“Like a pebble in a pond”

“Each contribution you make,” I’ll often tell an audience, “is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with more people and possibilities.”

It sounds a bit lofty, doesn’t it? Like an exaggeration? Here’s an example of what I mean.

A simple contribution

After reading Working Out Loud, Andrea could have quietly put the book on the shelf, but instead she offered public appreciation on LinkedIn and asked a simple question

“Is there anyone in the Munich area who is interested in forming a local #wol circle?”

Though I didn’t know Andrea, I was notified of her post because she mentioned me in it. So I offered some ways she could find potential Circle members and added that, by coincidence, I would be in her city in a few weeks.

“Fabelhaft! :-) One way to find Circle members is to ask in the WOL groups on Facebook or LinkedIn. There are many WOL practitioners in Munich. I'll be there myself in 2 weeks!”

One step unlocks another

Andrea’s short post didn’t exactly go viral, but it did draw a reaction from people in a few dozen companies and at least half a dozen countries. One of the comments, from someone who neither Andrea nor I knew,  said he would also be in Munich and perhaps we could meet. That led to a group message with a growing number of people. Soon, we had a date, time, and place to meet for dinner

There were 12 of us, and we had fun discovering connections between each of us. What motivated each person to attend? Did they know anyone else there? How did they even hear about WOL?

If that was all that happened, it would be enough, and Andrea summed it up nicely in a post.

“12 people from different companies with various backgrounds- and one common denominator: an interest in working out loud...It was a pleasure to see you all today! I feel enriched by your stories and I hope to meet you again in a circle, or otherwise :-)”

More people and possibilities

But the ripples kept spreading (and keep spreading). For example, six of the people there were from Airbus. Several of them brought a book, inscribed by their manager who, unbeknownst to me, was giving it to her team members. As we talked, we discovered other connections with Airbus in France, and the team resolved to start their own WOL Circles inside the company.

Stranger still, the woman I sat next, Gleyce, was already part of a group led by someone in Brazil working to translate the Circle Guides into Portuguese. The web of connections and coincidences seemed to grow, and we all remarked on how it all began with a simple post.

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

Pebbles and butterflies

In Week 10 of the Circle Guides, there’s a contribution checklist to help people become more systematic about what they have to offer. Your gift can be as simple as attention or appreciation, or it can be making your work visible: sharing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, resources and people that have helped you, things you’ve learned, questions you have, and more.

When I write posts like the one you’re reading now, most of the readers are people I don’t know, and aren't even connected to me, and the ripples take me and my work to some surprising places. Just this week I got a note from the principal of a school in Austria who wants to use WOL to help teachers with their professional development. It's a topic my wife and I are both interested in, and that I wrote about almost four years ago, and the Austrian principal and I agreed on an experiment we'll do together in a few weeks.

How do such things happen? And how can you make them happen more often?

In chaos theory, as a way to demonstrate that small changes can have dramatic and unpredictable consequences, it's said that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can affect the weather in New York City.

What if, like Andrea, you unleashed your own butterflies each day, offering contributions without expectations? What kind of changes could you make possible, for yourself and for others?

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German

It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.

Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.

“Shining eyes”

He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way. 

"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
(Laughter)
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”

The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.

“Ode to Joy”

Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.

He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.

“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”

We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING! 

At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.

When the music stops

Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.

“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be. 

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

It can be as easy as this

Peter was at a work event, and needed information on a topic that was unfamiliar to him. He had done some research online, and now he was looking for advice.

If you were Peter, what would you do next?

Giving & receiving

You might keep on searching and reading. That’s not a bad strategy. Or you might ask some people at the event or send a few emails to people you think might know something. Instead, Peter posted a simple question on a community site related to the topic. The topic was Working Out Loud. 

“At this very moment I am facilitating a networking event around #NewWork at Deutsche Bahn. One specific session just strived to understand #WOL. Any help or advise is highly appreciated. We have the rest of today plus tomorrow and would love to get started in that timeframe. What immediate first steps would you recommend?”

Within a few minutes he had responses from people in three different cities and companies. Within a few hours, people from Deutsche Bank, Bosch, and BMW as well as independent consultants all offered suggestions and asked questions. As the world turned, more people joined from five different countries. Many more people viewed and reacted to the post.

One of the commenters actually drove to the event to bring Peter a copy of Working Out Loud.

Peter started the discussion by simply offering his attention and vulnerability - “We’re working on this and interested in what you do. Could you help us?” - and the community responded with specific, constructive advice, encouragement, and even a sense of humor.

Maybe it ends there, with a nice discussion. Or maybe Peter tapped into a valuable practice he can spread inside his company and a global network that can help him - all with a simple contribution. It can be as easy as this.

Simon Terry, consultant and leader of Change Agents Worldwide, summed up what many of us in the discussion were thinking.

The Perimeter of Your Potential

He was a medieval scholar, trying to decipher traces of a poem from the Middle Ages. He was looking at the only remaining manuscript, and it was so badly damaged that he was using an ultraviolet lamp to detect the writing. But the document was too burned and faded. Other scholars had already given up.

What he did next is helping to shape our understanding of history. It’s also an example of how small actions you take can expand your knowledge of what’s possible.

The Chess of Love
The Chess of Love

An email that shaped history

Gregory Heyworth is the name of the scholar, and he gave a talk in October on “How I’m discovering the secrets of ancient texts.”

He described what he did when he realized he was stuck:

“And so I did what many people do. I went online, and there I learned about how multispectral imaging had been used to recover two lost treatises of the famed Greek mathematician Archimedes from a 13th-century palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript which has been erased and overwritten.

And so, out of the blue, I decided to write to the lead imaging scientist on the Archimedes palimpsest project, Professor Roger Easton, with a plan and a plea. And to my surprise, he actually wrote back.”

