some ideal. So this is very absurd. “

A student asked Suzuki to clarify what he meant, so he simplified it.

“You are perfect just the way you are. And there’s room for improvement!”

Although I’m not sure if Suzuki was kidding, something clicked for me when I read that. I had always thought that being content with the way things are would be a sign of laziness, something not to be tolerated. My way to motivate myself has been to keep focusing on the improvement, the thing to be fixed or made better.

But as I get older, I see it only leads to a life of never-good-enough. You race towards a finish line that doesn’t exist, unable to complete the simple declaration: “I will be happy when…”

What if you could tap into all the benefits of getting better without the stress and drama? What if you accepted yourself exactly as you are - and others exactly as they are - and still remained open and curious about further development?

An example of kintsugi, or making art from damaged pottery - Photo credit: June’s Child

New video: “What is Working Out Loud?"

It’s less than four minutes long, and is part of four hours of video content in a WOL library I’m piloting with several companies. There are subtitles in German, with more languages coming soon. 

When I shared it in the WOL groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, the reactions were exactly what I was hoping for. 

“Already added it to our ESN WOL Group”

“Sharing it next week in our WOL community”

“This video will help us to make the WOL movement even stronger!”

I hope you find it useful.

Answers to "What's WOL?" "How does a Circle work?" “What’s in it for me & for the company?”