What would make next year great?

Looking back, my career was a series of accidents, not intentions. All the major shifts were reactions to something someone else did, or opportunities that just popped up. I wasn’t purposeful or self-directed. Things just…happened. You could say that rather than me living my life, life lived me.

I’ve been working on changing that. Part of my approach involves keeping a journal in which, every day, I write down my answer to this simple question: 

What would make today great?

Those few minutes of thinking and writing in the morning help me focus my attention on what matters at different points throughout the day, and that helps me to make better, more mindful, choices. The days when I do what I intend to do are all extremely satisfying. 

A friend and I both use the same journal, and when we met for dinner in Stuttgart this month, I thought I would ask him a different question:

What would make next year great?

It led to an intimate discussion about what we each feel is important - relationships we want to deepen, experiences we want to have, meaningful work we want to do. Then we talked about steps we might take to make those things happen. It felt strange for me to chart such a course, but also exhilarating. It felt like I was trying, perhaps for the first time, to be “the author of my own life.” 

What about you? Are you living intentionally, or accidentally? 

What would make next year great?

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Note: Thank you for reading these posts, and for all the wonderful messages in email and on social media. This is my last blog post in 2018. I wish you all much joy and wonder, next year and beyond.

If you want to be the author of your own life

The first time I saw the phrase, I thought it was beautiful: “Be the author of your own life.” It seemed so appealing and uplifting, like “Be the CEO of your own career” or “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The prospect of self-determination inherent in the phrase, the power to actively craft your own future, seemed to offer both hope and inspiration.

But the more I reflected on it, the more it seemed like a cruel hoax.

After all, what prepares you to be the author of your own life? Is it the HR survey that tells you what your strengths are? The personality profile that describes your color or element and suggests jobs that are right for you?

Of course that’s not enough. You can’t be an author unless you actually write. And read. A lot. You need to do it every day, day after day, until you develop the skills, habits, and mindset of a writer. It’s your deliberate practice over time - experiments, feedback, connections - that enable you to develop the grit and heart and craft you need to make something great..

The same goes for an intentional life. You must explore, attempt, fail, learn, and adapt over and over and over again. Only through an endless series of small steps will you develop a sense of what feels right for you, broaden your understanding of what’s possible, and expand the perimeter of your potential. 

Crafting a life is not something you say or wish. It’s something you work on every day. Start now.

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Six degrees of co-creation

By now, most people are familiar with six degrees of separation, the idea that you are linked to every individual on the planet by a surprisingly small chain of relationships. In an increasingly connected world, it means that information and behaviors can spread quickly via social networks.

You would think this would be especially powerful at work, where a smaller population also shares some sense of identity and values. But the opposite seems to be true. Inside companies, there is typically friction and resistance that limits the number of connections and information flow.

Why? And what can we do about it?

Co-creation

Companies have long recognized this problem, and have exhorted employees to collaborate more and break down silos. But the organization chart naturally creates Us and Them in the company, and all the territorial defensiveness that goes with it. Like Hercule’s Hydra, the oft-lamented silos form and re-form no matter how many attempts are made to reorganize and get rid of them.

“Co-creation" is a fairly recent phenomenon. It purposefully “brings different parties together (for instance, a company and a group of customers), in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome.” As part of the quality movement, for example, manufacturers worked closely with suppliers to identify and fix issues.

Originally, the concept of co-creation was limited to formal arrangements between companies and customers, and later on became common between different companies, divisions, and teams. But it can go far beyond that.

Six degrees of co-creation

Today, co-creation is even easier. Instead of the starting point being an agreement between two organizations, co-creation can begin with contributions from anyone, anywhere, and rely on social networks to deliver relevant information to the people who need it or might find it useful.  

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson described this as the basis for most innovations:

“Innovative environments expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts…If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

Co-creation, writ large, thus requires an increase in both the supply and demand of knowledge. More people need to make their work visible - what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re learning - and more people need to be curious enough to search for, use, and build on the work of others. It’s the opposite of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Instead, everyone contributes, and innovations emerge from networks that form across traditional boundaries.

