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

“What’s one thing I could do better?"

Imagine you’re about to deliver a presentation. You’re nervous, and uncomfortable talking in front of groups. But you prepare as best you can, muster up your courage, and deliver the talk. 

Afterwards, you breathe a sigh of relief and ask someone the worst possible question you could ask:

“How did it go?”

At Zukunft Personal in Köln, September 2018

Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it good

The other person knows your anxious, and she wants to be supportive and encouraging. So she responds, “It went well!” 

And in that moment, you missed a chance to get constructive feedback and learn, and the other person is robbed of the chance to help someone. 

I realize this exchange is so common that it may seem strange to deviate from it. But ten years ago, I learned a better way from Keith Ferrazzi.

From criticism to contribution

It was 2008, and I was sitting in the Relationship Master’s Academy, a 30-person course from the bestselling author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back. It was that course that made me think differently about how to ask for feedback (and about relationships in general). Keith Ferrazzi taught me how to turn a potentially uncomfortable conversation into one that can benefit both individuals and even deepen the relationship. 

The problem, Keith pointed out, is the way we frame the question. “How did it go?” ( or“How did I do?”) puts the other person on the spot, uncertain of what they should say and worried about offending you. The only safe thing for them is to give you a generic, positive response. 

Instead, Keith suggested, you should explain that you’re trying to improve, and then ask, “What’s one thing I could do better?” That turns an imposition into an invitation. Now you’ve given them explicit permission to give you specific critical feedback. It’s no longer personal but about the learning, and they get to feel that they’re being genuinely helpful.

The cumulative power of “one thing”

I’ve been asking Keith’s question ever since, and it’s led to many interesting conversations. People seem grateful to be asked their opinion in this way, and they almost always come up with something I can do better.

“You should move side to side a bit less”

“That slide was hard to read”

“You should use some different examples”

“You talked really fast”

“You should hold the microphone closer to your mouth”

I listen intently to each bit of feedback. Sometimes I don’t agree or may get conflicting opinions. But I almost always learn about new ways I can improve and about things I need to keep working on. Each exchange is also a chance to practice, both offering vulnerability and receiving constructive criticism.

Try it for yourself. Asking “What’s one thing I could do better?” can help you with any skill you’re trying to develop or improve.

Change your life in 5 minutes a day

I try to avoid sensational titles, and I don’t mean for this week to be an exception. “Change your life in 5 minutes a day” is based on my own experience. Sometimes, it only takes me three minutes.

Ancient wisdom

I’m referring to keeping a gratitude journal. Each morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is to reflect on what made yesterday a great day, and what three things would make today great. It’s so simple it verges on trivial, and yet so useful I never miss a day. I’ve been writing in it for over a year now. I even take it with me when I travel, just for those few minutes each day. 

Ever since the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s - "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels” - there has been a wealth of research on the benefits of varying gratitude practices. (You can find popular summaries here and here.) It’s not a new idea, though. Practicing gratitude falls into the category of “ancient wisdom,” and has long been advocated by a wide array of sources.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” - Meister Eckhart

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself." - Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.’ - Plato

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. - Marcus Tullius Cicero

In The Book of Joy, practicing gratitude is listed as one of “the 8 pillars of joy” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In The How of Happiness, it’s one of 12 practices advocated by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky.

My own results

By the time I saw an ad for The Five-Minute Journal, I was convinced and ready to start, though it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I would forget to write in it, or find myself saying the same things a few days in a row. Then I put the journal in a place where I knew I would see it when I woke up, and writing in it gradually became something I looked forward to doing. It became a habit.

Over time, I became aware of certain patterns. The things that appeared on the list most often were particular people in my life, and the time I could spend with them. Searching for new things to write, I became more aware of just how many precious basics - good health, food, and shelter to name a few - I had taken for granted. The act of listing what I was grateful for day after day helped to shift my perspective from overly-negative to something more balanced, and that made me happier.

Writing down my intentions - What will make today great? - had a somewhat different effect. It helped me to focus my attention on what mattered at different points throughout the day, and that helped me to make better, more mindful, choices. When I reflected on a prior day, I noticed how doing what I intended always provided a sense of fulfillment or completeness. Instead of being buffeted about by things out of my control, I found I could “live intentionally,” and it proved to be extremely satisfying. 

I’ve found this simple practice so helpful that I included it as one of the five self-care practices in WOL-SC.

Getting started

You don’t need The Five-Minute Journal in particular to practice gratitude. Some of my German friends use Das 6-Minuten Tagebuch. (Though I do wonder why they need an extra minute.) A blank book will do, or even placing notes in a jar. 

You might also try DayCatcher, a more visual and creative way to practice gratitude which I started using just last week. At the end of a day, you choose a photo that captures one special moment from that day, and add a short note or caption. Doing this has already attuned my attention to look for my “catch” each day. It helps me to savor the best moments and be thankful for them right before I go to sleep. At the end of the year I can use it to create a beautiful album of memories.

Your mother or grandmother probably told you to “count your blessings.” And now science has caught up with her, explaining why the advice she gave was so good.

But do you put that advice into practice? Why not start today?

Confessions of a public speaker

The universe, it seems to me, is a teacher with a perverse sense of humor. The latest evidence I have of this is my most recent presentation in Germany.

