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.

Author of My Own Life.JPG

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.

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. 

“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.

What to do when you don’t know what you’re doing

Just ten days after leaving the big company I’ve worked in for twenty years, I’m facing things that I have little or no experience dealing with. How do I describe and package what I do? What do I offer for free and what do I charge for (and how much)? There are legal, financial, and technical issues to sort out. It can be overwhelming, and makes the well-defined boxes inside big companies a bit more appealing.

Here are five things that have helped me already and might help you if you’re trying something new. They’ve made me feel less anxious and more confident, and so the entire process is more enjoyable.

What am I doing?

Find people who already do it.

You can learn a lot from simple research. When I started charging for presentations at a conference, for example, I looked online to see what others like me have charged. For my new online course, I searched for examples of similar offerings.

I’ll reach out to people who have more experience and ask “What do you think?” That research gives me at least a sense of what’s appropriate.

Talk with trusted confidants.

It takes a friend to give you constructive criticism or spend the time to think through an approach with you. It also takes vulnerability - I don't know what to do. Will you talk with me about it?

In the past I kept my biggest issues to myself and that was a mistake. Now I’m lucky to have a handful of people I regularly go to for coaching and advice. They're trusted advisors who care enough about me to to tell me what they think is best, not just what I want to hear. If you don’t already have such a circle of advisors, start cultivating them now. You can begin by approaching someone you respect and asking “Would you help me?”

Fail small, fast, and cheap.

After reading how modern start-ups begin and grow, I’ve tried to adapt those ideas to myself. A big part of that is breaking down something you want to do into small, cheap experiments. That allows you try different things and quickly get feedback that helps you learn and create the next experiment. You start small and iterate.

My weekly blog posts led to a book. Free courses I created led to on-line and custom programs I can charge for. The hundreds of free talks I gave led to speaking engagements and a TEDx talk.

I didn’t create risky plans for the start-up of me. I just tried a series of low-risk, low-cost experiments that allowed me to discover things I enjoy doing that also have a value to others.

Frame it all as a learning goal.

I must have told myself “I’m terrible at this” (and worse) more than ten thousand times. And each time I try to remind myself “I’m just not good at it yet.” That is the essence of a growth mindset, and that simple switch in your head changes the entire process.

When trying something new, of course you don’t know how to do many things. What else would you expect? By framing what you’re doing as a learning goal - not to be good or bad but to become better - your ignorance and mistakes become opportunities for improvement instead of sources of suffering.

Keep shipping.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last decade has been this: persistence and passion trumps all else. When you keep shipping - trying new things, delivering, deepening relationships based on contribution - all your fears, detractors, and mistakes no longer define you. They’re behind you because you’ve kept going, and the passion you show over time attracts others who care as you do.

Have you tried something new and thought “I don’t know what I’m doing”? Don’t give up. It can be a beginning instead of an ending.

 

The HR director I wish I knew

A colleague shared a blog post about “success at work” and I clicked on it, expecting the usual set of prescriptions proposed by people who want work to be better but can’t do much about it.

This post was different, though. It was written by the head of HR at the World Economic Forum.

Paolo Gallo

“I wish I had written that”

His name is Paolo Gallo, and he’s based in Geneva. In his post, he tried to reframe how we view success at work. He had an almost romantic view of what “corporate heroism” truly is, and I kept nodding to myself as I went through this section on how measuring success by corporate title is bad for the individual and the firm:

“1. If we only value those who have reached the top of the hierarchy, then by definition we’re writing off the other 99%. We create a cruel assembly line that produces myriad people who are frustrated and unhappy, who believe - often wrongly - that only those who arrived at the top truly triumphed.

2. By seeing our careers as a race, we enter a state of constant struggle: "us" against everyone else. Think, for example, about incentive systems: I have seen many and - mea culpa - designed some that are focused on individual performance results but never based on sharing, cooperation or a sense of purpose. I believe that stress is not linked solely to the amount of work we have, but rather on the poor quality of the relationships we develop with our colleagues. An organizational climate of “dog eats dog” downgrades our relationships, so they become only transactional, utilitarian, losing any trace of connection between people. This obsession with appearances over substance strips us of our humanity.

3. Ultimately, we all end up taking part in a rat race. We became so self-absorbed and busy trying to win this race that we forget that even by winning it, we will still remain rats. And vulnerable rats: the chronic economic crisis, corporate restructuring or simple events outside of our control can all oust us from our jobs. If corporate success is the only way you define your identity, then that identity will be destroyed with all the emotional and social consequences that result.”

