It’s time to step up

its-time-to-step-up

Things did not turn out the way I hoped they would. What should I do next?

I could be angry, and make my anger visible with a nasty comment on social media.

I could search the internet for extreme examples and share those that validate my fears and beliefs, ignoring my confirmation bias.

I could taunt or confront people who have different opinions, mocking them for their obvious lack of principles and education.

I could defriend the few in my network who disagree with me, thereby repairing the small breeches in a social bubble I have carefully cultivated, one that brings me comfort that I’m surrounded by people who think like me.

I have done all of these things in the past, and it has yielded nothing but unhappiness.

I’m done. I am no longer willing to be part of the problem, to feed the escalation of polarizing, dehumanizing behaviors that seems to be the new normal.

It’s time to step up.

If I want more kindness and compassion, I can be kinder and more compassionate, online and in person, throughout my day.

If I see unkind behavior, I can speak up and offer my support.

If I want more opportunities for people faced with systemic bias, I can do something to give them a voice, to help them gain access they might not have otherwise.

If I want to improve how people relate to each other - to replace hate and fear with empathy and generosity - I can continue to develop and spread a practice that does that. I can make that my life’s work.

I am not angry. I am not depressed.

I am committed.

A source of strength in times of uncertainty

It’s going to happen to you. Maybe your company will cancel your project, or your trusted boss will resign. Maybe an event in your personal life will make you unsure of the future. Maybe your country’s election will leave you numb with disbelief, fear, and anger.

What will you do when it happens?

My own instinct is to react, to disengage completely or to work myself up into a frenzy of anxiety, replaying the issue over and over. But during the last few years, a simple practice has helped me through many challenges. I ask myself these 3 questions.

What am I trying to accomplish? 

Who’s related to that goal?

How can I contribute to them to deepen our relationship?

Focusing on my goals, even small ones, re-centers me. It gives me a sense of purpose, providing some much-needed stability amidst the uncertainty.

Thinking of my goals in terms of other people, and of what might be useful to them, is an act of empathy. It takes me beyond my immediate worries. It makes me mindful that I am part of something bigger than myself.

Making contributions to others, even small actions like offering appreciation, gives me a sense of control. I am doing something. The resulting interactions give me a sense of connection, a sense of relatedness that is comforting.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore the things happening around you. But dividing external events into “good” and “bad” and reacting accordingly is a recipe for unhappiness. When you channel your energy into the 3 questions instead, you tap into your natural intrinsic motivators - your need for control, competence, and connection. That enables you to do something constructive for yourself and others.

Today is the middle of “Working Out Loud Week” or #WOLweek, and there are many excellent posts written by people around the world about the practice. But for me today, I wanted to emphasize that Working Out Loud is about more than activities and tips. It’s about changing how people relate to each other and to the work they do. The practice starts with you. As more people do it, entire organizations can become more open and collaborative, more human.

Your world needn’t be limited by today’s headlines. As you build meaningful connections with other people, you’re weaving your own safety net as well as links to other possibilities. Your network can be a web of resilience that leads you through difficult times. Your relationships can make you stronger, more effective, and hopeful.

 

A different kind of moonshot

I happened to listen to these two TED talks one after the other. Maybe that’s why it struck me that we need a different approach. Or at least a different emphasis. 

A certain kind of vision

The first talk was from the head of Google X, whose mission is to identify huge problems in the world, propose radical solutions, and attempt to build technology for those solutions. They refer to where they work as a “moonshot factory.”

“We use the word "moonshots" to remind us to keep our visions big -- to keep dreaming. And we use the word "factory" to remind ourselves that we want to have concrete visions -- concrete plans to make them real.”

The sheer range of ideas was mind-blowing, from autonomous vehicles to balloons providing Internet access to remote regions to a “lighter-than-air, variable-buoyancy cargo ship.” They could make the planet safer, more connected, and more efficient. 

The second talk was from the author of How We’ll Live on Mars. He talked about a wide array of technologies to provide food and breathable air. Towards the end, he went much further

“So that leads to the next big -- really big step -- in living the good life on Mars. And that's terraforming the planet: making it more like Earth, reengineering an entire planet.”

