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.

A lifeboat in a sea of change

At the beginning of this year, I got a note from a woman whose department was undergoing a “transformation.” It’s a word I come across in every company I visit. While most people I meet may recognize the need for some kind of change, almost no one likes the process, or the uncertainty that comes with it. 

She wrote to say that she was in Week 6 of a Working Out Loud Circle, and that her “WOL family gave her stability." Despite anxiety related to the transformation, she was getting new energy from her network each day while she made progress toward her goal.

I wrote back:

“There are many times when I worked in a big company when my network was like "a lifeboat in a sea of change" (a good title for a blog post :-)) 
At first it was just a relief to interact with nice people at the firm amidst the fear and defensiveness that came along with "transformation." Over time, it came to be a source of ideas and ultimately a new career.”

A Circle offers you a safe, confidential space where you can work on your goals and your development without worrying about judgment or competition. For me, the relationships I developed turned out to be a source of strength in addition to a source of ideas and feedback. They gave me the perspective to see things clearly, and the confidence and encouragement to take action.

If you’re facing a change in your work or life, do you have a lifeboat? Who’s in it?

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The permission you’ve been waiting for

Earlier this week I wrote about our lack of control at work and asked, “When you have to ask for permission at work for the simplest of things, how does that make you feel?” You might relate to some of the responses:

“I feel powerless, unappreciated. Like I'm a child asking for a second helping.”
“Like a fool.”
“It undermines trust and confidence.”

I described how the very companies striving to be more innovative and agile are often the ones that systematically rob employees of control. I told a story of how I was upbraided for not seeking permission, and how I felt humiliated.

And yet there’s someone at work who places more limits on you than your boss, or any policy or process.

It’s you.

The truth is that you have much more authority over your work and how you do it than you might care to admit. Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. And every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do.

It took me decades to realize this. And I’m still learning that when you react to negativity with negativity, for example, you’re making a choice. When you say yes to pointless meetings, complain about how busy you are, and never schedule an hour for your own development, you’re making a choice.

I remember reading a post titled, “Do you need a permit?” by Seth Godin. It was in 2010.

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe?
The accepted state is to be a cog. The preferred career is to follow the well-worn path, to read the instructions, to do what we're told. It's safer that way. Less responsibility. More people to blame.
If you think there's a chance you can make a dent, GO. 
Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

It inspired me to be more ambitious, to try and make a bigger contribution without having to be told to do so. But you don’t need to wait for inspiration or a new job to make a difference. In The Art of Happiness at Work, the Dalai Lama said, 

“Somebody may work on an assembly line with little variation in how to do their tasks, but they still have other kinds of choices in terms of their attitudes, how they interact with their co-workers, whether they utilize certain inner qualities or spiritual strengths to change their attitude at work.”

Starting right now, you can choose to be a kinder, more generous person at work. You can choose to learn and explore more, to actively look for the purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - through your example.

Every email, every meeting, even every ride in the elevator is a chance to make work better for yourself and those around you. Will you give yourself permission?

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“How do I make more of her?”

I was sitting in the hotel lobby, tired after having given a talk and two workshops, when she walked up to me.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. I recognized her from one of the tables at the front. She wanted to tell me about the women in one of her educational programs, and how ideas in my talk might help them.

The story she told me has stayed with me all week. I feel like it’s one of those times when the universe is nudging me to do something.

Helping mothers and their children

She works at a university, and has for a long time. She had been running a program to help mothers learn about nutrition for their children. They would talk about what’s in foods that people commonly feed their kids, and what to watch out for. They would introduce them to foods they might not be used to cooking with, like avocado and quinoa.

While many of the women found it helpful, some were particularly enthusiastic. They truly cared about the topic. So when she got funding for a related program and needed to hire people, one of her team members suggested they consider hiring women they were already helping.

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Working with (and around) the system

This wasn’t the normal recruiting process. But the woman running the program had been doing this kind of thing for decades, and she knew how to work with the system. She hired them.

She started reading some of the texts and emails from one of the women. In the program, they would cook meals so they could all try the food themselves and learn how it was prepared. A mother-turned-nutrition educator had been searching for recipes. She was exploring and creating ("What if we tried cranberries with that instead?") and was excited to share her ideas. I could feel the administrator's sense of wonder and hope as she read the exchanges. I could feel the mother's empowerment as she tapped into new ways she could contribute. 

Then she put down her phone, somewhat downcast, and said, “Normally, the system rejects this kind of thing.” In addition to rules about hiring, there were rules about which recipes they were allowed to use, about which communications channels to use. But she said she had followed the rules for too long, and now she cared more about helping people, whatever it took. I could tell she was gratified to have helped one young woman, and also that she felt compelled to do more. That’s when she asked, “How do I make more of her?”

“What if?"

As I listened to what was being shared by email and text, I thought of Jane Bozarth’s book, “Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud,” in which she offered a wide and wonderful range of examples of everyday people making their work visible. I started to ask some "What if?" questions.

What if all of the recipes and other ideas were more visible? Instead of being hidden in emails and texts, the mothers, teachers, and others who cared about the topic could interact, share, and learn in an online community, or even a simple Facebook group.

What if the program administrator wasn’t the one responsible for “making more of her”? The women in the program could use their visible contributions to make their own connections and find people as passionate about the topic as they were. 

What if you didn’t need to ask permission or make it part of the program at all, but empowered the women to set things up for themselves?

This. This is at the core of what I hope to do, to spread this kind of empowerment, one that enables people to take a bit more control over their lives. To enable people of any background or circumstances to learn, connect, and access opportunities they might never have known existed otherwise.

We shook hands as she said goodbye. “I’ll definitely contact you,” she said. I hope she does.