Perfect just the way you are. And...

That’s the thing about Zen masters. You never really know when they’re joking.

Shunryu Suzuki is best known for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and one of the most influential Zen organizations in the US. In the late 1960s, he was giving a lecture on “non-gaining mind” in which he was emphasizing practice for its own sake, as opposed to some benefit in the future. The striving and clinging to expectations not only distorted your practice but could also leave you miserable. 

“You become very idealistic with some notion or ideal set up by yourself and you strive for attaining or fulfilling that notion or goal. But as I always say this is very absurd because when you become idealistic in your practice you have gaining idea within yourself, so by the time you attain some stage your gaining idea will create another ideal…Because your attainment is always ahead of you, you are always sacrificing yourself for some ideal. So this is very absurd. “

A student asked Suzuki to clarify what he meant, so he simplified it.

“You are perfect just the way you are. And there’s room for improvement!”

Although I’m not sure if Suzuki was kidding, something clicked for me when I read that. I had always thought that being content with the way things are would be a sign of laziness, something not to be tolerated. My way to motivate myself has been to keep focusing on the improvement, the thing to be fixed or made better.

But as I get older, I see it only leads to a life of never-good-enough. You race towards a finish line that doesn’t exist, unable to complete the simple declaration: “I will be happy when…”

What if you could tap into all the benefits of getting better without the stress and drama? What if you accepted yourself exactly as you are - and others exactly as they are - and still remained open and curious about further development?

An example of kintsugi, or making art from damaged pottery - Photo credit: June’s Child

Your one word

At first I dismissed it as a gimmick. After all, what difference could one word make? 

But several of my friends have been doing it for years, and towards the end of 2018 they posted about their one word. My friend Fiona chose “energy” last year. She described how it helped her make better choices, and how she could build on that this coming year.

Whether privately or professionally, every time I had to take a decision I would ask myself the following question: "Will this decision increase my energy level?"

Having increased my energy level in 2018, I am now ready to work on my roots, my foundations, what makes me who I am and what makes me stand up. 

Anne-Marie Imafidon also wrote about her one word. She was featured in chapter 22 of Working Out Loud, and I’ve continued following her many accomplishments and accolades since then. She described the effects of choosing a word in past years and what’s next for her.

So 2019, for me will be the year of ‘Beyond’. I’m venturing beyond my normal boundaries and spheres of influence. I’m looking beyond the realms of what I’m doing now and what I’m currently capable of.

From reading their posts, I saw that your one word could be a kind of guidepost, something that reminds you of which direction you want to travel. At the end of last year I wrote about intentions and what would make the year great, and your one word can be another way to express what you intend to do and be.

My one word is “discipline.” Like Anne-Marie and Fiona, I feel like I’ve been building up to this word for some time, gradually developing habits - work, physical health, mental health - that make it possible for my one word to be more than just a wish.

For me, “discipline” isn’t about limits or stoic deprivation. Just the opposite. It’s about enabling me to make more mindful choices so I do what I truly intend to do. Whenever I have a choice to make, I remember my word and ask myself, “What would a disciplined person do?” Of course I won’t make the right choice each time, but it has already helped. (Some examples include work on important new projects, losing six pounds, and reducing time on my phone by more than 50% .)

What will your one word be? Where do you want to go?

My one word - Discipline.001.jpeg

What would make next year great?

Looking back, my career was a series of accidents, not intentions. All the major shifts were reactions to something someone else did, or opportunities that just popped up. I wasn’t purposeful or self-directed. Things just…happened. You could say that rather than me living my life, life lived me.

I’ve been working on changing that. Part of my approach involves keeping a journal in which, every day, I write down my answer to this simple question: 

What would make today great?

Those few minutes of thinking and writing in the morning help me focus my attention on what matters at different points throughout the day, and that helps me to make better, more mindful, choices. The days when I do what I intend to do are all extremely satisfying. 

A friend and I both use the same journal, and when we met for dinner in Stuttgart this month, I thought I would ask him a different question:

What would make next year great?

It led to an intimate discussion about what we each feel is important - relationships we want to deepen, experiences we want to have, meaningful work we want to do. Then we talked about steps we might take to make those things happen. It felt strange for me to chart such a course, but also exhilarating. It felt like I was trying, perhaps for the first time, to be “the author of my own life.” 

What about you? Are you living intentionally, or accidentally? 

What would make next year great?

What would make next year great?.jpeg

Note: Thank you for reading these posts, and for all the wonderful messages in email and on social media. This is my last blog post in 2018. I wish you all much joy and wonder, next year and beyond.

