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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What happened to “Working” in the last 45 years

I vaguely remember when Working came out. It was 1972. I was 8 years old. Calculators were becoming popular, and people were just starting to talk about computers.

The subtitle of the book is “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” It’s based on over 100 interviews with people in a wide range of jobs across the US - from gravedigger to TV executive, and consists almost entirely of the words of those people. (You can also listen to the original audio recordings.)

Despite all of the changes since those interviews over four decades ago years ago, many of the themes remain the same. Perhaps primarily, there was the need to make a difference, a search for meaning.

“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us…have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
“You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. Your job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine. A monkey could do what I do . It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that.”
“A man’s life is his work. You see humanity in a chair. It was made by some man’s hand. There’s artistry in that, and that’s what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.”

Many people expressed the feeling of not being treated or respected as a full human being, 

“That’s the thing you get in any business. They never talk about personal feelings. They let you know that people are of no consequence.”
“They call us professional people but they talk to us as very young, childishly. They check on us all the time.”
“These big corporations are gonna keep on growing and the people become less and less. The human being doesn’t count any more.”

Even back then, there was an awareness of the threat of technology, of dehumanization.

“You won’t know their names…You have a number - mine’s 407. You’re just an instrument.”
“It was almost like a production line. We adjusted to the machine. The last three or four years were horrible. The computer had arrived….I had no free will. I was just part of the stupid computer.”

As a result, many people felt stuck, like they had little control and few options.

“I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out.”

Do these themes sound familiar to you? Our needs for feeling effective and fulfilled - for meaning - aren't new. Helping people fulfill those needs is as important as ever.

Your perfect month

The inspiration to do this exercise came from Moyra Mackie, the first person I ever called “coach.” At the time, I was working at Deutsche Bank, struggling to write drafts of Working Out Loud, and feeling like I was paddling in a leaky canoe - lots of activity but not much progress or direction. 

On one of our phone calls, Moyra suggested that I write down what my “perfect month” might look like in a year or two. That timeframe was far enough away to give me the latitude to do different things, yet close enough that I needed to be practical. My perfect month wasn’t just about sitting on a beach in Okinawa, but about a way to earn a living while living a balanced life.

So I took a piece of paper, wrote down the days of the month, and started to imagine what I would do each day. 

The things I began listing I had considered before. Yet something about mapping those ideas to specific days in the month made them seem more real - and made me ask myself more questions. Yes, I would like to travel, write, do research, etc. But how much? One day a month? Five? Ten? I found myself visualizing my days and weeks. I imagined how it would feel - how I would feel.

I could see this was a good visioning exercise, and I enjoyed doing it. (It’s a nice companion to the “Letter from Your Future Self” in Week 7 of a WOL Circle.) Then I put the piece of paper away, and forgot about it. 

That was a few years ago. I happened to find that piece of paper recently and was struck by how much of it describes my last month, and the month before that. Though my “perfect month” wasn’t meant as an exact prescription or prediction, it captured a direction I wanted to take. It enabled me to see an example of what a more balanced, creative, fulfilling portfolio might look like.

That exercise helped me appreciate how articulating your intention can be extremely powerful. It can help you identify what experiments you might do to see if the direction is a good one for you, and who you might build relationships with to discover more. It can help you make that all-important shift from feeling stuck to taking a step.

When you reflect on your own career and life, where are you heading? What’s your perfect month?

The bridge from where you are to where you want to be

It seemed like something was missing for her. She was working inside one of the world’s largest corporations and, though she liked her job, what she really enjoyed doing was coaching other people. When she told me how she had looked into professional certifications and coaching jobs, her eyes were shining.

Then she paused. “But there are already 200,000 life coaches in Germany,” she said, “and I have a child.” She knew it would be tough to make a living, and was aware the odds were against her. Yet if she didn’t try, she might always wonder “what might have been.” 

What would you do?

The problem with building bridges

For most of my life, I thought of a career as a set of well-planned steps. Like building a bridge, there’s a grand plan, and you need to spend a lot of time and money (training, entry-level jobs, struggles to get customers), before you can reach the other side.

