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?

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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.

If the odds are 100-to-1 in your favor

Suppose you were offered a bet that was practically a sure thing. If you win, you get smarter, you get access to more opportunities, and you feel more empowered and fulfilled. If you lose, you risk a small hit to your ego.

What would you do?

When the odds are in your favor.png

The game we play

This isn’t an abstract exercise. It’s a game you already play multiple times a day whenever you consider making a contribution.

When you have something you think is helpful, you hesitate even if your experience tells you that others would appreciate it. There’s a chance that someone won’t like it or won't like how you offered it. That person could be someone specific, like your manager, or it could be someone you imagine when you wonder “What will they think?”

Time after time after time, I come across people who are doing extraordinary things - people who are admired by colleagues and a network of people around the world - and they'll tell me privately, “My boss doesn’t like what I’m doing.” Yet even if it was upsetting for them at the time, they persisted. 

More common is the person who doesn’t take a step at all. The mere possibility that someone may not approve is enough to prevent them from making the contributions they would like to make.

I say this without judgment. For me, all it takes is one contrary opinion to fuel my doubts, even in the face of a hundred expressions of support. It took me almost five decades to realize I was ceding control of my life to anyone who said “no.”

Take a spin

The truth is that we have a negative bias in our heads that amplifies our fears and causes us to hang back. We hesitate to reach out, to share our ideas and experiences, to offer what we have to offer. But when it comes to making contributions, “Better safe than sorry” is a terrible long-term strategy, one that leads to regret and a haunting lack of fulfillment. Instead, "it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission" - advice commonly shared but seldom heeded.

The point isn't that you ignore feedback, or that you need to rebel against the system. It's just that you decide whether the negative opinions have merit, choose what adjustments you might make, and continue on with clarity and confidence.

It means you claim your right to having a voice and being heard, to realizing more of your potential, to living an authentic life.

The odds are clear. The benefits far outweigh the risks. What will you do?

What happened to “Working” in the last 45 years

I vaguely remember when Working came out. It was 1972. I was 8 years old. Calculators were becoming popular, and people were just starting to talk about computers.

The subtitle of the book is “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” It’s based on over 100 interviews with people in a wide range of jobs across the US - from gravedigger to TV executive, and consists almost entirely of the words of those people. (You can also listen to the original audio recordings.)

Despite all of the changes since those interviews over four decades ago years ago, many of the themes remain the same. Perhaps primarily, there was the need to make a difference, a search for meaning.

“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us…have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
“You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. Your job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine. A monkey could do what I do . It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that.”
“A man’s life is his work. You see humanity in a chair. It was made by some man’s hand. There’s artistry in that, and that’s what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.”

Many people expressed the feeling of not being treated or respected as a full human being, 

“That’s the thing you get in any business. They never talk about personal feelings. They let you know that people are of no consequence.”
“They call us professional people but they talk to us as very young, childishly. They check on us all the time.”
“These big corporations are gonna keep on growing and the people become less and less. The human being doesn’t count any more.”

Even back then, there was an awareness of the threat of technology, of dehumanization.

“You won’t know their names…You have a number - mine’s 407. You’re just an instrument.”
“It was almost like a production line. We adjusted to the machine. The last three or four years were horrible. The computer had arrived….I had no free will. I was just part of the stupid computer.”

As a result, many people felt stuck, like they had little control and few options.

“I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out.”

Do these themes sound familiar to you? Our needs for feeling effective and fulfilled - for meaning - aren't new. Helping people fulfill those needs is as important as ever.

What empowerment looks like: Daniella's story

I loved reading Daniella's story for many reasons: her desire to help young children get exposed to science and technology, the photos of her and the “inspired little scientists with shining eyes,” the article in the German newspaper.

I was inspired by how she turned an idea into reality, using her Working Out Loud Circle to create a possibility she hadn’t imagined before. When she started, she had the same doubts and fears we all have. But by taking small steps over time, with feedback and peer support along the way, she made something wonderful emerge.

Here’s the beginning of Daniella’s post on LinkedIn. (You can read it in full by clicking on the image below.) As you read it, think of how empowered you would feel if you could bring ideas to life like that. Think of what your organization would be like if more people approached issues and opportunities like Daniella -  with generosity, creativity, and persistence. It’s an approach you can learn - and spread. 