Like a pebble in a pond

The simple set of steps Heyworth took - searching for people who could help him, deciding to reach out, crafting a compelling letter that earned a response - sent out ripples that changed his career.

“With his help, I was able to win a grant from the US government to build a transportable, multispectral imaging lab, And with this lab, I transformed what was a charred and faded mess into a new medieval classic.”

That same lab then went on to “read even the darkest corners of the Dead Sea Scrolls” and make transcriptions from the Codex Vercellensis, a translation of the Christian Gospels from early in the 4th century.

Then he founded the Lazarus Project, a not-for-profit initiative to bring the technology to individual researchers and smaller institutions. That brought him into contact with researchers and precious documents around the world, like the team working on a map from 1491 used by Columbus that was no longer legible.

He took all these facets of his experience and became a professor of a new “hybrid discipline.”

“There's so much of the past, and so few people with the skills to rescue it before these objects disappear forever. That's why I have begun to teach this new hybrid discipline that I call "textual science." Textual science is a marriage of the traditional skills of a literary scholar -- the ability to read old languages and old handwriting, the knowledge of how texts are made in order to be able to place and date them -- with new techniques like imaging science, the chemistry of inks and pigments, computer-aided optical character recognition.”

Expanding the “perimeter of your potential”

In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, he uses the phrase “the adjacent possible” to describe how, at any point in time, only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. Whether it’s how animals evolve or how technical innovation happens, one given change makes other changes possible. “The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Applying it to you individually, an interviewer described the adjacent possible as “the perimeter of your potential” and that you expand the range of your possible next moves by actively bringing yourself into contact with other people and ideas.

When Gregory Heyworth searched for people who could help him and made a meaningful connection, he expanded his adjacent possible and unlocked access to projects, creating a movement, and even a new field of study, things he could never have imagined beforehand when he considered himself “just a medieval scholar.”

What about you and what you’re trying to accomplish? Are you actively looking for people who could help you and trying to build relationships with them?

It’s what people in Working Out Loud circlesaround the world are doing. Learning to take small steps that can gain them access to more possibilities.

You can shape the perimeter of your potential.

***

“This year I will…”

2014ⓒYooniqImages/Corbis

2014ⓒYooniqImages/Corbis

How would you complete that sentence? This year I will... If you’ve thought about it in previous years, what actually happened?

One way to make a difference this year is to form a Working Out Loud circle. I’m getting more and more mail from people about how their circle empowered them, liberated them. Just this week, a woman told me her circle "had an enormous impact on my life."

Yet it’s such a simple process.

You write down a goal, share it with a small trusted group, and take a few steps over 12 weeks to build relationships with people who can help you.

Deciding to form a circle might just be the best New Year’s resolution you ever made.

What’s holding you back that you might be able to change?

Where might you go?

How to create a path to more possibilities

One of the reasons you work out loud is to increase your chances of achieving some goal you care about. The mindset and habits help you learn while also giving you access to more opportunities. Simon Terry in Melbourne, who’s in a working out loud circle and was a main promoter of working out loud week, described it this way:

“They say luck is when opportunity meets readiness. The value of working out loud is it fosters both requirements for luck.

Work out loud. It improves your luck.”

I’m still surprised by how true this is and how rich the possibilities can be. Here’s an example that happened to me last week.

How I came to care about the National Health Service

The story started in July. I noticed that someone named Jackie Lynton tweeted about "The 5 elements of working out loud", a post I had written six months earlier.

Jackie Lynton tweet

Jackie Lynton tweet

I looked at her Twitter profile and that of the other person she mentioned, Helen Bevan. They were heading up a Transformation Office in the NHS, the national health service in the UK. That was interesting. So I followed them, read some of their interactions on Twitter, and offered to help them. That led to a phone call.

Deepening relationships 

What happened next reminded me of a post I wrote called “Deepening relationships through contributions.” It was about how contributions over time can lead to more meaningful interactions and opportunities.

In early August, I had a call with Jackie and a few people on her team. That led to me sending them a draft of the book, and to Jackie talking about working out loud circles to other people.

Then in September, I saw this from someone in Jackie’s network:

Helen Sanderson tweet

Helen Sanderson tweet

That led to a connection with Helen, who has her own firm, and others related to the NHS. I sent Helen a draft of the book too and she formed her own working out loud circle. She was so helpful and generous that when we finally spoke on the phone it was like talking to a good (and extremely smart) friend.

Just last week

Then, last week, a series of things happened in quick succession:

  • I met Jackie and Helen in person in New York City and after getting to know each other better, we decided to collaborate on a half-day workshop.
  • Carol, who found me via others at the NHS, mentioned my work in their new online hub called The Edge.
  • Carol generously offered to review the book and promote it as part of their book club.
  • Helen wrote this excellent post on working out loud and "rethinking networking."
  • Jon, a member of Helen’s working out loud circle, created this wonderful work of art.
WOL Art - 5 Elements

WOL Art - 5 Elements

A path to more possibilities

Maybe all that happened is that I met some smart, interesting people. Or maybe those budding relationships will help me learn how my work might help others in a different industry and a different country. Or maybe I’ll go on to work with one of the most important healthcare institutions in the world.

The point is that my set of maybes got a lot bigger.

Simon Terry captured this experience as he analyzed how people are working out loud and the benefits they're getting:

“The same themes keep coming to the fore: just start; be purposeful; enable people to give to others & build networks…

Success is not about being good or making the right choices. Success is about experimenting to learn faster and learn more. When you see success in that light you see the value of making a contribution in networks. Deep relationships in networks create options. Options have value.”

The path to more possibilities is paved with contributions and connections.