That’s an awfully risky approach - for two reasons. The first is that there’s a huge gap between the idea of doing something for a living and actually doing it every day, and it’s a terrible thing to realize your dream job is nightmarish in reality. Second is that the job you chose to strive for is just one job you happen to know about, and ignores the much wider array of possibilities you never knew existed.

You might build a bridge only to realize you don’t want to go to the other side after all.

More possibilities with less risk

Now more than ever, career planning is an oxymoron.  Instead, a much better approach is to start with only a general direction in mind, and then conduct small experiments that help you learn what a good next step might be. That’s “purposeful discovery.” Your experiments could be as simple as contributions to people related to your goal, or a conversation with someone who’s already doing what you have in mind.

For the woman who wanted to be a life coach, she might start by offering her services for free to colleagues at work, thereby helping people and gaining valuable experience while still getting a paycheck. She could meet with professional life coaches to better understand what being a coach is truly like. She might even try to find all the other life coaches in her company and connect them online so they could all share their experiences.

These kinds of free experiments would help her refine her sense of what she likes and doesn’t like, and expose her to other possibilities she hadn’t considered. Maybe over time she discovers her dream job is not to be independent after all, but to act as an internal coach in her company, or lead a community there, or offer a coaching framework that lets other companies tap into their own internal expertise. Only with experimentation, feedback, and connection will she discover that.

The bridge between where you are and where you want to be isn’t a bridge at all. Rather, it can be more like a leisurely hike through the woods. You have a general direction in mind and take a few steps, mindful of the signs and clues around you, and a path emerges. This approach gives you access to more possibilities with less risk. It may still be strenuous, but you’re much more likely to enjoy the journey.

A year on my own

A year ago, after having worked in big companies my entire life, I decided to start a company of my own. I figured I would mark my anniversary by answering the question people ask me most:

“How’s it going?”

The trade-offs quickly became obvious

It didn’t take long for me to experience the advantages. Immediately, I was in control of my time and my work, and that was both empowering and fulfilling. Like shedding a heavy overcoat that had grown increasingly uncomfortable, I left behind the mundane anxieties, the manufactured drama, and the sheer senselessness of some of what I did each day. I felt lighter. I felt liberated.

The disadvantage was equally clear: the paycheck that was deposited twice a month was no longer going to arrive.

Building my way forward

Though I had published Working Out Loud a year earlier, and had interacted with people and companies in different countries, I had no firm idea how I would make a living. I figured I could deliver presentations and workshops, and do some consulting. But I knew many people who were doing the same and were struggling. Why would I be different?

So I tried experiment after experiment. Most didn’t amount to much, but each one helped me practice my craft or get feedback on a new idea. They refined my sense of the work I wanted to do as well as what other people valued. After six months or so, I had a few more customers and an emerging sense of what I could offer them.

And so it continues. I’m writing this on a train in Germany where I’ll work with five different companies in four cities. More experiments. More learning. My fledgling business isn’t a success, it's a work in progress. Step by step.

I can’t say I’d recommend what I’m doing to someone else. The odds are too high. Most days it feels like there’s no ground beneath your feet. As a result, I have more compassion for my former self, working at big corporations for so long. I also have more respect than ever for anyone who tries to build something on their own, whatever it is.

Finding my ikigai

A year ago, I named my new company “Ikigai” after the Japanese word for “a reason for living.” I feel like I’ve found my ikigai now. It’s to change how people relate to each other, to themselves, and to the work they do. When I get it right, the methods I’m developing help individuals be more effective and feel happier. They make work more human, compassionate, and connected. Maybe someday they’ll change the culture of a company, or even a country. Step by step.

I think the photo of me and my daughter on a rollercoaster captures how I feel after my first year on my own. I’m happy and excited and scared all at the same time. There’s so much to do and so much I don’t know. But the feeling of purpose makes it worth it. Just like that rollercoaster, I can’t wait to get back on for another ride.

You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself? 

When you’re looking for your purpose, “Build your way forward”

Even if you’re fortunate, it’s a common pattern. You begin with a sense that you’re meant to do something purposeful, that you’re special. With the passing of time and with each job, however, that sense of specialness fades. It’s replaced by a nagging disappointment or, worse, resignation. I guess that’s all there is. 

