“Are you in or are you out?”

She could tell I was uncomfortable. I was sitting across from Kelly Kimball, the respected acting coach and director I've written about before. I had just told her about a video project I wanted to film, unlike anything I created before. She quickly laid out all that might be involved, the preparation I could do, some adjustments I would need to make. It was masterful. 

I must have visibly sunk into my chair. This will be worse than 10 TED talks, I thought. It was too much, and I would never be good enough.

Kelly noticed my apprehension, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’ll be great.” She talked about the work she had seen me do and why she knew I could pull this off. Then she paused. “Just ask yourself, before you start, ‘Am I in or am I out?’” It’s a question she has her acting students ask themselves before they do a scene.

If you’re out, you’re thinking about all that might go wrong. You’re focusing on why it needs to work - for the money or status or both. You’re questioning your ability and your choices. 

If you’re in, you’re thinking about why you wanted to do this kind of work in the first place. You’re focused on who it’s for, and how it can help them. You’re thinking about the contribution you’ll make and the learning you’ll take away no matter what.

I sat up, smiled, and thought, I’m in. I told her that was a question I could ask myself before every talk or workshop, whenever I write, and any time I was about to do something I cared about.

This year, as you take a step, as you attempt something new - to learn, explore, or do anything that stretches you in some way - what mindset will you bring to your work, to your aspirations?

Are you in or are you out?

Photograph by Steve McCurry

Note: For years, I've written every Wednesday and Saturday but on two different sites. Today, I've changed that, and merged everything here, including mailing lists because over time my work and life have blended. I'll continue to publish twice a week, and almost everything will relate to improving how people relate to themselves, to each other, and to the work they do.

Wherever you wish to go next with your career & life, I hope my work can help you in some way.

The golden ticket you’ve been holding all along

When Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory came out in 1971, I was seven years old. Even then, one scene struck me as particularly strange and uplifting. Grandpa Joe has been bedridden for twenty years, along with his wife and another old couple. He wants the best for his grandson, Charlie, but doesn’t feel there’s much he can do. Still, he offers Charlie his tobacco money so the boy can buy some chocolate and have a chance to escape, to dream, if only for a moment.

Grandpa Joe’s outlook on life is clear in the song he sings.

“I never thought my life could be

Anything but catastrophe

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing”

But when Charlie unwraps the chocolate and there’s a glimmer of gold inside, everything changes. Grandpa Joe undergoes a transformation, getting up and dancing around the room. “I haven’t done this for twenty years!”

“But suddenly I begin to see

A bit of good luck for me

'Cause I've got a golden ticket

I've got a golden twinkle in my eye

'Cause I've got a golden ticket

I've got a golden chance to make my way

And with a golden ticket, it's a golden day"


Here’s the thing. The ticket didn’t change his age or health or circumstances. What changed was his perspective, something he could have changed any time.

It’s hard to do. When upsetting things happen to me, my tendency is to react. I’ll curse my luck or myself, and my reactions color other areas of my life, including my relationships.

But I’m discovering I have more control than I thought. More and more, when something happens, I remember to take deep breaths, allow my initial feelings to take their course, and then reflect on what to do. I try to think about the many golden tickets I’m holding, the many reasons for joy. Sometimes I even think of Grandpa Joe and I sing the song (loudly). It takes practice, but when I remember to do these things, my perspective changes, and I feel happier.

Next time you think, “I never had a chance to shine, Never a happy song to sing,” try and reflect on the golden tickets you’re holding. Choose to dance around the bed.


The Köln Concert

I have listened to the recording hundreds of times. It was the music that kept me calm and focused as I wrote a book. While I knew “The Köln Concert” was the best-selling piano album of all time, I only recently heard the fascinating story of what happened the day of the concert. How it almost never happened, and how a critical mistake shaped the music.

When I was in Köln last weekend, I made a trip just to see where it all took place.

Keith Jarrett playing the Köln Concert

Arriving at the Opera House

It was a Friday in late January, 1975. The concert was scheduled to start at 11:30pm, after an opera. Despite the late hour and that it would be the first-ever jazz concert at the Opera House, the concert was sold out, and 1400 tickets had been sold. Jarrett was 29 years old.

He arrived at the opera house late in the afternoon after a long drive. Suffering from back problems, he had to wear a brace. He was led into the auditorium by the concert promoter, Vera Brandes, who was just 17 years old. She had specified “a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano” to be used for the performance. However, the opera house staff mistakenly selected a much smaller Bösendorfer piano that was backstage.