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

 

 

"Just scary enough"

I saw the phrase in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, in a chapter on happiness and resilience. He described it as “a delicious mix of being a bit frightened yet knowing it would end up all right.”

Making things “just scary enough” can be the key to changing your behavior and to learning in general. 

“Stress inoculation”

“Some of the most convincing neuroscience data for the benefits of getting just scared enough,” Goleman wrote, “comes from studies of squirrel monkeys.”

In 2004, experimenters at Stanford University took young monkeys from their mother for an hour, once a week for ten weeks, and put them in a different cage with adult monkeys they didn’t know. They were terrified, as evidenced by a range of observations, and when the hour was up they were returned to their mothers. A control group was left with their mothers the entire time.

After the ten weeks, both groups young monkeys were placed alone with their mothers in a new cage filled with treats and places to explore.

“Young monkeys who had earlier been exposed to the stressful cages proved far braver and more curious than others their age…and showed no biological signs of fear arousal…those who had never left the safe haven of their mothers just clung timidly to her.” 

The regular visits to a challenging environment, they concluded, “acted as an inoculation against stress.”

Developing self-efficacy

Forty years earlier, other Stanford researchers made similar observations about humans and found related benefits. Albert Bandura and Nancy Adams treated people with snake phobias by taking them through progressively more challenging steps. The researchers would model the behavior first - e.g., looking at a picture of a snake, peering into a snake’s cage, and ultimately holding one. Gradually, at their own pace, the patient would take these small steps too.

Most patients were cured with this “guided mastery” in an hour or two, and it changed their lives. Overcoming their fear improved their “self-efficacy,” their sense of personal effectiveness and confidence to take on other challenges.

“Those who persist in subjectively threatening activities will eventually eliminate their inhibitions through corrective experience, whereas those who avoid what they fear, or who cease their coping efforts prematurely, will retain their self-debilitating expectations and defensive behavior.”

Goleman described it this way: “If we are exposed to too little stress, nothing will be learned; too much and the wrong lesson might become embedded the neural circuitry for fear.”

When you’re overwhelmed

But what if what you’re trying to do is too daunting or challenging? Pema Chödrön described three strategies in The Places That Scare You. “One way is to train with a less challenging subject, to find a situation we feel that we can handle.” In Working Out Loud Circles, we refer to that as “touching the treadmill.” You break down the change you’re trying to make till it no longer triggers your resistance or flight mechanism. 

The second way is to realize that you’re not alone, that millions of other people are going through something similar, feeling what you’re feeling. Shifting your attention to others in this way can make the experience seem less personally threatening. 

Finally, “if none of these is yet possible, we engender some compassion for our current limitations and go forward.”

Are you trying to make some change in your life? Make your next step “just scary enough.” Each small step you take will develop your confidence, each small failure will build up your resilience, and you'll increase your chances for success.

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.

Put your cape on

“I think all of us are like eagles who have forgotten that we know how to fly.”

That’s a quote from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, author, and teacher. She was referring to the superpowers we all have, the ones most of us aren’t aware of, or aren't comfortable using.

“The teachings are reminding us of who we are and what we can do. They help us notice that we’re in a nest with a lot of old food and old diaries, excrement and stale air. From when we were very young we’ve had this longing to see those mountains in the distance and experience that big sky and the vast ocean, but somehow we got trapped in that nest, just because we forgot that we knew how to fly.”

This isn't about doctrines, but about opening up, becoming more aware of what you have to offer and what others have to offer you. But how do you begin?

Start where you are

What I most appreciate about Pema Chödrön’s work is how accessible and useful it is. We can take that same thinking, that same mindset, and apply it at work and throughout our life.

“Start where you are. This is very important. [The] practice is not about later, when you’ve got it all together and you’re this person you really respect…Just where you are - that’s the place to start.”

She encourages every bit of progress, viewing all the challenges and struggles as opportunities for learning. In Start Where You Are, she describes us as being trapped in a room of our own making.

“To get out of that room, you don’t drive up in a big machine and smash the whole thing to pieces. Rather, at your own speed, starting where you are, you begin to open the door and the windows. It’s a very gentle approach, one that acknowledges that you can gradually begin to open that door. You can also shut it as often as you need to - not with the desire to stay comfortable, but with the intention ultimately to gather more courage, more sense of humor, more basic curiosity about how to open that door, until you just leave it open …”

Put your cape on

For many of us, "starting where you are" means applying this thinking in an office surrounded by people and processes. You might think that's odd place to begin, but there’s some important research by Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, that shows how we have more control at work than we might think.

