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?

Freedom’s just another word for …

How would you finish that sentence? Perhaps, like the late Janis Joplin, you’d say it's “just another word for nothin' left to lose.” Or if you were me, about a year ago, you’d quote Nina Simone and say freedom is “No fear!” But now I think freedom is something else entirely.

© Robert Gober

What freedom isn’t

The source of much of my personal development lately is Pema Chödrön. This time, it’s from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

“The cause of our suffering is…our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom.”

In short, freedom isn’t denying that we have fears and desires and hopes. That would be denying our very humanity. Freedom is allowing yourself to feel all those things and then let them go.

The only way out is through

I spent a long time trying to shut out fear or distracting myself from it. After 51 years of that not working, I’m ready for a new strategy.

Pema Chödrön provides one. She cites the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she says that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. It’s our reaction to it; the story line in our heads.

“An emotion like anger [or fear] that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”

Instead of fighting it, work with it. “The only way out is through,” she said, and she suggests this simple exercise:

“Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience  of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the situation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?”

By the time you’ve worked with the emotion in this way, the ninety seconds have passed and you feel and think differently. No drama or rekindling. You acknowledge what is and move on. No big deal.

A personal example

She advises starting with something not too terrifying, so I started with an email.

I’ve been working on something important to me and was waiting on feedback. When I woke up, I was already anticipating a message related to the project and could feel a low-level anxiety. When I saw the email, I quickly scanned it, fixated on some less-than-glowing comments, and experienced a mild panic.

Instead of denial or distraction - telling myself  “it doesn’t matter” or distracting myself with another task - I remembered the exercise.

I acknowledged the fear I was feeling. I noticed my heart pounding and the knot in my stomach. I let myself feel it without thinking. I took a few deep, slow breaths. After a minute or two, I calmed down, reread the note, and got to work.

No big deal.

What’s on the other side

That may seem like a trivial example, but I found it striking that my body and brain couldn’t tell the difference between an email and being attacked by a bear. The  immediate reaction is the same heart-pounding desire to flee.

In the book, she quotes a poem that describes what you’ll discover when you can stop struggling against uncertainty.

This world - absolutely pure.

As is. Behind the fear,

Vulnerability. Behind that,

Sadness, then compassion

And behind that the vast sky.

What does freedom mean to you? If you don’t feel free already, try the 90-second exercise. Freedom might be closer than you think.

The kid who wouldn’t talk on the phone

It was back in the day when AT&T owned the phone on your wall. When you didn’t have to dial an area code. When phone numbers began with words instead of numbers. Ours was TAlmadge 8-9635. I can still remember my mother holding out that phone every so often, urging me to say hello to some relative. “Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!”

I was petrified.

Hurry up Johnny! They're waiting!

40 years later

Over the ensuing decades, I learned to talk on the phone and in meetings, but speaking in front of a public audience was still terrifying. Yet I knew I had to get better.

So in 2010, at age 46, I decided to apply to present at a conference, the Web 2.0 Expo. As soon as I decided, I was already nervous. I procrastinated for weeks, submitting the application ten minutes before the midnight deadline. Once I learned I was accepted, I was anxious for months before the conference. The day of my talk, sick to my stomach, I walked around the block over and over in an attempt to steady my nerves.

In the following years, I read books like Presentation Zen, Resonate, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. I watched hundreds of TED talks. I would ask people after one of my presentations, “What’s one thing I could have done better?” And I spoke and I spoke and I spoke to different kinds of audiences in different kinds of places.

The small steps I took, practiced over time with feedback and peer support, helped me become a better storyteller.

Now

Recently, someone told me I was a “natural speaker.” That was nice of them, but I know it’s not true. Like any other skill, I was pretty awful at first and I’m just gradually getting better.

Next year, I have a range of new skills I need to develop. For months, for example, people have been telling me that I need to make audio and video recordings. But I’m petrified. It feels like my mother is handing me the phone again: Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!

Now, though, I know that the fear I feel is a natural part of learning something new. I could defuse the fear by avoiding the new thing, by not growing, or I could do something to get better.

This morning, I chose to take a step, and I bought a microphone to make my first recordings.

Hello? It’s me. 

Hello? It's me.

Three kinds of fear

I’m not talking about the real threats - safety and shelter, for example - but the perceived threats that are largely in your head. When are you afraid? How often do you feel that way and what do you do about it?

I routinely experience three kinds of fear. By sharing them, I thought I might help those of you who face them too.

