That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German

It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.

Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.

“Shining eyes”

He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way. 

"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
(Laughter)
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”

The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.

“Ode to Joy”

Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.

He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.

“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”

We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING! 

At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.

When the music stops

Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.

“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be. 

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

How to not suck at receiving feedback

Self-worth in a dishwasherI usually suck at receiving feedback. Even a constructive suggestion from my wife about loading the dishwasher feels like a personal attack, as if my very self-worth is tied to whether the dishes should face in or out. Yet in writing Working Out Loud, dozens of people are giving me feedback and I like it. Somehow I’ve learned to be grateful for the criticisms of my wife, my friends, and people I’ve only met via this blog. As a result, the book is already much, much better.

Three things helped me, and whether your goal is cleaner dishes or a better life, I hope they can help you too.

Frame the goal as a learning goal

Several years ago, Keith Ferrazzi first introduced me to the idea of framing things as learning goals. If I wanted to be a better public speaker, for example, he taught me not to ask “How was I?”after a talk but “What’s one thing I could do better?” That empowered the other person to give me constructive help instead of just simple encouragement.

Seth Godin wrote that “Applause is great. We all need more of it. But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback.” Besides, I’d much rather learn about weaknesses in the book now than read about them in Amazon reviews after I’ve published it.

Here’s some feedback that made me wince at first but made the book better. Sometimes, the reviewer is describing a section or my editorial style:

“you started to lose me”

“It felt that there were a lot of commas!”

“the exercise becomes a bit cheesy to me”

“intro wordy and a bit ‘la di da’”

Then there were more general comments:

“The one aspect I didn't really enjoy”

“While I was reading it, I didn’t get much sense of the overall reason for the content”

“Well, you asked me to be blunt...”

But the most negative comments were on the graphics I used. In the 82 pages draft, there were only two graphics and they were both universally hated.

“Surely, it’s just a placeholder”

“The pentagon of 5 elements...needs improvement because it is not interesting-looking or memorable”

Appreciate it as a gift

All of these particular comments were useful. The visuals did stink. I did use too many commas. The confusing parts were confusing.

But Ferrazzi also taught me that I didn’t have to take on every bit of feedback. After all, of the 25 pages of comments I received, there were sometimes conflicting suggestions or points I simply didn’t agree with.

Feedback is a gift. You accept it graciously and if it isn’t right for you after due consideration, you put it aside. Viewing it this way also helped me to take the criticism and myself less seriously. In The Art of Possibility, the conductor Ben Zander reinforced this when he described reacting to mistakes not with irritation but with “How fascinating!”

Choosing amateurish graphics doesn’t make me a bad author or even a bad selector of graphics. It just highlights an opportunity to improve in yet another area. “How fascinating!”

Accentuate the positive

It seems we’re all wired to look out for threats and overlook the good things. In a page full of positive comments, I’d immediately focus on the one criticism.

Being mindful of that tendency, I would purposefully read the positive feedback again and again. Besides bolstering my confidence, it helped me put the negative comments in perspective.

“I love this book.”

“I love the way you write.”

“LOVE LOVE LOVE a home run”

“The stories of people thru out, embedded in the chapters, are great.”

“Like your blogs, this draft is captivating and I didn't want to put it aside.”

“Eff YEAH!  So, so, SO exciting seeing it all come together REALLY REALLY REALLY awesome”

“I also selfishly wonder if there is a version for 11 - 13 years old which I can use with my daughter. I am serious!”

The results

A friend of mine is an author and when he heard how much feedback I was getting he mused to himself “What would you do with all of that?”

I thought “What would I have done without all of it?!” My early drafts were pathetic, like high school book reports full of quotes to show the teacher how much research I’ve done. Without the generosity of the reviewers, I may never have gotten beyond that stage.

In addition to making the book better, asking for and getting feedback has done something else, something surprising and even more important. It’s transformed the solitary experience of writing into a global communion, full of good feelings and intellectual exchanges. The book doesn’t feel like mine alone any more but like the collaboration of a small tribe. Now I'm about to send out another draft to another round of reviewers and I'm asking for other help: marketing, graphics, self-publishing, copyediting. I’m not good at any of these things but with the help and generosity of others, I can get better.