Heating up the polar ice caps, he said, could create “a runaway greenhouse effect,” increasing the overall temperature and making Mars more readily livable for humans. “Then we get some real magic.”

Both of the talks were remarkable for their sheer ambition, their visions for how technology could transform our experience and our future.

And yet…

As impressive as the engineering was, though, I couldn’t help but think: what about the people

Our extraordinary technical advances are in stark contrast with the lack of progress in relating to each other. Think of your daily interactions with others in your office, in your community, or even in your social media feed. We can live on Mars, but it’s hard to hold a civil conversation, or to have empathy for those not like us.

I’m not suggesting we have to choose between technical and social issues. I’m saying the latter set of problems are grossly underserved. 

A different kind of moonshot

So I would like to go in a different direction. The moonshot I want to work on is about a workplace - and a world - that’s more human and empathetic, more open and generous. I want to do more than just hope that it comes about, but to have concrete plans and actions to bring it about.

Recently, a friend sent me an email after watching a presidential town hall featuring the topic of race and policing.

“There is a lot of discussion around improved communication between groups that have different opinions and don't usually speak well with each other.
How could your ‘working out loud’ play its part in fostering this conversation?  If it could, it would make a serious difference.”

He made me think. How indeed? Right now, we’re applying the five elements of Working Out Loud inside businesses to improve collaboration, to make work more effective and fulfilling. Such organizations provide us with the chance to see what works and doesn’t work, to keep experimenting and adapting. My intention is to use what we collectively learn to help other organizations too: non-profits, communities, and social movements.

When it comes to relating to each other, there are huge problems in the world. Now more than ever, we need to make a serious difference.

The ambulance at the old age home

When the ambulance comesThe home is just up the street from me. I can see it from my apartment window. Every other week or so, I notice the flashing lights of an ambulance as it pulls up and double-parks outside. The sirens are almost never turned on. It’s as if there’s no reason to hurry. I think about the person being attended to. The phone calls to family, producing ripples of grief. Or, much worse, a silent dispatch replete with processes and paperwork.

I wonder what the people inside are thinking, as they’re gathered in the dining hall, slowly eating the food prepared for them. Are they reflecting on their own life, committing to make more of the little time they have left? Or is the incident another bitter reminder of a life largely un-lived? Perhaps they’re silently relieved it’s not their turn, and after a respectable silence they continue where they left off.

Each time it happens, I think about my own end. I know it sounds macabre, but for all of us it’s a matter of when, not if.

Will I "go gentle into that good night” or “rage, rage against the dying of the light?”

What will you do, when the ambulance comes for you?

A Slice of America

“Where’s your beautiful accent from?” I asked. She told me she was from Mississippi, and I replied that “To a New Yorker, that’s exotic.”

The audience laughed. I was at a meeting in San Antonio with people who worked with universities across the United States. Over the course of the day, I heard a wide range of wonderful accents as I met people from Alabama and Alaska, Nebraska and North Dakota, Texas and Tennessee, and pretty much every other state.

In that one conference hall, it was like a slice of America

America

More than just talk

There were over 300 people there, and the meeting was organized by extension.org, a part of the U.S. Cooperative Extensions system. (Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I until they started experimenting with Working Out Loud circles.)

“Extension provides non-formal education and learning activities to people throughout the country — to farmers and other residents of rural communities as well as to people living in urban areas. It emphasizes taking knowledge gained through research and education and bringing it directly to the people to create positive changes. "

What started over 100 years ago in response to farming issues had grown to cover topics as different as food safety, personal finance, and even “bee health.”

Something special

Perhaps the most striking thing - even more than their accents or their accomplishments - was their attitude. These were some of the nicest, most caring people I had ever met. Not just a few of them. Literally everyone I met was positive and kind and helpful.

Though they’re part of a large organization and all that that can entail, they clearly cared deeply about their work. They all seemed purposeful and committed. Against a backdrop of sameness spreading across America - the same stores, the same bad food, the growing cynicism - here was a chorus of different voices trying to make a difference.