Good for your organization. Good for you.

Perhaps it’s easy to see why an organization would want such an environment. It would lead to greater innovation as Johnson describes, to reducing the duplication of effort and errors, and to greater agility and resilience in the face of change. That’s why so many companies are investing in culture change programs, in new social intranets, in events to inspire and encourage employees to work and think differently. Although their progress is slow, they are serious in their attempts to improve how people work together. 

But what’s in it for you as an individual? Why on earth would you share your hard-earned knowledge without knowing what you might get in return?

The answer, in short, is that it makes your world bigger. Each contribution you make is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with possibilities you would never know about otherwise. You are only a few degrees away from other people, knowledge, and resources that can help you realize more of your personal potential. But you’ll only realize that potential if you work in a more open, connected way.

Co-creation needn’t be a formal program, or something that requires permission from the boss. It’s a choice, a way of working you can start practicing today. What are you waiting for?

***

Note: This post is adapted from an article I wrote for a company’s internal employee magazine earlier this year.

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Celebrating 5 WOL Coaches

Back in February, in a post about how WOL could scale, I announced the first people I was working with in a formal way to deliver talks, workshops, and other training related to Working Out Loud. It was an experiment at the time, but it has worked so well that it’s now grown into something much more.

The new site for Certified WOL Coaches refers to them as “A global network of highly-skilled facilitators.” The five people listed have all contributed to the WOL Community for years. I work closely with each of them, and am inspired both by what they do and how they do it.

Sabine Kluge

Alexander Kluge

Katharina Krentz

Barbara Schmidt

Mara Tolja

I want to thank Sabine, Alexander, Katharina, Barbara, and Mara for their trust, and for the many ways they have made Working Out Loud better. In the future there will be other coaches in other places, and it will be hard to match the experience and commitment of these five people. 

A recipe for changing your corporate culture

This isn’t the only recipe, of course, nor is it a guarantee. Perhaps a more accurate description would be “a list of ingredients you need to have a chance of making a difference.”

To begin, it’s easier to start with three things that don’t work.

Rebels. As much as I admire people who break the rules for good reasons, their actions tend to be futile when it come to changing a company. The rocks they throw at the corporate machine tend not to make much of a dent, and eventually the rebels becomes disheartened and move on.

Grassroots movements. I want to believe that change at work can be democratic. Yet grassroots movements inevitably hit a kind of “grass ceiling.” Despite their good intentions and good will, there are limits to what they can do without changing structures and processes.

Change from the top. If it’s difficult to order your children to change behavior, it’s impossible to order thousands of adults. Yes, managers do have significant influence, and they certainly have authority to allocate resources and make certain decisions. But they cannot decide on a culture, a mindset, or the behaviors that employees will adopt.

Sustainable change isn’t just driven from the top or by rebels or grassroots efforts. It requires a bit of all three. An example that makes me optimistic about this recipe is something that’s happening at Bosch and Daimler..

Back in 2015, it was a “rebel” at Bosch who introduced Working Out Loud there. Her skill, passion, and perseverance enabled her to build a grassroots movement of several hundred people. She then inspired a rebel at Daimler to do something similar, and they continued to collaborate informally.

As the movements expanded, there were now many people - not just rebels - making their work visible and actively growing their influence. They self-organized, and purposefully and opportunistically reached out to different divisions to find places where they could integrate WOL into existing programs. Over time, WOL found its way into the Corporate Academy, the on-boarding program, mentor programs, and more.

Their latest milestone was this past October 31st, when Bosch and Daimler teamed up to jointly sponsor WOLCON18 for 400 of their employees. In attendance were two board members, the head of industrial relations (including HR) at Bosch, and the Chairman of the General Works Council at Daimler. Though they’re typically on opposite sides of the negotiating table, a photo below shows them together supporting the grassroots movements to become something much bigger (and even wearing WOL hoodies with their company’s logos on them). Daimler issued a press release about it.

