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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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?

“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.

Confessions of a public speaker

The universe, it seems to me, is a teacher with a perverse sense of humor. The latest evidence I have of this is my most recent presentation in Germany.

The day started off well enough. I rehearsed my talk, had a fine breakfast, and caught my taxi on time. I remember smiling to myself at my good planning. 

The first hint of trouble was when the driver asked, “North or South?” I had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained that it was a big conference center and there were multiple entrances. Since we were ensnared in traffic, and I could see signs for the North Entrance, I told him I would get out there.

The instant I stepped onto the curb, I knew I’d made a mistake. There were no signs for the event, no crowds. I walked the hundred yards or so to the door and asked a lone attendant for help. “Ah, that’s the South entrance,” she said cheerfully, and told me how to get there. “Just five minutes,” she assured me.

I started walking, looking up at the bright blue sky, squinting at the sun. It was starting to get hot. Then I looked down and noticed a white splat on my shoe. How did a bird do that? I wondered. On closer inspection, though, it wasn’t a bird’s doing. It was fresh paint. And it wasn’t just on my shoe.

There’s paint on the bottom of my pant leg, on the back of my other shoe, and on my other pant leg. I consider going back to the hotel and changing but I’m afraid it’ll take too long. I assess the damage, hope it might not be noticeable on stage, and head towards the South entrance.

Ten minutes later, I’m wandering around in a park of some kind. When I turn right as instructed, I’m at a highway on-ramp. By this time the sweat is dripping down my face and neck. I take off my jacket, and notice there’s paint on my thigh now too, spreading like a rash across my blue suit. Where is it coming from?! I frantically look for a source, and see wet paint on the straps dangling from my backpack.

I begin to panic. Gingerly holding my bag at arms length, I check and recheck Google maps as I walk, and I eventually find the elusive entrance. It’s now a full 30 minutes after exiting the cab. Wet from perspiration and paint-speckled like a robin’s egg, I’m eager to get to a sink and clean up as best I can. Perhaps no one will notice, I think. 

On my way to the restroom, I see someone I haven’t seen for a year. “John!” he shouts out, smiling broadly. He extends his hand, and then leans in close to me and whispers, “You have something on your trousers.” I smile a frozen, awkward smile, and quickly move on. I curse to myself and look heavenward.

In the crowded mens room, I mop myself up with wet paper towels, Then I take off my shoes and scrub each one. Don’t touch the pants! Don’t touch the pants! I keep repeating to myself, imagining how much worse large cloudy white swirls will look on stage. 

At this point, I’ve done all I can do, and it’s getting close to the time for my talk. I head towards the stage. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about what happened that day is that, details aside, it wasn’t so extraordinary. In the past year, I’ve prepared a workshop for hundreds of people only to have 8 show up. At the end of one long conference day, I had to compete with alcohol and food for a crowd’s attention, and lost badly. I’ve experienced a cornucopia of devious problems with slides, room configurations, and technology - and now paint. 

What’s the universe trying to teach me with all of this?

I think the point is that it’s all part of the practice. Not the practice of becoming a better speaker, but the practice of accepting anything that might happen in work and life. All you can do is work on your craft as best you can, focus on offering your gift instead of focusing on the outcome, and try your best to embrace the universe’s lessons with humility and a sense of humor.

***

Note: This post is inspired in part by a funny, insightful, and practical book of the same name by Scott Berkun. I’m grateful to Scott for sharing his own lessons, as they helped me.











Who will you be when your company takes away your ID?

When someone asks what you do, what do you say?

My first full-time job was at Bell Laboratories, famous for inventing the transistor and discovering evidence of the Big Bang, among other things. I worked on more mundane projects that didn’t amount to much. So when people asked me what I did, I instead proudly responded with where I worked.

As my career progressed, titles became important. “Vice President,” “Director,” “Managing Director.” They all seem meaningless now. But at the time my sense of self-worth depended on them. With each step up the ladder, I would rush to order new business cards, eager to hand them out and show off the newly-upgraded me. 

Other people treated me differently too based on what it said on my badge. They didn’t know me or my work. It was the brand and my position in the hierarchy that determined whether I was relevant or interesting.

I learned the hard way that basing your identity on where you work is inherently risky and unstable. When my last company’s successes turned into scandals and fines, my pride turned to shame. When I was laid off, there was no longer a company or title to define who I was. It was just me.

It took me a long time to realize that I had a choice, that I could step out from behind a business card, make my work visible, and shape my own reputation. It took me a long time to accept that being “just me” was enough. I wish I had started sooner.

What about you? When they take away your ID, who will you be?

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The first WOL-SC Circles are ready to start in September

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit “publish” last week, asking for volunteers to test a new kind of Circle, so I kept my expectations low. 

When the first response arrived nine minutes later, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Then more and more emails kept trickling in. Within 24 hours, I realized I had a good problem: I would have far more volunteers than I could accommodate in the first test of the new materials.

The diversity of those who responded is remarkable. Some work in big companies like Bosch and Daimler, and others in governmental and non-profit organizations related to healthcare, training, and education. Some are coaches or work in small consulting firms. There’s even someone who has their own “small fashion brand.” Respondents wrote to me from 16 different countries.