The first WOL-SC Circles are ready to start in September

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit “publish” last week, asking for volunteers to test a new kind of Circle, so I kept my expectations low. 

When the first response arrived nine minutes later, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Then more and more emails kept trickling in. Within 24 hours, I realized I had a good problem: I would have far more volunteers than I could accommodate in the first test of the new materials.

The diversity of those who responded is remarkable. Some work in big companies like Bosch and Daimler, and others in governmental and non-profit organizations related to healthcare, training, and education. Some are coaches or work in small consulting firms. There’s even someone who has their own “small fashion brand.” Respondents wrote to me from 16 different countries.

  1. Argentina
  2. Australia
  3. Austria
  4. Belgium
  5. Brazil
  6. Canada
  7. China
  8. Germany
  9. India
  10. Italy
  11. Netherlands
  12. New Zealand
  13. Poland
  14. Switzerland
  15. Turkey
  16. USA

I was going to form just three Circles so I could be sure to support each one and make use of their feedback. But I quickly decided to expand the experiment to 15 Circles to accommodate more volunteers. Still, I had to ask many people to wait for the next version of the guides before trying WOL-SC. I expect to publish them on workingoutloud.com in early 2019, after the experiment is complete and I’ve made improvements and adjustments to the method.

When people wrote to me, some said they hoped they would “make the cut” and some sent me their qualifications to be included. For those of you who could not join, please know this was not meant to be a contest of any kind. In selecting volunteers, I aimed simply for diversity, attempting to have a healthy mix of different countries, organizations, genders, and jobs.

In the next few days, I’ll be sending out emails to everyone who responded. I want to thank every single person for their support, and for their willingness to try something new and to offer their feedback. It is encouraging and inspiring, and i greatly appreciate it. 

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Introducing a new kind of Circle: WOL-SC

For people who have participated in a WOL Circle, a common question is, ”What comes next?” Many people want to keep going, so some join another Circle with new members. Others just continue to meet every so often, updating and supporting each other. 

Now there’s another option. It’s a new way to deepen the insights and practice you began developing in your WOL Circle, and it’s called WOL-SC.

 

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What is WOL-SC?

The “SC” in “WOL-SC” can stand for many things: “Self-Care,” “Self-Compassion,” “SuperCharge,” or whatever other label you can come up with that expresses a sense of investing in yourself and and developing important skills. In many ways, a WOL-SC Circle can be thought of as a prequel to a WOL Circle. Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

WOL-SC is comprised of five discrete practices that you experiment with one after the other. Without exaggeration, these practices have changed my life. When I compare my current self to myself in years past, I am happier and calmer. I act with more confidence and clarity. I am a better father, husband, and friend. WOL-SC is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned from years of experiments aimed at improving my own work and life. It is not meant as a prescription that will work for everyone, or to presume that anyone should do what I do. Rather, it's offered in the spirit of “this helped me, and I hope you find it useful too.”

The main ideas are not new. The WOL-SC Circle Guides are all based on ancient wisdom, much of it thousands of years old and increasingly supported by scientific research. My intended contribution is to make it easier for anyone to apply these fundamentally good practices till they become habits, so more people can realize the many well-documented benefits.

How does it compare to a WOL Circle?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, then certain aspects of WOL-SC will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five. It will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. Your Circle can meet in person or via video across locations, and there will be guides with instructions on what to do in those meetings.

Beyond that, there are several important differences. You will meet only once a month for six months. You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. The reason for the Circle meetings is that the structure, shared accountability, and support can help each person make progress. Also, reflecting on and exchanging experiences each month can advance your learning. 

Better for you. Better for your organization.

The personal benefits of the five practices in WOL-SC have been thoroughly studied and documented, and the new Circle Guides include resources to help you explore further and learn more. But there are benefits for organizations, too. Companies clearly recognize the need to do more to help employees handle the strains of work and life. Every company I've met with, for example, has a Wellness at Work or Mindfulness program. And hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves.

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

If you would like to be the first to try it…

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few years. While staying in Japan this summer, I finally drafted a set of guides that are ready to test, but not yet ready to publish. For the first experiment, I’d like to form 3 Circles, comprised of people I don’t know well and all of whom have been in at least one WOL Circle. We will start in September.

  • Circle #1 would meet in person in New York City, and I would be a member. So I would need four volunteers who live in or near NYC.
  • Circle #2 would meet via video and would span timezones. I would be a member of this Circle too, so I would need four volunteers from different countries.
  • Circle #3 would not include me. This will help me understand if the new guides are self-explanatory and what changes I may need to make. For this Circle, I would need five volunteers who would meet via video (unless five people in the same location volunteer as a group).