"Working Out Loud proves that the digital transformation does not need to instill fear and worry. It comes down to how it is designed. If you make your work visible, you also learn what it is worth. And if you network, you find additional possibilities of belonging and recognition. 

If 100 percent of all users of a new method have more fun doing their job, the method is right and makes work more humane. And as the works council, we can only support this.”

The movements now include thousands of people. What was formerly rebellious has been embraced and institutionalized. What would have been unthinkable less than a year ago is now normal, and new possibilities keep emerging.

Whatever change you’re hoping to bring about, the point is that the recipe for change really can start with you - and also that it must go beyond you. You have to connect the people who believe what you believe so you can amplify the benefits and make them visible. That’s what makes it possible to gain the management support you’ll need to scale your efforts, and to make the difference you want to make.

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 BOARD MEMBERS FROM BOSCH & DAIMLER (HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS & CHAIRMAN OF THE GENERAL WORKS COUNCIL)

BOARD MEMBERS FROM BOSCH & DAIMLER (HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS & CHAIRMAN OF THE GENERAL WORKS COUNCIL)

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The Gratitude Letter

Martin Seligman is a professor, author, and one of the founders of positive psychology. Stumped for an assignment during one of his courses, he asked students for ideas. Someone suggested “Gratitude Night.” 

The proposal was that members of the class would “bring a guest who had been important in their lives, but whom they had never properly thanked.” The guests wouldn’t know the exact purpose of the event. Students would prepare a testimonial ahead of time, and read it aloud to the guest during class. Seligman related what happened next in his book, Authentic Happiness.

“And so it was that one month later, on a Friday evening, with some cheese and a wine, the class assembled along with seven guests - three mothers, two close friends, one roommate, and one younger sister - from around the country.”

Students talked about things their guests did that shaped their lives, about the qualities that inspired them, about the affection and admiration they felt. Reading the letters tapped into deep emotions for everyone present. 

“There was literally not a dry eye in the room. The givers, receivers, and observers all cried. When I started to cry, I didn’t even know why I was crying.” 

In course evaluations at the end of the semester, a typical comment was, “it was one of the greatest nights of my life.” 

Now it’s your turn. But instead of “Gratitude Night” and an in-person event, I suggest you do something simpler, something you can do now: write a “Gratitude Letter.”

  1. First, pick someone “who has made a major positive difference in your life, and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks.” It could be someone living or deceased. It could be a family member, friend, or anyone who you are grateful to have had in your life.

  2. Write your letter. Take your time, and savor it. Reflect on special moments and qualities that made a difference for you. Relive the feelings you felt. In your letter, address the person directly - you’re writing to them, not about them.

  3. Finally, deliver your letter in some way. You could choose to read it in person like Seligman’s students, or deliver it via mail. If the person is no longer alive, you might store the letter in a special place, perhaps where there’s a memorial or photo.

I already have several people in mind - my mother, my sister, a teacher who influenced me. The more I think about it, the more letters I want to write. To help me actually do it, I included the Gratitude Letter as an exercise in the second month of the WOL-SC experiment that’s underway now.

Take a moment now to think about your own letter. Who has made a difference in your life? Who will you thank?

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Change your life in 5 minutes a day

I try to avoid sensational titles, and I don’t mean for this week to be an exception. “Change your life in 5 minutes a day” is based on my own experience. Sometimes, it only takes me three minutes.

Ancient wisdom

I’m referring to keeping a gratitude journal. Each morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is to reflect on what made yesterday a great day, and what three things would make today great. It’s so simple it verges on trivial, and yet so useful I never miss a day. I’ve been writing in it for over a year now. I even take it with me when I travel, just for those few minutes each day. 

Ever since the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s - "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels” - there has been a wealth of research on the benefits of varying gratitude practices. (You can find popular summaries here and here.) It’s not a new idea, though. Practicing gratitude falls into the category of “ancient wisdom,” and has long been advocated by a wide array of sources.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” - Meister Eckhart

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself." - Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.’ - Plato

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. - Marcus Tullius Cicero

In The Book of Joy, practicing gratitude is listed as one of “the 8 pillars of joy” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In The How of Happiness, it’s one of 12 practices advocated by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky.