  1. Argentina
  2. Australia
  3. Austria
  4. Belgium
  5. Brazil
  6. Canada
  7. China
  8. Germany
  9. India
  10. Italy
  11. Netherlands
  12. New Zealand
  13. Poland
  14. Switzerland
  15. Turkey
  16. USA

I was going to form just three Circles so I could be sure to support each one and make use of their feedback. But I quickly decided to expand the experiment to 15 Circles to accommodate more volunteers. Still, I had to ask many people to wait for the next version of the guides before trying WOL-SC. I expect to publish them on workingoutloud.com in early 2019, after the experiment is complete and I’ve made improvements and adjustments to the method.

When people wrote to me, some said they hoped they would “make the cut” and some sent me their qualifications to be included. For those of you who could not join, please know this was not meant to be a contest of any kind. In selecting volunteers, I aimed simply for diversity, attempting to have a healthy mix of different countries, organizations, genders, and jobs.

In the next few days, I’ll be sending out emails to everyone who responded. I want to thank every single person for their support, and for their willingness to try something new and to offer their feedback. It is encouraging and inspiring, and i greatly appreciate it. 

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If the odds are 100-to-1 in your favor

Suppose you were offered a bet that was practically a sure thing. If you win, you get smarter, you get access to more opportunities, and you feel more empowered and fulfilled. If you lose, you risk a small hit to your ego.

What would you do?

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The game we play

This isn’t an abstract exercise. It’s a game you already play multiple times a day whenever you consider making a contribution.

When you have something you think is helpful, you hesitate even if your experience tells you that others would appreciate it. There’s a chance that someone won’t like it or won't like how you offered it. That person could be someone specific, like your manager, or it could be someone you imagine when you wonder “What will they think?”

Time after time after time, I come across people who are doing extraordinary things - people who are admired by colleagues and a network of people around the world - and they'll tell me privately, “My boss doesn’t like what I’m doing.” Yet even if it was upsetting for them at the time, they persisted. 

More common is the person who doesn’t take a step at all. The mere possibility that someone may not approve is enough to prevent them from making the contributions they would like to make.

I say this without judgment. For me, all it takes is one contrary opinion to fuel my doubts, even in the face of a hundred expressions of support. It took me almost five decades to realize I was ceding control of my life to anyone who said “no.”

Take a spin

The truth is that we have a negative bias in our heads that amplifies our fears and causes us to hang back. We hesitate to reach out, to share our ideas and experiences, to offer what we have to offer. But when it comes to making contributions, “Better safe than sorry” is a terrible long-term strategy, one that leads to regret and a haunting lack of fulfillment. Instead, "it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission" - advice commonly shared but seldom heeded.

The point isn't that you ignore feedback, or that you need to rebel against the system. It's just that you decide whether the negative opinions have merit, choose what adjustments you might make, and continue on with clarity and confidence.

It means you claim your right to having a voice and being heard, to realizing more of your potential, to living an authentic life.

The odds are clear. The benefits far outweigh the risks. What will you do?

Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it

I was going through a stack of old books, re-reading things I had highlighted, when I found this parable in Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao. He was describing how a shift in your thinking, in how you choose to see the world, can change everything.

“The abbot of a once-famous Buddhist monastery that had fallen into decline was deeply troubled. Monks were lax in their practice, novices were leaving, and lay supporters were deserting to other centers. He traveled far to see a sage and recounted his tale of woe, saying how much he wanted to transform his monastery to the flourishing haven it had been in days of yore. The sage looked him in the eye and said, “The reason your monastery has languished is that the Buddha is living among you in disguise, and you have not honored him.
The abbot hurried back, his mind in turmoil. The Selfless One was at his monastery! Who could he be? Brother Hua? No, he was full of sloth. Brother Po? No, he was too dull. But then the Tathagata was in disguise. What better disguise than sloth or dull-wittedness? He called his monks together and revealed the sage’s words. They too were taken aback and looked at each other with suspicion and awe. Which one of them was the Chosen One? The disguise was perfect. Not knowing who he was, they took to treating everyone with the respect due the Buddha. Their faces started shining with an inner radiance that attracted novices and then lay supporters. In no time at all, the monastery far surpassed its previous glory.”

There's a natural tendency to label people and file them into categories and boxes. It makes life simpler in some ways, but also poorer. 

What if, instead, we remained open to the possibility that each person has something precious inside them? What if we looked deeply for the gifts they have to offer? What if we listened carefully for the stories they have to tell?

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Lessons from my mother

Growing up, my mother responded to certain situations with cliches that have stuck with me.

When I would complain about a friend, she'd chide me with, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” When I would argue with my brother, she’d remind me, “You get more with honey than with vinegar.”

Looking back, she taught me many things. She showed me that generosity was about much more than money. That being social meant, most of all, being genuinely curious about other people. That homemade food has the power to bring people together and make them happy.

But one of the most valuable lessons was one she never learned herself.

When she was 76, she was dying from diabetes and complications from a broken hip. There was a family reunion in Pennsylvania, and we traveled two hours by ambulance to the great surprise of everyone who never expected she could make the trip. There were many tears and many photos. 

When we showed the pictures to my mother, the first thing she said was, “I hate the way I look in photos.” I couldn't believe it. I thought to myself, You’re 76, dying, and you’re still worried about how you look in a photo? When does it stop?

Yet, as my mother would say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I could recognize in myself the same negative self-image and petty self-loathing. When does it stop? Maybe never.

I thought of how tiring it must have been for her to have carried that baggage around for seven decades. And I resolved then and there to try and take myself less seriously, to drop my own baggage and practice walking more lightly through life. 

For this and all of her lessons, I’m grateful. Every time I smile for a photo, or bake cookies, or talk to a stranger in the elevator, I think of her. 

 Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.