When it comes to getting feedback about something you care about, Seth Godin summed it up nicely just two days ago:

“Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Not imaginary, but practical. Not based on fear, but on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you better.

Seek it out and embrace the true friends that care enough to risk sharing it.”

How to not suck at receiving feedback

Self-worth in a dishwasherI usually suck at receiving feedback. Even a constructive suggestion from my wife about loading the dishwasher feels like a personal attack, as if my very self-worth is tied to whether the dishes should face in or out. Yet in writing Working Out Loud, dozens of people are giving me feedback and I like it. Somehow I’ve learned to be grateful for the criticisms of my wife, my friends, and people I’ve only met via this blog. As a result, the book is already much, much better.

Three things helped me, and whether your goal is cleaner dishes or a better life, I hope they can help you too.

Frame the goal as a learning goal

Several years ago, Keith Ferrazzi first introduced me to the idea of framing things as learning goals. If I wanted to be a better public speaker, for example, he taught me not to ask “How was I?”after a talk but “What’s one thing I could do better?” That empowered the other person to give me constructive help instead of just simple encouragement.

Seth Godin wrote that “Applause is great. We all need more of it. But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback.” Besides, I’d much rather learn about weaknesses in the book now than read about them in Amazon reviews after I’ve published it.

Here’s some feedback that made me wince at first but made the book better. Sometimes, the reviewer is describing a section or my editorial style:

“you started to lose me”

“It felt that there were a lot of commas!”

“the exercise becomes a bit cheesy to me”

“intro wordy and a bit ‘la di da’”

Then there were more general comments:

“The one aspect I didn't really enjoy”

“While I was reading it, I didn’t get much sense of the overall reason for the content”

“Well, you asked me to be blunt...”

But the most negative comments were on the graphics I used. In the 82 pages draft, there were only two graphics and they were both universally hated.

“Surely, it’s just a placeholder”

“The pentagon of 5 elements...needs improvement because it is not interesting-looking or memorable”

Appreciate it as a gift

All of these particular comments were useful. The visuals did stink. I did use too many commas. The confusing parts were confusing.

But Ferrazzi also taught me that I didn’t have to take on every bit of feedback. After all, of the 25 pages of comments I received, there were sometimes conflicting suggestions or points I simply didn’t agree with.

Feedback is a gift. You accept it graciously and if it isn’t right for you after due consideration, you put it aside. Viewing it this way also helped me to take the criticism and myself less seriously. In The Art of Possibility, the conductor Ben Zander reinforced this when he described reacting to mistakes not with irritation but with “How fascinating!”

Choosing amateurish graphics doesn’t make me a bad author or even a bad selector of graphics. It just highlights an opportunity to improve in yet another area. “How fascinating!”

Accentuate the positive

It seems we’re all wired to look out for threats and overlook the good things. In a page full of positive comments, I’d immediately focus on the one criticism.

Being mindful of that tendency, I would purposefully read the positive feedback again and again. Besides bolstering my confidence, it helped me put the negative comments in perspective.

“I love this book.”

“I love the way you write.”

“LOVE LOVE LOVE a home run”

“The stories of people thru out, embedded in the chapters, are great.”

“Like your blogs, this draft is captivating and I didn't want to put it aside.”

“Eff YEAH!  So, so, SO exciting seeing it all come together REALLY REALLY REALLY awesome”

“I also selfishly wonder if there is a version for 11 - 13 years old which I can use with my daughter. I am serious!”

The results

A friend of mine is an author and when he heard how much feedback I was getting he mused to himself “What would you do with all of that?”

I thought “What would I have done without all of it?!” My early drafts were pathetic, like high school book reports full of quotes to show the teacher how much research I’ve done. Without the generosity of the reviewers, I may never have gotten beyond that stage.

In addition to making the book better, asking for and getting feedback has done something else, something surprising and even more important. It’s transformed the solitary experience of writing into a global communion, full of good feelings and intellectual exchanges. The book doesn’t feel like mine alone any more but like the collaboration of a small tribe. Now I'm about to send out another draft to another round of reviewers and I'm asking for other help: marketing, graphics, self-publishing, copyediting. I’m not good at any of these things but with the help and generosity of others, I can get better.