My own results

By the time I saw an ad for The Five-Minute Journal, I was convinced and ready to start, though it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I would forget to write in it, or find myself saying the same things a few days in a row. Then I put the journal in a place where I knew I would see it when I woke up, and writing in it gradually became something I looked forward to doing. It became a habit.

Over time, I became aware of certain patterns. The things that appeared on the list most often were particular people in my life, and the time I could spend with them. Searching for new things to write, I became more aware of just how many precious basics - good health, food, and shelter to name a few - I had taken for granted. The act of listing what I was grateful for day after day helped to shift my perspective from overly-negative to something more balanced, and that made me happier.

Writing down my intentions - What will make today great? - had a somewhat different effect. It helped me to focus my attention on what mattered at different points throughout the day, and that helped me to make better, more mindful, choices. When I reflected on a prior day, I noticed how doing what I intended always provided a sense of fulfillment or completeness. Instead of being buffeted about by things out of my control, I found I could “live intentionally,” and it proved to be extremely satisfying. 

I’ve found this simple practice so helpful that I included it as one of the five self-care practices in WOL-SC.

Getting started

You don’t need The Five-Minute Journal in particular to practice gratitude. Some of my German friends use Das 6-Minuten Tagebuch. (Though I do wonder why they need an extra minute.) A blank book will do, or even placing notes in a jar. 

You might also try DayCatcher, a more visual and creative way to practice gratitude which I started using just last week. At the end of a day, you choose a photo that captures one special moment from that day, and add a short note or caption. Doing this has already attuned my attention to look for my “catch” each day. It helps me to savor the best moments and be thankful for them right before I go to sleep. At the end of the year I can use it to create a beautiful album of memories.

Your mother or grandmother probably told you to “count your blessings.” And now science has caught up with her, explaining why the advice she gave was so good.

But do you put that advice into practice? Why not start today?

workingoutloud.com now in German

It’s fitting that I’m writing this on a train from Bonn to Stuttgart. I’m heading to #WOLCON18, a joint event organized by Bosch and Daimler for 400 of their employees.

It’s a good time to announce the newly bi-lingual version of workingoutloud.com. You can now toggle between German and English by using the new language switcher in the upper right-hand corner, and it should work on your phone as well. (There are still a few pages being translated, and more content I intend to add.)

I’m often asked, “Why is WOL big in Germany?” I usually respond that there’s nothing particularly German about the method. It’s just that Bosch, based in Stuttgart, was the first company to embrace it. That was three years ago, and they ignited a trend in their home country. Since then, they spread it to employees in over 45 countries, and WOL is now in a wide range of organizations around the world, from corporations and non-profits to schools and governmental groups.

Almost from the beginning, local communities sprang up where people would share their experiences with WOL or look for Circle members. (These are in addition to the WOL groups I created on Facebook and LinkedIn.) There’s a Yammer group in German, and a @WOL_de Twitter account. There was also an early attempt at a German website that proved difficult to maintain, and having up-to-date information was my main reason for finally making workingoutloud.com bi-lingual.  

For sure, these groups help raise awareness and create a sense of connection for German speakers, and I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful to Claudia Kaspereit for her translation work on the website, and to the Bosch team for the first-ever WOL translation of the Circle Guides a few years ago. 

Having the website available in another language is just a small, long-overdue step. But each time WOL content is translated into other languages - the Circle Guides, journals, book, subtitles on videos - we are able to reach more people. That makes each step worth it.


“Back in the game”

I almost passed over it because it was in Italian. But I clicked on the translation button, and even the mechanically generated prose was beautiful.

Marcello had participated in a Working Out Loud Circle in Bologna, organized by the same group that produced the Italian translation of the Circle Guides. He had put together a short video describing what the experience meant for him, and someone shared an excerpted quote of his.