Fear of the uncomfortable and unknown

Trying something new

“I’m surprised you were nervous,” she said. This Tuesday in my Working Out Loud circle I was describing a presentation I gave to a few hundred people, something I’m usually comfortable doing. This one, though, was in front of a camera instead of an audience. I was anxious for days beforehand, my nervousness peaking when the director said “30 seconds before broadcast.”

I have this same feeling whenever I’m trying anything I’m not comfortable with, and I’ve learned two tricks to deal with it. One is preparation. With practice comes familiarity and that reduces the anxiety. The other trick is to frame things as a learning goal, to focus on the process and not the outcome. I’m not good or bad at it, I’m just getting better. This growth mindset defuses my fear and can help me improve at anything.

Being vulnerable

I’m the kind of person, I realize, who wants to be liked, who wants people to say nice things. “Good talk, John!” “I liked the book!” Of course that feels good.

Yet it’s the critical feedback that makes me and my work better, and this presents a conflict. My aversion to negative feedback can make me avoid doing things that will help me improve.

Here again, I’ve learned two tricks. One is to separate feedback about my work from feedback about me, the human being. So when my wife read my final draft and said “I don’t like it,” she wasn’t saying “I don’t like you.” (It felt that way at the time, but I’m slowly learning that her candor is a gift.)

The other trick is to have a “lean startup” mindset. You frame your work as a series of experiments, share them early for the purpose of getting feedback - before you’ve invested heavily in them - and adapt. That way, rejections and negative feedback aren’t hurtful, they’re helping me find a better path sooner.

Seeking meaning and fulfillment

This third fear is the toughest for me to deal with. It’s a fear of not trying to do something more with my life. In writing today's post, I found something I wrote more than 3 years ago titled “When are the best years of your life?”

“If I have a hero, it’s W. Edwards Deming. Born on a chicken farm in 1900, he was a statistician who worked with the census bureau into his 40s. At 47, he travelled to Japan to help with the first census after the war. While there, he met with people about statistics and quality control. And his subsequent fieldwork with factory managers in Japan marked the beginning of the Japanese quality movement.

His efforts unlocked tremendous commercial value while also helping individual workers regain their pride of workmanship. In 1950, Japan awarded the first Deming Prize. Still, for decades, Deming was largely unknown in the US, where he lived and worked. It was only after he was mentioned on a television show (“If Japan can, why can’t we?”) that his consulting business took off. He was 80. At 82, he published his most popular book.”

That’s the kind of fulfilling, meaningful work I want to do. But I’m afraid to try. I’ve worked in big companies for 30 years and changed jobs only twice. While helping people and companies as Deming did is inspiring, it's also daunting. The prospect of such a shift in my work and life makes me afraid.

I don’t have any tricks for this one. If you do, please let me know. For now, I just focus on one step at a time. I figure if I keep taking steps, getting feedback and getting better along the way, it will lead me somewhere I want to be.

The Independence Day I’m still waiting for

Just a few minutes into the excellent documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” an interviewer asks Nina Simone “What’s free to you?” She’s uncertain at first.

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling…”

Then she smiles her big, beautiful smile.

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free. And that’s something else. That’s REALLY something else!”

After thinking about it, she looks directly into his eyes, becomes more animated and intense, and loudly proclaims,

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really, NO FEAR!“

Finally she looks away, puts her head in her hand, and quietly muses, as if to herself,

“If I could have that half of my life. No fear…”

The prisons we build ourselves

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to fear physical violence or illness can still find ways not to be free. We worry about the past and about the future. It’s sounds almost trivial until you realize how your own thoughts can rob you of that feeling of freedom and joy.

Just the other day, someone at work asked to meet me and I was sure I was in trouble of some kind. There was no evidence. It was a simple email. Yet I created a story that made me anxious. A few hours later, it turned out she was simply asking my advice.

The same day I was meeting with two friends who I think highly of. We had agreed to form a group to apply the ideas in my book. Rather than being excited, I was worried my friends - smart and accomplished - would be disappointed in me or my ideas. But there was no judgment. We simply met and talked and helped each other. I enjoyed their company and conversation.

These small fears prevent can prevent you from enjoying each day. The bigger ones can paralyze you.

Be free where you are

The heading "be free where you are" comes from a lecture given by a Buddhist monk inside a prison. It helped me understand that, for the prisons we build ourselves, we all have the keys.

The keys generally include being aware of the cognitive distortions we create. Being compassionate towards ourself and others. Being mindful and enjoying the present moment. For me, reading books like these and putting the ideas into practice is gradually making a difference.

It’s July 4th today and we’re celebrating Independence Day in the US. I'm not free yet, but I’m working toward making every day my own Independence Day.

be free where you are