Now what?

What do you do when you read something interesting?

I started by reading more of his work, including other articles he posted on the World Economic Forum website. There’s no way to follow him or provide feedback there, so I looked elsewhere.

First I searched for “Paolo Gallo” on Twitter and didn’t find him. Then I used Google to search for “Paolo Gallo World Economic Forum” and found he had cross-posted his articles to LinkedIn. I clicked the “Follow” button on LinkedIn so I would see his future posts (and he might also see I followed him).

One of his most recent posts included this sentence:

“We have to internalize the idea that "networking" does not work when we engage with people only when we "need" something from them: we need to be constant givers of our time, attention, respect and help.”

It inspired me to leave a comment, and to offer to send him a copy of Working Out Loud. Maybe he won’t reply. Or maybe we’ll wind up collaborating in some way. Regardless of the outcome, in just a few minutes I felt as though I opened a door of some kind, a gateway that might lead to new people and possibilities related to my work.

***

Update: A few hours after I wrote this, Paolo Gallo was kind enough to thank me for the comment and send me a personalized connection request on LinkedIn. 

Update #2: A few hours after my last update, he sent me a really nice note and we arranged to meet in NYC in late April. I'm really looking forward to it. 

Update #3: On April 22nd, I met Paolo at the World Economic Forum office in New York City. He was visiting from Geneva. We sat in a large conference room with an long, impressive-looking table. And what did we talk about? Our kids, and life, and ideas about how the way we all work could be different, more fulfilling.

I didn't know this when I wrote this post, but the mission of the WEF includes this lovely line capturing something I also believe:

We believe that progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change.

 We walked out of the building together and before we parted he suggested we take a selfie together. Here we are, in midtown Manhattan, with rush-hour traffic as a backdrop. 

I hope we meet again.

Paolo Gallo and me

Update #4: On October 25, we met again. I had seen that Paolo had published a book, La Bussola del Successo (The Compass for Success), and I had sent my congratulations. He invited me to an event celebrating the book launch in NYC. It at the offices of the World Economic Forum and sponsored in part by Paolo's alma mater, Bocconi University. There was a fascinating mix of people there.

I stood in the back, listening to his talk. He was surrounded by people afterwards. While I waited to say hello, I met his wife and young daughter, and we had a lovely conversation - about the book, about new careers (both hers and mine), about children. As the crowd thinned, Paolo greeted me with a hearty European hug, thanking me for coming. He signed a book for me, a physical reminder on my shelf of how easy it is to connect.

Connecting the dots in your life

Imagine you discover the perfect job description, one that seems written just for you. What would it look like? Mine might read something like this:

Looking for someone who wants to make work better for individuals, companies, and organizations seeking to make a difference. Must have experience with social networks and behavior change, and must have written a book about these topics. Should enjoy public speaking and interacting with people around the world. Buddhist tendencies a plus.

I’m pretty sure such a job description doesn’t exist. But such a job might.

Evidence I might be right

I was thinking about this in Houston last week. I had just delivered a presentation about making work better for individuals and the firm. During Q&A, there were questions about social networks and about ways to change behavior. A few people holding copies of Working Out Loud asked me to sign them.

Then someone came up to me and asked “Are you a Buddhist?” I was a bit taken aback, and somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t deserve the label. “An aspiring one,” I said, and asked why he thought so. He said, “some of the things in your introduction made me think you might be.”

That’s when it struck me that the different interests in my life could, however improbably, connect to form a coherent career.

Connecting the dots

Discovering your purpose

I had written about this idea before in a post titled “Discovering your purpose”:

A few decades ago, perhaps, we could take a personality test, list our talents, and find a suitable career. Not any more. Today, the world of work has splintered into a infinite set of ever-changing possibilities. So we have to learn to explore and discover our purpose.

Because it’s easier than ever to make things - from blogs to businesses - and to connect with people interested in those things, we’re no longer limited to a small set of job descriptions neatly carved up by Human Resources. Even if you have a traditional job, you can craft it to be more meaningful and tap into more of your interests. All of this makes it more likely you can connect the dots in your life.

My own learning is to avoid relying on luck or, worse, a boss to make those connections. Instead, I’ve found that a better path to discovering your purpose is building relationships and remaining open. That’s what brings you into contact with new possibilities, and lets you see opportunities you may not have even imagined before.