“…an opportunity to put me back in the game, rediscover some skills that I had inside me, reconnect relationships, reactivate myself with a new enthusiasm to realize projects I care about…”

We could all use that kind of “reactivation” sometimes. Maybe your company is re-organizing again. Or you took time off for parental leave. Or you need to find a new job. These can be challenging times. Your confidence and even your sense of identity can be impacted.

Your inclination might be to withdraw, to wait for something better to turn up. But a better approach can be to do the opposite. To purposefully connect with people and create your own web of support and encouragement. Your network can be a lifeboat in a sea of change, helping you explore opportunities you would never reach otherwise. It can be a source of confidence, emotional support, and friendship. 

Marcello found all of that in his WOL Circle. It’s not the only way, of course. But small steps in a safe, confidential space can often be just what you need in times of change. Your Circle members, even when they’re complete strangers, can show you things about yourself you’ve stopped seeing or believing. They can also show you possibilities you haven’t considered. Week after week, as your network grows, so do you.

If you want more out of work and life, waiting on the sidelines is no place for you to be.

INTERVISTA A MARCELLO FINI BIBLIOTECARIO ARCHIGINNASIO BO

“The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”

What if, instead of constantly trying to fight against some of our cognitive and behavioral weaknesses, we could use them to our advantage?

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Hidden persuaders

The title of this post is taken from the last line of Mindless Eating, by food researcher Brian Wansink. In the book, he writes that we make over 200 food decisions each day, and that we aren’t aware of most of them. The result is that what we eat and how much we eat are determined by an astounding array of “hidden persuaders.” Here are a few of them:

  • size of the plate or container

  • shape of the glass

  • distance to the food/convenience of accessing it

  • variety of food

  • number of people you’re eating with

  • distractions present (tv, radio, phone, reading, etc.)

  • labels/descriptions of the food

  • presentation of the food

The most famous example might be the popcorn study. Wansink gave people a free bucket of popcorn at a movie theater. Some had a medium bucket and some had a large bucket, though each was big enough that no one could finish all of it. Importantly, all of the popcorn was stale, having sat in sterile conditions for five days. Despite patrons saying, “It was like eating Styrofoam peanuts,” people with large buckets ate 53% more - an average of 21 more handfuls (or 173 extra calories). 

Study after study show the impact of hidden persuaders. If you eat with one person you’ll eat 35% more, and up to 96% more when you eat with a group of seven. If you’re given a half-pound bag of M&Ms you’ll eat an average of 71, but you’ll eat 137 (or 264 more calories) from a one-pound bag. Even experienced bartenders mistakenly pour 37% more alcohol into short, wide glasses than into tall, skinny ones.

How to avoid a lifetime of suffering

If you’re like me, you may believe you’re not fooled by such things, that you’re in control of your own choices. Alas, two decades of Wansink’s research shows that everyone thinks this way.

“We all think we’re too smart to be tricked by packages, lighting, or plates. We might acknowledge that others could be tricked, but not us. That is what makes mindless eating so dangerous. We are almost never aware that it is happening to us.”

Instead of fighting with yourself to become more disciplined, Wansink suggests you adopt simple “reengineering strategies” that make it easier for you to choose what you believe is in your own best interests. Want to eat more vegetables? Serve them family style or on larger plates. Want to drink a bit less wine? Serve it in taller, thinner glasses and keep the empties on the table.

“As all of our research suggests, we can eat about 20 percent more or 20 percent less without really being aware of it. You can eat too much without knowing, and you can also eat less without knowing it. The goal is to make small changes in our environment so it works with us rather than against us.”

Beyond popcorn

Reading Mindless Eating has already inspired me to change my environment when it comes to food. But the core idea applies to all sorts of things - from how much we use our phones to what kinds of media we consume.

Yes, our innate human tendency for doing things in a mindless, habitual way can lead to unhealthy choices - choices that may well be driven by external influences and the interests of others. But a short period of making mindful adjustments to your environment can help you create a kind of “positive mindlessness,” one that leads to choices that serve you well.

The next time you overindulge on popcorn or social media, don’t waste time berating yourself. Think instead of how the things around you may have led to that behavior. Choose to control your environment rather than have it control you.