If you would like to volunteer for the WOL-SC experiment, send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and let me know if you have a preference for which Circle you’d like to join. This is version 1.0 of something that may take many iterations to get right, but I am committed to working on it and to making the guides available for free. I appreciate your interest and support.

Pema’s dishes

When I first read this story, it made me optimistic. “If this can happen to her,” I thought, “then there’s still hope for me.” It’s from Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, the renowned Buddhist nun.

“I had just finished my evening practice. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly state of mind. But as I came out of my room and started to walk down the hall, I saw that in our serving area someone had left dirty dishes. I started to get really angry.
Now, in the retreat we put our name on our dishes…So I was walking down and I was trying to see whose name was on those dishes. I was already pretty sure whose name was on them, because there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. She was always just leaving things around for other people to clean up. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this. I was thinking, “I’ve known her for a long time, and everyone thinks she’s a senior practitioner, but actually she might as well have never mediated for the way she’s so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet.”
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was “Pema,” and the name on the cup was “Pema,” and the name on the fork and on the knife was “Pema.” Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”

My first reaction was “So it’s not just me.” Even the most spiritual, compassionate, highly trained person gets angry sometimes, and makes up stories in her head. It’s part of the human condition. 

Then I noticed how she handled it. No additional drama. No self-recrimination. I imagined her smiling and shaking her head, thankful for the lesson manifested by some dishes. People make mistakes, and part of the practice is learning how to pause before you get carried away with the storyline, to be open to other possibilities before you react and to offer loving kindness for yourself and others when you do.

“Everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.”

30 days without added sugar

“Please have some sugar!”  

That was the plea from my wife and daughter when I was midway through my #NoSugarChallenge. They noted I was <ahem> more irritable and unpleasant than usual. Whether that was a lack of sugar or just my personality, we’ll never know.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

What and why

I was inspired by my older son to try this challenge. We debated rules: Does maple syrup count? Agave? What about dextrose? Pretty quickly we settled on avoiding anything that included white or brown sugar, corn syrup or similar derivatives, or artificial sweeteners. We agreed that eating an apple, for example, or granola with real maple syrup, was acceptable. 

For most of my life, my approach to food was simple: if I liked it, I ate it. Over the last ten years, though, I have become more mindful of what I eat. My view of sugar in particular has changed as I saw my mother die of diabetes, and learned how one of every three people in the US will develop this preventable disease

I had tried similar challenges related to meat and alcohol. Now it was time to try a sugar challenge.

The immediate benefits

Starting from the first day, I became increasingly aware of sugar in my diet. I started reading more labels, and was often surprised at how sugar had insinuated itself into so many things. 

For the most part, it turns out, I don’t eat much added sugar. I like baking and enjoy ice cream, but for these 30 days I could easily avoid them. Dark chocolate, though, was a different matter. I have a habit of having a few pieces after dinner, and I really wanted that chocolate. To deal with my craving, I’m sure I drank more wine and had more second helpings than usual.

I also failed twice while I was on a business trip. Once was on purpose. At a nice restaurant with a friend who was looking forward to sharing dessert, I made a conscious decision to participate. The other time was an impulse, when some lovely-looking rice pudding was served for free after an Indian meal. I did not resist.

At the end of the challenge, I opened some chocolate I had purchased specifically for the occasion. I looked at, smelled it, and savored it. Just a few pieces. It was heavenly.

The absolute best part

The biggest benefit actually didn’t have anything to do with sugar, but with the practice itself: I became more confident, with a reinforced sense of self-control. I first experienced this when I became a vegetarian:

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

That feeling has increased with each challenge and with new habits like writing, meditation, and playing piano. For most of my life, my fear of big changes was matched only by self-criticism for my lack of discipline. Now, in mid-life, small experiments with my habits have changed my life.

The Stoic philosophers, along with modern psychologists, say that self-control is something to be developed, and that doing so makes for a happier life. I think they’re right.

The Wine Test

This test comes from the excellent book, Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics, by Richard Thaler. He’s an economist who observed that human beings are much messier than the rational, optimizing agents in economics textbooks. As an example of this, he surveyed subscribers to a newsletter on wine auction pricing, called Liquid Assets, and asked them this question:

Suppose you bought a case of good Bordeaux in the futures market for $20 a bottle. The wine now sells at auction for about $75. You have decided to drink a bottle. Which of the following best captures your feeling of the cost to you of drinking the bottle?
a) $0. I already paid for it.
b) $20, what I paid for it.
c) $20 plus interest.
d) $75, what I could get if I sold the bottle.
e) -$55. I get to drink a bottle that is worth $75 that I only paid $20 for so I save money by drinking this bottle.