It’s a strange thing to say about a conference, but it made me hopeful.

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.

Equipping people to make the world a better place

WOL for the planet

WOL for the planet

The first email was from someone in Sierra Leone, and I wondered if it was a mistake. Then a follow-up message came from Tanzania, and now it was clear they had the right guy.

They were interested in working out loud to make the world a better place. And they got my attention.

The notes were from young professionals in a management program at a leading humanitarian organization. It’s a highly selective program, with members located in countries around the world. They work on projects like “confronting the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone” and “defending children’s rights everywhere.” The expectations are high and the stakes are even higher. But it’s difficult work, and they can struggle to find the people and knowledge they need to be effective.

“We have to deliver across our teams at a country level and build networks at a global level…we need to share information, lessons learnt, best practices and communicate across the board — we need to work out loud.“

They need this for their projects as well as for their own careers. “As individuals, these are also skills that we need to master.” So they asked if I would talk with them.

“I am actually hoping that this could be the beginning of a discussion with our organization globally on the WOL concept and its potential for our work.”

I’m hoping for that too, so I said yes right away and sent them electronic copies of the book.

The simple practice of working out loud can help individuals and companies. The greatest benefit would be to equip people in organizations like the one that contacted me, organizations “that have the potential to change the lives of millions,” to help them make the kind of difference they’re aspiring to make.

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

"Before all of this happened, I was about to give up."

I remember when the first part of the story unfolded. There was a Humans of NY (HONY) photo of a young boy, and Brandon Stanton asked who influenced him the most.

“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

“That’s nice,” I thought. “I wonder what that woman is like.”

Over the next few weeks, I found out.

The school

Brandon photographed other teachers and administrators at the school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, “a middle school in the under-served neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn.”

They all seemed like such strong people. People who were committed to their students and their community, to helping them excel, to making a difference. HONY fans got to meet Ms. Lopez.

A couple days back, I posted the portrait of a young man who described an influential principal in his life by the name of Ms. Lopez. Yesterday I was fortunate to meet Ms. Lopez at her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy.

“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

The power of community

Humans of NY launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the school. One particular program was to send 6th-graders to visit Harvard, to show them where they could be if they wanted to be. The initial goal was $100,000.

The HONY community responded and contributed. Fans even sent flowers to Ms. Lopez.

The current total is $1.4 million. Ms. Lopez announced it at a school assembly.

"As a result of this fundraiser, the entire school will be going to visit Harvard. We’re all going to Harvard!"

The kids went nuts.

In addition to the Harvard program, all funds over $700,000 are going to a scholarship fund available to graduates of Motts Hall Bridges Academy. The fund is named after Vidal, the young boy whose voice started it all. He’s also going to be the first recipient.

"I have something to admit to all of you."

It’s such a beautiful story. Poor kids. Hardworking, committed teachers. Later on, the story inspired TV appearances and a visit with the President. But there was a poignant moment in Ms. Lopez’ talk at the school assembly.

“I have something to admit to all of you. Before all of this happened, I was about to give up. I was broken. I felt like typing my resignation. I told my mother: ‘Mom, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Because I don’t think my scholars care. And I don’t think they believe in themselves enough to care. I’m afraid they don’t think they’re good enough.’ And she told me to pray on it. But I told her, ‘I might be too angry to pray.’ And I know this is hard to believe, because you guys have never seen me break. But I was broken. It’s just like when you see your mom break down. You only see your mom cry when she’s been fighting so hard for you and she doesn’t think you care. That’s how I felt.

But then a couple nights later I was with my daughter at a Broadway show, and we were waiting for the show to start, and I started to get all these text messages from my teachers and former students. And then I saw Vidal’s face pop up on my screen. And my first thought was that something bad had happened. Because that’s normally the case around here when someone’s photo shows up unexpectedly. And the moment I realized that Vidal had said something nice about me, the usher came over and made me turn off my phone. When intermission came, my daughter said: ‘Mom, we’ve got to find out what’s happening.’ So we went and sat in the car. And I read what Vidal said, and I began to read the comments. And tears started coming down my face. Because even though I always tell you that you matter, up until that moment, I didn’t feel like I mattered.”