When it comes to getting feedback about something you care about, Seth Godin summed it up nicely just two days ago:

“Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Not imaginary, but practical. Not based on fear, but on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you better.

Seek it out and embrace the true friends that care enough to risk sharing it.”

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

A (literally) breathtaking moment in Yakushima, JapanFor most of my career, I’ve been afraid. As I approach 50, though, that fear is being replaced by something else. Not quite confidence and certainly not peace. It's more a sense of fuck-it-I-need-to-do-something-that-matters-now.

Here are 3 stories about fears I’ve had at work and how I learned to deal with them.

Afraid of speaking up

In the first investment bank I worked in, the head of our division was a fearsome character, the kind of guy you’ve seen in movies about Wall Street. One day, after he had just given a talk to all the officers in his division, he asked for questions. Ten seconds passed. Twenty.  A minute. When it was clear no one was going to raise their hand, he lit into the audience with an expletive-filled tirade questioning our right to be in the firm. Ouch.

That was 17 years ago. But from that day on, at every meeting and event I attended, I always made sure to have something to contribute. Not to promote myself, but because I learned to be more afraid of the consequences of not speaking up at all. 

Afraid of my boss

It seems obvious that you should do what the boss expects. And for most of my career, that’s what I did. It was my own version of the Tiara Syndrome that Sheryl Sandberg referenced in Lean In: you keep doing your job well expecting someone will notice and recognize you for it.

It’s a trap. Over time, I saw people doing exactly what they were told only to have the boss hire a leader precisely because they wanted someone who’d do things differently. Or, even more common, bosses keep changing. Each time management changes, so do the objectives and the expectations. And, each time, the people who do only what the boss wants become un-moored, unsure of themselves until a new boss tells them what to do.

After a string of such changes, I finally learned to focus less on the boss and more on work that mattered. And, to provide career insurance, I made my work visible and built a network of people who also cared about that work so I had options if and when I needed them.

Afraid of myself

For much of my career I worked on technology for traders, spending much of my time on trading floors. I still twitch when I go near one. The demands of the traders combined with the stress of anything going wrong at any given moment made for an unpleasant day. There are worse jobs, certainly. It’s just that this kind of job was particularly unsuitable for me. 

I felt trapped. I remember thinking: “I can’t do this for 15 more years. Nobody does this for that long.” But I was too afraid to look in the mirror and ask “What do you want to do? If this doesn’t make you happy, what will?” 

So I just kept at it, stuck in a prison I’d built myself, until somebody else made a decision for me and forced a career change. Once confronted with the need to do something different, I felt liberated. And I learned to think more deeply and more often about what would make work fulfilling for me as well as for others.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

There’s a lovely story about fear in The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander. A student of Zander’s from Spain was applying to be an associate principal cellist in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. The first time he played the piece for Zander, it was “of an absolutely professional standard.” But though he played all the notes correctly, Zander thought he “lacked flair and the characteristics of true leadership.” 

They worked and worked until they experienced a breakthrough. And before the student  traveled for the audition, Zander said “Remember, Marius, play it the second way!”

Marius didn’t get the job. “What happened?” asked Zander and Marius confided, “I played it the first way.” So Zander tried to console his young student.

“But you haven’t heard the whole story,” he said. “I was so peesed off, I said ‘Fock it, I’m going to Madrid to play for the principal cellist in the orchestra there!’ - and I won it, at twice the salary of the other job.”

In amazement, Zander again asked “What happened?” Marius laughed: “I played it the second way!” And so BTFI - Beyond The Fuck It - became part of the folklore of Zander’s classes.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to take a big leap to experience BTFI. You just need to take a step. For me, I started to write more. I started looking for people and projects I cared about. I played more offense and less defense. 

If I’m not afraid, I’ll write Working Out Loud to help people change how they work, building better networks, careers, and lives. I'll build a movement so people can help each other in small groups and we can, collectively, scale that change. And in the process, I'll raise money for public education so kids will have the basic tools they'll need to work out loud when they get older.