Take a moment now and choose what you feel the cost would be. (There’s no one correct answer, and I’ll provide how people in the survey responded below.)

The results

You may have already come across behavioral economics in some other excellent books such as Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and Nudge co-authored by Thaler. They all show how people make decisions that can be decidedly against their best interests. 

The Wine Test is more than a party trick. Though the correct answer according to economists would be “d) $75, what I could get if I sold the bottle,” only 20% of respondents made that choice. More than half of the people considered drinking the bottle to be free (30%) or even result in a profit (25%). The rest just considered the original price (18%) or included interest (7%).

Why are our choices so different from what economists would predict? And why are we so different from each other?

$100 bills on the sidewalk

The problem is that we’re not purely rational agents who optimize outcomes. Included in a long list of deviations is that we tend to over-react to losses, to overweight near-term versus long-term benefits, and to base decisions based on how they’re worded or “framed.” 

A striking example of this is how we save for retirement. In a paper titled, “$100 Bills on the Sidewalk: Suboptimal Investment in 401(k) Plans,” researchers showed how people didn’t take advantage of employer-matched funds (literally free money) and consistently paid little attention to contribution rates and how their retirement money would be invested.

Providing education about investments didn’t change much, but something else did: intelligent defaults. Employers automatically enrolled employees in the program and selected contribution rates and investments based on their profile. Employees still had full control to change things, but it was opt-out instead of opt-in.

“Under the opt-in approach, participation rates were 20% after 3 months of employment, and gradually increased to 65% after 36 months. But when automatic enrollment was adopted, enrollment of new employees jumped to 90% immediately and increased to more than 98% within 36 months.”

With a simple change, and without diminishing employee autonomy, behavioral economists were able to improve the retirement prospects of thousands of people.

Changes in your work and life

Whether it’s investing in wine, retirement, or in your own career and personal development, it’s clear we don’t always do what’s best for us. But as Thaler noted, 

“Once you understand a behavioral problem, you can sometimes invent a behavioral solution to it…My mantra is if you want to help people accomplish some goal, make it easy.”

How did you do on The Wine Test? How will you do on making other, more important, decisions?

The more we know about why people do what they do, the better we can design things to make work and life better.

What happens after 400 days of meditation

Meditation, like Fight Club, is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about. If you’re doing it to bolster your ego - Look at me! I’m enlightened! - it goes against the entire process. Still, when I noticed on my “Insight Timer” that I had sat down and meditated 400 times, it surprised me. What started as a challenge has become one of my most valuable habits. 

I’m not enlightened by any means, but several things have changed for me. I hope that by sharing it, some of you may consider making meditation a habit too, or may be more confident in developing other habits you care about.

It began with a challenge

A few years ago, I had begun doing small experiments on my own habits and happiness. After one post about “30 days without alcohol” that included a reference to Stoic philosophy, a reader made an interesting comment: 

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.
But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here. I would challenge you to do/add something every day for 31 days that you find challenging.”

Instead of abstaining or subtracting from my life, what could I do or add that would make life better? I instantly thought of meditation, as references to its benefits kept appearing throughout my reading and research. So I started by trying to do it for ten minutes a day for thirty days. That was almost two years ago.

The progress chart I kept for my meditation "challenge"

Simply difficult

Meditation is at the same time ridiculously easy and ridiculously difficult. There are many variations. The kind I practice, based on How to Meditate by Pema Chödrön, is especially simple.

  • Sit down with your back straight, legs crossed on a cushion or sitting on a chair.
  • Keep your eyes open, focused on a spot on the floor about 4 to 6 feet in front of you.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • When your mind wanders from your breath (it will), simply let the thoughts pass, or label them “thinking,” and focus again on your breath.

That’s it. I do this for 15 minutes each day, usually first thing in the morning, before the kids wake up and after I’ve turned the coffeemaker on.

“You’re not as angry.” 

The first thing I noticed, and what seems to be a universal experience, is that it’s impossible to stay focused for more than a few seconds. You think about that thing you need to do later. You shift your position. You become irritated that you’re such a bad meditator. The phrase commonly used to describe this is“monkey mind” and your inability to control it is frustrating. 

It’s why Pema Chödrön says, “Our mental habits are ancient and take a while to unwind. So we need to practice with patience, intelligence, and gentleness.” She teaches you to think of your thoughts as clouds passing by. Instead of clinging to them, notice them as a detached observer, without judgment, without berating yourself. It can help to simply label thoughts as “thinking,” a gentle trigger to focus on your breath again. 