“The piano they had was intended for rehearsals only and was in poor condition and required several hours of tuning and adjusting to make it playable. The instrument was tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and the pedals did not work properly.”

A young woman’s plea

Tim Harford, in his TED talk, describes Jarrett’s reaction:

“Jarrett looked to the instrument a little warily, played a few notes, walked around it, played a few more notes, muttered something to his producer. Then the producer came over to Vera and said ... ‘If you don't get a new piano, Keith can't play.’"

Keith went outside and sat in his car, while Brandes scrambled to find a solution. But there wasn’t enough time to get another piano delivered to the hall. The concert was just hours away.

“So she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, ‘Never forget ... only for you.’”

Playing with constraints

Because the piano was small and because certain registers didn’t have the right sound, Jarrett played differently.

“Avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It's an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it's full of energy, it's dynamic. And the audience loved it.”

I still listen to the Köln Concert when I write, but it has a different effect on me since I heard this story. I see the creative act less as striving for perfection - as if you could even define that - than as making the most of what you have, using it in novel ways. When life hands you a bad piano, you can choose to walk away, or you can try to make art.

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.


Why “Half-full or half-empty?” is the wrong question

It’s such a common metaphor for our outlook on things. “Are you a glass half-full person?”

But that’s too simple and too static, because work and life are fluid and ever-changing. So here’s a better question to ask the next time you examine your glass:

“Is it evaporating or are you filling it up?”

half full glass of water or half empty PSC0512_FYI

More than just your outlook

Of course, there is a genetic predisposition to how we view the world. In The How of Happiness, Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky says our biology accounts for about half of our happiness. Our environment, surprisingly, accounts for only a tenth.

The other 40% is up for grabs.

That means that even those who win the Genetic Happiness Lottery and the Life Circumstances Lottery can still be quite miserable if they don’t do anything with the 40% that’s within their control.

Said another way, if you passively observe the slings and arrows hurled at you and those around you, you can find plenty to be unhappy about, and the water in your glass will slowly evaporate.

The power of a drop

The way to overcome this passive process is by actively adding to your glass, perhaps with just a drop each day. It might be as simple as pausing to appreciate a moment. Practicing a small act of generosity. Making a connection with someone new, or deepening your connection with a friend.

“Life is a verb,” as Patti Digh wrote, and so is happiness. That might seem obvious, but it took me almost fifty years to realize it.

A few years ago, as part of my own happiness project, I started using a simple guide that has made me more mindful of small things. A bit more of this, a bit less of that.

I’ve maintained such a guide since then, and over the years I’ve discovered the power of the progress principle. Small steps unlock other small steps that, over time, can lead to a remarkable shift in how you think and act.

Each drop changes you in some small positive way. Over time, you can make it rain.

Make it rain

The Piano Chronicles: My first recording

It’s been five months since I took my first piano lesson. I’ve written about what it was like to start at 51 years old and what I had learned after the first six weeks, and this past week was a milestone of sorts: I recorded my first song.

When I started, I couldn’t read music; didn’t think my fat fingers would be able to pick out the right keys properly; and was convinced my hands would never operate independently.

But I had some sense of where I wanted to go, and I mentioned to my teacher that someday I wanted to play “Bye Bye Blackbird” the way Nina Simone played it.

Well, here’s my attempt at the first nine measures. (1m:22s)


And here's Nina Simone’s version that has inspired me. (8m:18s)


I can compare myself to her and think how hopeless it all is, how much further I have to go. Or I can compare myself to myself, to when I started out five months ago, and see how far I’ve come.

The best piano lesson so far has nothing to do with music. It’s that you can get better at anything with effort and feedback. When I listen to my first recording, I don’t think “I’m not very good.” I think “I’m not very good yet.”


FullSizeRender (1)

The kid who wouldn’t talk on the phone

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

I was petrified.

Hurry up Johnny! They're waiting!

40 years later

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Hello? It’s me. 

Hello? It's me.

Three kinds of fear

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

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

Fear of the uncomfortable and unknown

Trying something new

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

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

Being vulnerable

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

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

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

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

Seeking meaning and fulfillment

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

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

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

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

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

Planting my piano tree

Twenty years ago, my friend Dave was in his thirties and mentioned he started taking piano lessons. It was a casual remark, but I still remember the envy I felt. Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to music, short of listening to Kiss or Led Zeppelin on 8-track tapes. Learning to play an instrument seemed like something reserved for other people, not for me.