Who’s your Ms. Lopez? Your Vidal?

Her speech reminded me how little we know about the people who inspire and influence us. From a distance, they may seem happy and strong. Really, though, we have no idea.

But we all have doubts and fears. I certainly do. And a single voice can make a difference. Just this week, as I was thinking about giving up writing for a while, I got a lovely note from someone I don't know well but who said how much she appreciates this blog each Saturday. I was surprised and gratified, and her note made me think of all the people who influence me, and all the notes I could send to tell them that.

Is someone doing work that has influenced you? Let them know. Your voice can make a difference.

Confessions of a not-so-busy person

I used to be busy. I also disliked what I did and accomplished less than I could have. Then some things changed. I made three adjustments that made me happier and much more productive. Nothing as radical as a 4-Hour Workweek or Escape from Cubicle Nation. After all, I still have a job and I'm still at the same firm. My adjustments are about choices and small steps that may help you too.

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Cognitive surplus

When I was busy, I remember thinking that I didn’t have any time. Yet I managed to watch 10-20 hours of television each week, usually sports. Other hobbies, like golf or gardening, could take up another 5 hours a week. And my daily commute took up another 12 or so.

I’ve since made different choices. Living in the city has shortened my commute to a 20-minute walk. Cutting cable reduced television altogether and I now have other hobbies I'm passionate about.

I’m not suggesting those choices are inherently good, or even possible, for everyone. It’s just remarkable to me that I had a cognitive surplus and didn’t know it. Even without any changes to my job, I’ve found 20-30 hours a week to sleep better, eat better, exercise, and participate in things I enjoy more.

Saying yes and saying no

When I was busy, I would fill my calendar with meetings and obsessively look at my Blackberry. I would travel a lot. It felt like work and consumed all of my time at the office and often at home.

But was it necessary? Some professions (ER doctors, for example) have no choice but to react to things as they come in. But I was a manager in a large IT department. There was no blood, no life and death. What was I doing?

In retrospect, I was avoiding the real work: learning, improving, innovating, creating. It was easier to be busy than to confront all that I didn’t know. It was less scary to react to things, to go from appointment to appointment and “manage,” than to focus for a prolonged time on trying to make a difference and to care so much about the outcome.

Over time, I learned to craft my job, to shape it so it was more fulfilling and effective. That included saying no where I could, putting less emotional energy into meaningless but required tasks, and carving out blocks of time to attempt work that mattered.

Working out loud

The most important change I made was to change my job entirely. Working out loud made it possible to shape my reputation and build a network that led to new opportunities in the same firm.

Because of the other adjustments I made, I had time to learn and experiment. By making that work visible and framing it as a contribution that might help others (as opposed to promoting myself), I was able to find and connect with other people interested in what I was doing. Over time, that work became more valuable and I was in a role that never existed before.

That pattern continues and there’s largely no longer a boundary between what I do for work and what I do for fulfillment. By one measure, I don’t have a long workday at all. By another measure, I’m constantly working - researching, writing, engaging people, and building something that matters.

On Monday, I’ll speak to 350 people at my firm about something no one asked me to work on. They’ll each be holding a book no one asked me to write. On Friday, that book became available around the world. It’s work that’s good for me and good for the firm.

Working Out Loud on amazon.co.jp

Am I lucky? Absolutely. And by working out loud, I tilted the odds in my favor.

What about you?

I wrote this post because in the Q&A after one of my presentations, someone remarked on how busy I must be. She meant it as a compliment and yet I was worried it was a barrier for her. “I could never do what you do.”

I wanted to let her know I’m not busy. Though her own job, story, ambitions, and trade-offs will all be different from mine, I wanted to let her know that she has more choices and more control than she might have assumed. I wanted her to think about the possibilities. I wanted her to take a step toward making her own luck too.