That certainly was my own experience. When I was young, I had high hopes but I also had no idea of what I wanted to do. So I simply reacted to whatever presented itself. As I got older, I relied on my experience in my first jobs to advance and make more money. Doing anything different seemed increasingly impossible. How could I start over?

Recently though, I’ve observed a different pattern. It’s one that gives me hope, and is something anyone can implement on their own. The pattern has three stages: Interest, Practice, and Purpose.

1. Interest

The best description I’ve found of how to explore your interests is in Designing Your Life, based on a course taught by two professors at Stanford. They refer to it as “wayfinding.”

“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map - a direction… Since there’s no one destination in life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you and make your best way forward.”

Maybe you have an inkling of what you’re interested in. Maybe you took a test and it pointed you in a direction. Then what? What would you do next, and how might you explore other interests that might be even better for you?

“Try reframing the challenge as an exploration of possibilities (instead of trying to solve your problem in one miraculous leap)…The way forward is to reduce the risk (and the fear) of failure by designing a series of small prototypes to test the waters….one of the principles of design thinking is that you want to ‘fail fast and fail forward’ into your next step.”

The book is filled with many examples of such prototypes, and the simplest and easiest one is a conversation with someone doing something related to your interest or goal. If you’re interested in real estate, talk to people already working in different real estate businesses. If you have a hobby you love, seek out and connect with people who’ve developed that into something more. 

2. Practice

Now comes the part most people miss: deliberate practice. The goal of prototyping and experimenting isn’t to get to some finish line. It’s to get you to the next experiment, to help you explore possibilities while you learn and develop new skills. It’s the combination of doing, interacting, and getting feedback that enables you to advance in the direction you’re interested in. 

For example, I’ve always had an interest in writing, yet for decades I didn’t do anything about it. I started by simply reading more, which sparked my curiosity. My first experiment was to write a blog post on my company’s intranet. I was in my 40s. Then I talked with a journalist who encouraged me and gave me constructive criticism and advice. In the first year, I only wrote 6 posts. I struggled, got more feedback, and learned. I began writing once a month, and later wrote my first public post. Writing became a habit, leading to hundreds of blog posts and a book. The skills I developed along the way - and the relationships I developed as I did it - enabled me to discover a new career in my 50s.

“Deliberate practice” isn’t just for one particular skill, it’s for life.

3. Purpose

Angela Duckworth describes the three phases - interest, practice, and purpose - in her bestselling book, Grit. Her research brought her into contact with thousands of accomplished people and she found few “naturally talented” people. 

“The more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.”

It’s that third stage that is perhaps most surprising to me, and I’m only now starting to understand it. It feels like an awakening of some sort. A psychologist interviewed for Grit described the third stage as when “the larger purpose and meaning of work finally becomes apparent.”

Your next step

The way to design your life is to “build your way forward," using a series of prototypes and interactions to enable you to make it through the three stages. For me, Working Out Loud is what helped me explore my interests, and my WOL Circles have helped me to keep practicing, to continue experimenting and connecting and learning until a purpose emerges.

If you’ve ever felt there is a gap between what you do and something that would be more meaningful, the way to bridge that gap is not with a daring leap but with hundreds or even thousands of small steps. Purpose isn’t something you discover or are born with as much as something that emerges from your passion and perseverance. 

A different kind of graduation present

It's graduation season now. Young people all over the world are leaving university and embarking on their next adventure. Many of them will be joining new companies and will take their place in a graduate training program.

What would be the best thing you could give them? Money? Nice things? What if you gave them a skill they could use now and forever? One that could make their work and life better?

When I left college, there were just a small number of well-worn career paths. Now it seems there’s an infinite number of trails in ever-changing terrain. The wonderful book Designing Your Life makes the point that we no longer have a map for our career (if we ever did) but just a general direction, and we have to “build our way forward.” The way to do that is by building relationships with people and learning from them, leveraging their experience to refine our own sense of what we like and what’s possible.

The first pilot of WOL Circles for a graduate training program is starting in a few weeks, enabling each of the participants to have a global network inside and outside the company in just 12 weeks. The company that sponsored it wanted to give their new employees something besides a job. They wanted to give them control over their career and access to more possibilities, more chances for meaning and fulfillment.

That’s a wonderful gift. 