Times changed, and I changed. When I started taking piano lessons recently, I thought of my friend, and wondered what happened to him.

Early progress

My first few months of learning have been liberating, allowing me to shed limits I had placed on myself. I’m able to do things much sooner than I had expected, including playing a few simple songs and reading simple music. I surprised myself.

On Tuesdays, I take my lesson right after my daughter takes hers.  My young son even practices a bit. Then our teacher and a friend join us for dinner and wine, and they’ll play some more. I mentioned that someday I wanted to play “Bye Bye Blackbird” as Nina Simone played it. We found it on YouTube and my teacher started to play it by ear. One night my cousin and my daughter played a duet.

We have music in our house, I thought. It’s a miracle.

Early struggles

The failures still sting. The worst ones are when I fail to try. The lack of a strict practice schedule means I missed 5 days this week.

Comparing myself to someone else presents a different kind of struggle. Below, for example, are the pieces my daughter and I are learning to play. Mine is on the left and hers on the right. I’m fifty-one and she’s seven (“almost eight,” she reminds me).

Planting my piano tree

Attempting to play my simple piece, I realize how stupid and stubborn my hands can be, refusing to carry out even the simplest of independent instructions.

I can feel my inner critic telling me, Give up. You’ll never be as good as them anyway.

The best time to start learning piano

Perhaps if I had started playing twenty years ago, I would have given up. But not now. I've come to know that learning almost anything includes learning how to deal with setbacks, learning about discipline, learning about yourself.

After many years, I had a chance to see Dave recently. We had lunch with some of his colleagues and I told them about my learning to play piano, and about how I felt when Dave said he started taking lessons.

“He plays beautifully”, his colleague said.

I smiled. I was happy for him, and I was happy for me. I thought of this old proverb:

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

I’m planting my piano tree now. Maybe twenty years from now, someone will say “he plays beautifully.” Maybe I’ll just enjoy nurturing my new practice and watching myself develop.

What tree could you plant today?

Learning to play piano at 51 years old

After decades of wanting to learn to play the piano, I finally took a step this past Tuesday and had my first lesson. I’m glad I waited.

My earlier attempts at learning

When it comes to learning new things, I’m eager to read books and do research. But other kinds of learning can bring out the worst in me.

More than 15 years ago, for example, I wanted to learn to play golf. I bought expensive clubs, went to the driving range to practice, played a lot, and even signed up for a few lessons.

I was terrible. For years.

The worst part, though, was that I couldn’t accept being terrible. I wanted to be good! Being terrible was humiliating and made me miserable. I reacted by trying harder, getting angry, breaking a few clubs, and making my embarrassment that much worse in the process.

With all the joy drained from the game, I lost interest, sold my equipment and decided I just wasn’t cut out for golf.

Older dog. New tricks.

In thinking about piano, I was conscious of the childish boy inside of me, the one so quick to be ashamed when he’s not good at something, ready to throw a tantrum and give up when he doesn’t make progress quickly enough.

But in the past few years, tired of routinely being frustrated and angry, I’ve tried a range of experiments in personal development, and some things have changed since my golfing days.

How to learn anything

Understanding what it takes to learn came from my research on changing habits at work and spreading the practice of working out loud. I saw that the most effective approach is taking small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support. (“Guided mastery” is a good phrase.) And I saw how that approach can apply to anything.

So as a reward to myself for publishing the book, I decided to take a step. Instead of just reading about the piano and banging on the keys myself, I asked my daughter's piano teacher if I could start lessons too. She’s a wonderful teacher, caring and positive and enthusiastic, as well as an incredibly talented pianist and composer. But she usually teaches children.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “I’m ready,” I said.

A miracle on the 23rd floor

And there I was, with mild trepidation, sitting down at the piano, with my daughter right there watching me. My teacher showed me where to place my fingers. “This is middle C.” We took small steps, and she provided encouragement along the way while  helping me make occasional adjustments.

By the end of the lesson, I was playing a simple version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I couldn’t believe this was me. The music. The calm. The deep sense of fulfillment after wanting for so long and finally - finally! - taking that first step.

The next day, alone in a quiet apartment, I turned on the piano, sat down, and practiced. Even when I made mistakes, I smiled, and I thought, This is going to be fun.

Ode to Joy