Over the following months, I never experienced a major insight or epiphany. One day though, over dinner, my 9-year-old daughter said to me, “You’re not as angry.” I was a bit stunned. I looked across the table at my wife who said, “It’s true.” I reflected on it later, and felt that I had indeed become calmer and happier.

Calm, Compassion, Clarity, Confidence

With more research, particularly reading the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, I’ve come to think of meditation as a simple process for training your mind, for learning how to make the most of it. What makes a difference for me isn't the idea of a serene experience each morning. It’s the tens of thousands of times I've practiced calmly focusing my attention on the present moment. 

The more you do it, the more you develop a kind of “meta-awareness” - an awareness of what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it. I don’t claim to have perfected such an ability, but I’ve experienced glimpses of how powerful it can be. The benefits include what I think of as “the 4 Cs.”

Calm - I’m more aware of the triggers that cause me to react as they happen, and that awareness allows me to pause and proceed more mindfully.

Compassion - I’m more aware of my judgments about others, including my own inner critic’s voice. Being aware makes me more thoughtful - Is that really true? - and softens my attitude towards myself and others. 

Clarity - The less reactive and judgmental I am, the more purposeful and open I become. It’s like putting on glasses that let me see through the noise and drama.

Confidence - This isn’t about ego or arrogance, but more like walking on solid ground. Instead of doing something unthinkingly, I’m more mindful of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Meditation and getting a glimpse of the four Cs is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Sometimes you lean heavily left or right, or teeter side to side. But there are those moments when you get it. I’m riding on two wheels! In that moment, you’re fully alive, and you can feel the sun and the wind and the joy. The next thing you know you’re relying on training wheels again, and you’re eager to keep practicing. 

I may never be like Pema Chödrön, but I can be a better me. The more I get a glimpse of calm, compassion, clarity, and confidence, the more motivated I am to practice. 

“The mind is very wild. The human experience is full of unpredictability and paradox, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. We can’t escape and of these experiences in the vast terrain of our existence. It it part of what makes life grand - and it is also why our minds take us on such a crazy ride. If we can train ourselves through meditation to be more open and more accepting onward the wild of our experience, if we can lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds, we can become more settled and relaxed amid whatever life brings us.”
- Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate

A different kind of challenge

A few months ago, I started doing experiments in self-control. 30 days without alcohol. 30 days without dessert. They were inspired by a book on Stoic philosophy titled A Guide to the Good Life as well as The Marshmallow Test by psychologist Walter Mischel. The experiments taught me to appreciate things I enjoy and the conditions under which I indulge (or overindulge) unthinkingly. They were lessons in gratitude and self-awareness.

My friend Marie-Louise was skeptical and, as usual, had a few questions.

“Is self-control and self-discipline the same as “self-denial”?

Does denying one’s self something (pleasure or otherwise) really increase the “chances of living a good life”?

Can it not instead be a disguise for, or deflect , what’s really inner most in our thoughts?

Is it a way instead of avoiding something else one may not want to confront?”

The challenge

Marie-Louise is a smart and intellectually curious woman whose questions always make me think. This time, she followed up her questions by suggesting a different kind of challenge.

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.

But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here. I would certainly challenge you to “do”/”add” something every day for 31 days that you find “challenging” and then I will additionally challenge you to describe the difference between the two approaches and their respective affect on you?”

Challenge accepted. Instead of denying myself something, I decided to try something I had been wanting to do for some time: meditation. Every day, for 30 days, I would meditate for 10 minutes.

Meditation for 30 days

The results

Marie-Louise asked “Would it not be just as good to 'add' to one’s experiences and show self-discipline in that process?”

Yes, it was just as good and in some ways better. Both approaches are empowering. The feeling of autonomy is one of our basic human motivators. Knowing I could control how I eat, drink, or think (or not eat, not drink, and not think) made me feel I could do or not do anything I truly intend.

The meditation experiment was enriching as well as empowering. I now see how in addition to being able to impose limits on myself I can open myself up to new possibilities.

That’s no small thing for me. For example, I’ve wanted to learn how to play piano for decades but I had no signs of talent and never thought I had the discipline. Now I know much of what we call talent is related to effort and that I have developed the required self-control.

I approached a teacher who’s also a family friend and she was surprised. "Are you serious? Will you really practice?" I smiled, armed with a new-found confidence in my ability to take on new challenges.

My lessons start in September. And they won’t just be for 30 days.

Piano with Pride