If you care about diversity at work

When I worked in a big company, some of the best communities on our social intranet were related to diversity. The people leading them cared deeply about the different topics. Community members were creative and generous, and they brought a welcome sense of shared humanity to our workplace. It was inspiring.

Yet as good as they were, they were missing something.

Two kinds of extraordinary contributions

The focus of these communities tended to be on raising awareness. With their small budgets, they would host events with inspiring speakers followed by wine and networking. It might be a female executive talking about careers and offering advice, or an external speaker talking about their organization and how it makes a difference. A lot of work went into planning these events, and people liked them.

Campaigns were also popular. One of the most successful ones I remember was for Spirit Day in which people wear purple in support of the LGBTQ community. When that day came, I remember looking on our social network and seeing my feed awash in purple. There were photos from offices all over the world, people wearing purple dresses, shirts, ties, scarves, socks. People taking selfies and people formed in large groups, sharing heartfelt comments expressing their support and commitment. I remember how proud I felt that day, proud of my company and of the people in it.

When the music stops

Events and campaigns can be fun and inspiring. But when they end, participants are typically unsure of what to do next except wait for another event. Last week, I talked with people from universities across the U.S. about trying something different. It was a webinar for a Diversity & Inclusion group.

The group is pursuing a wide range of projects, and they sent me a list of them. One from an educator in Missouri jumped out at me.

“Using the Working Out Loud framework by John Stepper to develop improved skills in improving civil discourse in every day life of Extension educators working in their communities.”

Not only was she interested in being more effective herself, she was trying to change how people relate to each other and help them be more effective too. 

Something to try at your next event

At the end of the call with the universities, people signed up to join Working Out Loud Circles. The first step was to experience the benefits themselves, so they could see how best to apply it to their particular community. The next step would be to help their community form their own Circles.

You could do the same thing at your own event in your own company. If you’re in a diversity community, you’ve already discovered a goal you care about. Your relationship list would include people running other programs, potential partners, and those you admire who are making a difference. By Working Out Loud, you would build relationships with them, and get exposed to new ideas, approaches, and collaboration opportunities that would help you make more of a difference.

What you can also do is help your constituents develop those same skills, and apply them towards their own goals. If the systems and polices don’t give people the visibility and access they deserve, you can help them change the odds through the relationships they'll build.

Spreading Working Out Loud Circles is one way to empower yourself and the people you serve. 

“Perhaps if I liked my job more…”

I’ve been thinking about what she wrote since I got her message a few weeks ago. She had stumbled across an old blog post of mine from five years ago about "career insurance."

She had been working at a job she never really loved for a long time, and a recent lay-off left her wanting something more from work, something she could “feel at least a little passionate about.” She was interested in Working Out Loud, but some of the exercises seemed pointless to her given the state of her career. “Perhaps if I liked my job,” she wrote, “I would be more interested in becoming visible.”

I wanted to tell her that even in a job you don’t like, you have more control than you might imagine. Not only can you craft your tasks, relationships, and perceptions at work, but you can use your existing job as a platform for building new skills. She shouldn’t wait till she found a job she loved to Work Out Loud, she should Work Out Loud to find a job she loves.

In a post called, “If you want to discover something wonderful, try this” I described it as “purposeful discovery.”

“One of the major problems with identifying your true calling is that you’re aware of only a tiny fraction of the possibilities, and picking solely from what you already know is grossly limiting...
Fortunately, I found a much better way to guide your decision making that will lead you to more rewarding possibilities. That better way is purposeful discovery, a form of goal-oriented exploration. You start by choosing a goal you care about and then using the different elements of working out loud to build a network of relationships, get feedback, and learn about ways to improve and about other possibilities. The goal orients your activities, and as you get feedback and learn, you adapt your goal accordingly”

I encouraged her to join a Working Out Loud Circle with people from different locations and companies. The peer support would help her take a step in a way that felt safe and confidential. The contributions she would make would help her refine her sense of what she liked and didn’t like. Her growing network of deepening relationships would give her access to new ideas and opportunities.

I know it's hard to take a step when you're not feeling good about what your work, but I hope she does. If you wait for your job to be interesting before you take control of your career, you may wait for a very long time.