As part of her research, she interviewed people in a wide variety of jobs. She found that the individuals who were viewed by colleagues as both more effective and happier were those who "crafted" their jobs.  They took small steps to alter the tasks they did each day, to form and deepen relationships, to find a greater purpose in what they did. Even in mundane jobs like hospital maintenance, mopping floors and cleaning trash bins, some people found ways to do meaningful, even beautiful, things within their context of their work. They chose to do small acts of kindness, to relate to patients and their families, and to view their jobs as making it easier for people to recover.

The researchers asked one woman why she did these things that weren’t a part of her job description. “It’s not part of my job,” she said, “but it’s part of me.” That's tapping into your superpower. As Pema Chödrön described it, “You allow something in you to be nurtured.”

For the decades I worked in in big companies, I had a “longing to see those mountains in the distance and experience that big sky and the vast ocean.” But I stayed “trapped in that nest,” too afraid to venture far from what others did.

Now I know you have choices when it comes to how you do what you do. It may feel strange at first, to think about generosity and empathy at work, about deepening relationships, about fulfillment and meaning. Start where you are. Acknowledge that you have a superpower within you, and put your cape on. When you do, when you permit yourself to make choices that open your world, it can change how you relate to yourself, to people around you, and to the work that you do. It can change everything.

How to choose a goal for your Working Out Loud Circle

The first thing you do when you join a Working Out Loud Circle is to choose a goal. Yet for many people, that can be a challenge. Should my goal be big or small? A work goal or a personal goal? Can I have more than one?

So I want to make that first step easier. 

In two weeks, when we begin a 6-week Working Out Loud course that has you experience a circle and get live coaching along the way, I’ll help each of the participants pick a goal that will make it easier to get great results.

I’ll use these four simple questions as a guide.

1. “Do you care about it?”

Change can be difficult, so you want to tap into your intrinsic motivators as much as you can. They include autonomy, mastery, and purpose - your need for control, for a sense of getting better at something, and for connection to others or to something bigger than yourself. 

When you think of your goal, pay attention to how you feel. If you don’t care about it now, then you won’t care enough to do the exercises and attend your circle meetings, so choose something else.

Choosing a goal you genuinely care about will make it easier to develop the habit and mindset of Working Out Loud. Then you can apply those to any goal. 

2. “Can you make progress towards it in 12 weeks?”

Ambition can be good, though typically not when you’re trying to change your habits. (Consider how many New Year’s Resolutions are broken in January.) 

If your goal is too ambitious, merely thinking of it can tend to paralyze you, and progress towards it will be too slow to notice during the time you’re in your peer support group. So, given the limited time you’ll be in a circle, try to pick something that feels more achievable. 

3. “Is it something other people can help you with?”

Deepening relationships is at the heart of Working Out Loud. So you want to select a goal that depends on relationships giving you access to knowledge and opportunities you might not have otherwise.

If your goal seems like something you would accomplish on your own - “I will lose 20 pounds” or “I will get my MBA.” - choose something else or reframe it in a way such that relationships can help you. That brings us to the fourth question.

4. “Can you frame it as a learning or exploration goal?”

This, for me, is the best question. If you can frame what you’re trying to do in terms of learning and exploration, you’ll be more likely to adopt a growth mindset. More likely to try new things. More likely to be open to new people and possibilities. 

Especially in your first circle, consider goals that start with one of these phrases:

“I would like to be better at…”

“I would like to learn more about…”

“I would like to know more people who…”

Framed this way, you’ll more readily tap into your need for mastery and purpose. That will be true whether you want to get better at your job or at a hobby, explore new roles or a new topic, connect with people who can help your career or who share a common interest with you.

In addition to making progress towards your goal, you’ll also be doing something else: developing your sense of self-efficacy. That’s the feeling that you have the ability to improve whatever situation you’re in - to get more out of work and life if you want to. The more you practice Working Out Loud, the stronger that feeling becomes.

Here’s the PDF I’m sending to participants in the course. I hope you find it useful in setting your own goal. If you want more help, the course starts on October 5th, and you can still reserve a seat by sending me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com.