I’m not sure how big my dent in the universe will be. Can I really change how big companies work? Can I improve the working lives of millions of people? I’m going to find out. Because, now, my biggest fear is a tombstone that says “He was too afraid to try.”

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

A (literally) breathtaking moment in Yakushima, JapanFor most of my career, I’ve been afraid. As I approach 50, though, that fear is being replaced by something else. Not quite confidence and certainly not peace. It's more a sense of fuck-it-I-need-to-do-something-that-matters-now.

Here are 3 stories about fears I’ve had at work and how I learned to deal with them.

Afraid of speaking up

In the first investment bank I worked in, the head of our division was a fearsome character, the kind of guy you’ve seen in movies about Wall Street. One day, after he had just given a talk to all the officers in his division, he asked for questions. Ten seconds passed. Twenty.  A minute. When it was clear no one was going to raise their hand, he lit into the audience with an expletive-filled tirade questioning our right to be in the firm. Ouch.

That was 17 years ago. But from that day on, at every meeting and event I attended, I always made sure to have something to contribute. Not to promote myself, but because I learned to be more afraid of the consequences of not speaking up at all. 

Afraid of my boss

It seems obvious that you should do what the boss expects. And for most of my career, that’s what I did. It was my own version of the Tiara Syndrome that Sheryl Sandberg referenced in Lean In: you keep doing your job well expecting someone will notice and recognize you for it.

It’s a trap. Over time, I saw people doing exactly what they were told only to have the boss hire a leader precisely because they wanted someone who’d do things differently. Or, even more common, bosses keep changing. Each time management changes, so do the objectives and the expectations. And, each time, the people who do only what the boss wants become un-moored, unsure of themselves until a new boss tells them what to do.

After a string of such changes, I finally learned to focus less on the boss and more on work that mattered. And, to provide career insurance, I made my work visible and built a network of people who also cared about that work so I had options if and when I needed them.

Afraid of myself

For much of my career I worked on technology for traders, spending much of my time on trading floors. I still twitch when I go near one. The demands of the traders combined with the stress of anything going wrong at any given moment made for an unpleasant day. There are worse jobs, certainly. It’s just that this kind of job was particularly unsuitable for me. 

I felt trapped. I remember thinking: “I can’t do this for 15 more years. Nobody does this for that long.” But I was too afraid to look in the mirror and ask “What do you want to do? If this doesn’t make you happy, what will?” 

So I just kept at it, stuck in a prison I’d built myself, until somebody else made a decision for me and forced a career change. Once confronted with the need to do something different, I felt liberated. And I learned to think more deeply and more often about what would make work fulfilling for me as well as for others.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

There’s a lovely story about fear in The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander. A student of Zander’s from Spain was applying to be an associate principal cellist in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. The first time he played the piece for Zander, it was “of an absolutely professional standard.” But though he played all the notes correctly, Zander thought he “lacked flair and the characteristics of true leadership.” 

They worked and worked until they experienced a breakthrough. And before the student  traveled for the audition, Zander said “Remember, Marius, play it the second way!”

Marius didn’t get the job. “What happened?” asked Zander and Marius confided, “I played it the first way.” So Zander tried to console his young student.

“But you haven’t heard the whole story,” he said. “I was so peesed off, I said ‘Fock it, I’m going to Madrid to play for the principal cellist in the orchestra there!’ - and I won it, at twice the salary of the other job.”

In amazement, Zander again asked “What happened?” Marius laughed: “I played it the second way!” And so BTFI - Beyond The Fuck It - became part of the folklore of Zander’s classes.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to take a big leap to experience BTFI. You just need to take a step. For me, I started to write more. I started looking for people and projects I cared about. I played more offense and less defense. 

If I’m not afraid, I’ll write Working Out Loud to help people change how they work, building better networks, careers, and lives. I'll build a movement so people can help each other in small groups and we can, collectively, scale that change. And in the process, I'll raise money for public education so kids will have the basic tools they'll need to work out loud when they get older.

I’m not sure how big my dent in the universe will be. Can I really change how big companies work? Can I improve the working lives of millions of people? I’m going to find out. Because, now, my biggest fear is a tombstone that says “He was too afraid to try.”

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?