My last day working in a big company

On Friday, I handed in my badge, walked through the turnstiles, and didn’t look back. Now I’m fully committed to spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.

It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. Here’s what happened and what I intend to do next.

How it happened

I’ve worked in big companies for 30 years, mostly in banks. If I had lost my job ten years ago, my only option would have been to ask a recruiter for help finding a similar one.

As I started working out loud, things changed. Over time, I developed a network of meaningful relationships I never could imagined before. The connections gave me access to learning and to opportunities, and made each day feel a bit better. The last few years have been a kind of goal-oriented exploration - “purposeful discovery” - that has expanded my sense of what’s possible.

By working out loud, I’ve learned that I can do and be much more. 

The trade-offs

Working at a big firm isn’t necessarily bad. I appreciate the many talented people I met and friends I made, and the chance to experiment on a large, global platform. I learned a lot and I’m grateful, and I will certainly miss the predictability of a paycheck every two weeks. 

But the culture, processes, and systems at so many large organizations depress people’s ability to contribute and realize their potential. It’s a tragic waste and it needs to change.

What’s next?

So now is the time for me to take a step. It’s time to fully commit to helping individuals and organizations unlock more possibilities and realize more of their own potential. 

Help might be in the form of giving a talk at your organization. Or the online training for circles launching on June 9th. Or creating a customized development program that can help your firm and all the people in it.

If I can help you or your organization realize your potential, please contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com.

Thank you.

The story of Oney Judge

If I hadn’t looked up, I never would have known about her.

This past week, I was in Philadelphia and was waiting to meet someone near the Liberty Bell. I noticed a few posters hanging on a wall outside, and something about one caught my eye.

It was about Oney Judge.

Oney Judge

Her story

She was one of George Washington’s slaves, and she had escaped from his home in Philadelphia while he was President. Here’s the quote that was on the poster.

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner.”

I decided to read more. I learned that Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process to emancipate its slaves. That was in 1780. Part of this “Gradual Abolition Act” was that slaves held in Pennsylvania for more than six months could free themselves.

I learned that Washington purposefully rotated his slaves while he was President in Philadelphia, sending them back to Mount Vernon or to New Jersey for a few days so they would remain enslaved. This violated a 1788 law that had been passed, but Washington continued to do it until 1797 when he returned to Virginia and was no longer President.

Newspaper ads were placed offering a bounty for her kidnapping. “Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home.”  But there were fears such an abduction would cause a riot among abolitionists.

When she was spotted in New Hampshire, the customs officer sent a message to Washington that she would return if the President would free her upon his death. He declined, saying he would not “reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom].” A year later, in 1798, Washington’s nephew met with her and planned to kidnap her himself, but she was alerted and went into hiding.

Read the entire Wikipedia entry if you can. There are much longer accounts too listed in the notes. It brings to life how human beings were treated as pets or objects. The language is chilling.

“At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington.”

“Following Judge's 1796 escape, her younger sister, Delphy, became the wedding present to Martha Washington's granddaughter.”

What else have I missed?

Simply by looking up from my phone for a minute, I saw something that changed my perspective.

Until then, I had an almost cartoonish image of George Washington. I would think of him stoically crossing the Delaware in that famous painting. Or admitting to chopping down the apple tree as a boy (“I cannot tell a lie.”).

Of course he must have been more complicated than that, his ethics and values not nearly as lofty or even consistent as I had believed. Even just a few minutes of paying attention brought me closer to the truth, and to an appreciation for all the shades of gray in a world increasingly seeking black and white.

What else have I missed?

The Independence Day I’m still waiting for

Just a few minutes into the excellent documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” an interviewer asks Nina Simone “What’s free to you?” She’s uncertain at first.

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling…”

Then she smiles her big, beautiful smile.

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free. And that’s something else. That’s REALLY something else!”

After thinking about it, she looks directly into his eyes, becomes more animated and intense, and loudly proclaims,

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really, NO FEAR!“

Finally she looks away, puts her head in her hand, and quietly muses, as if to herself,

“If I could have that half of my life. No fear…”

The prisons we build ourselves

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to fear physical violence or illness can still find ways not to be free. We worry about the past and about the future. It’s sounds almost trivial until you realize how your own thoughts can rob you of that feeling of freedom and joy.

Just the other day, someone at work asked to meet me and I was sure I was in trouble of some kind. There was no evidence. It was a simple email. Yet I created a story that made me anxious. A few hours later, it turned out she was simply asking my advice.

The same day I was meeting with two friends who I think highly of. We had agreed to form a group to apply the ideas in my book. Rather than being excited, I was worried my friends - smart and accomplished - would be disappointed in me or my ideas. But there was no judgment. We simply met and talked and helped each other. I enjoyed their company and conversation.

These small fears prevent can prevent you from enjoying each day. The bigger ones can paralyze you.

Be free where you are

The heading "be free where you are" comes from a lecture given by a Buddhist monk inside a prison. It helped me understand that, for the prisons we build ourselves, we all have the keys.

The keys generally include being aware of the cognitive distortions we create. Being compassionate towards ourself and others. Being mindful and enjoying the present moment. For me, reading books like these and putting the ideas into practice is gradually making a difference.

It’s July 4th today and we’re celebrating Independence Day in the US. I'm not free yet, but I’m working toward making every day my own Independence Day.

be free where you are