The day started off well enough. I rehearsed my talk, had a fine breakfast, and caught my taxi on time. I remember smiling to myself at my good planning. 

The first hint of trouble was when the driver asked, “North or South?” I had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained that it was a big conference center and there were multiple entrances. Since we were ensnared in traffic, and I could see signs for the North Entrance, I told him I would get out there.

The instant I stepped onto the curb, I knew I’d made a mistake. There were no signs for the event, no crowds. I walked the hundred yards or so to the door and asked a lone attendant for help. “Ah, that’s the South entrance,” she said cheerfully, and told me how to get there. “Just five minutes,” she assured me.

I started walking, looking up at the bright blue sky, squinting at the sun. It was starting to get hot. Then I looked down and noticed a white splat on my shoe. How did a bird do that? I wondered. On closer inspection, though, it wasn’t a bird’s doing. It was fresh paint. And it wasn’t just on my shoe.

There’s paint on the bottom of my pant leg, on the back of my other shoe, and on my other pant leg. I consider going back to the hotel and changing but I’m afraid it’ll take too long. I assess the damage, hope it might not be noticeable on stage, and head towards the South entrance.

Ten minutes later, I’m wandering around in a park of some kind. When I turn right as instructed, I’m at a highway on-ramp. By this time the sweat is dripping down my face and neck. I take off my jacket, and notice there’s paint on my thigh now too, spreading like a rash across my blue suit. Where is it coming from?! I frantically look for a source, and see wet paint on the straps dangling from my backpack.

I begin to panic. Gingerly holding my bag at arms length, I check and recheck Google maps as I walk, and I eventually find the elusive entrance. It’s now a full 30 minutes after exiting the cab. Wet from perspiration and paint-speckled like a robin’s egg, I’m eager to get to a sink and clean up as best I can. Perhaps no one will notice, I think. 

On my way to the restroom, I see someone I haven’t seen for a year. “John!” he shouts out, smiling broadly. He extends his hand, and then leans in close to me and whispers, “You have something on your trousers.” I smile a frozen, awkward smile, and quickly move on. I curse to myself and look heavenward.

In the crowded mens room, I mop myself up with wet paper towels, Then I take off my shoes and scrub each one. Don’t touch the pants! Don’t touch the pants! I keep repeating to myself, imagining how much worse large cloudy white swirls will look on stage. 

At this point, I’ve done all I can do, and it’s getting close to the time for my talk. I head towards the stage. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about what happened that day is that, details aside, it wasn’t so extraordinary. In the past year, I’ve prepared a workshop for hundreds of people only to have 8 show up. At the end of one long conference day, I had to compete with alcohol and food for a crowd’s attention, and lost badly. I’ve experienced a cornucopia of devious problems with slides, room configurations, and technology - and now paint. 

What’s the universe trying to teach me with all of this?

I think the point is that it’s all part of the practice. Not the practice of becoming a better speaker, but the practice of accepting anything that might happen in work and life. All you can do is work on your craft as best you can, focus on offering your gift instead of focusing on the outcome, and try your best to embrace the universe’s lessons with humility and a sense of humor.

***

Note: This post is inspired in part by a funny, insightful, and practical book of the same name by Scott Berkun. I’m grateful to Scott for sharing his own lessons, as they helped me.











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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Waiting

As I approach the checkout lines at the supermarket, I quickly scan to see which one will be shortest. I count the number of people, of course, but also consider the items in each cart. I carefully scrutinize the cashier and even the customers. Will they require a delivery service? Do they have young children? These things can slow down the process.

I narrow it down to two alternatives, and then, confidently, I make my choice: register 11.

Within seconds, though, I sense something is wrong. There’s a hint of frustration on the face of the customer at the front. The cashier, with a disturbing calmness, is methodically packing her bags in slow motion. I consider switching lines but it is already too late as other lines have grown longer. 

A minute passes. Then another. My hand reaches for my phone, a salve for my restlessness, but I try to resist as I’ve been wanting to use my phone less. I look at the magazine covers instead, and the odd array of other items. I wonder about who chooses what to put there, and who buys them. More minutes pass.

I feel trapped. I advise the people behind me to pick another line, which they do. They smile, first with gratitude and later with a hint of embarrassment as they leave the store while I am still waiting.  

My sense of irritation increases. I want to find someone to blame! I want to commiserate with other customers! Isn’t this terrible?! Then I remember I have a book in my knapsack. Mindfulness on the Go. I take it out and open it to the place I had marked. The next chapter is titled, “Waiting.”

“Any time you find yourself waiting…take this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness.”

It seems the universe has a sense of humor, so I smile for the first time in 10 minutes and keep reading. It seems that waiting has presented me with an opportunity.

“As you undertake this practice, you learn to recognize early the body changes that accompany impending negative thoughts and emotions such as impatience about having to wait, or anger about “that idiot” ahead of us in the checkout line. Each time we are able to stop and not allow a negative mind-state to come to fruition (say, getting irritated at the traffic or angry at the slow cashier), we are erasing a habitual and unwholesome pattern of the heart/mind.”

My irritation melts. My judgment of the cashier - What is wrong with this guy? What is his problem? - is replaced with empathy. What if I had that job? I’d be even slower! I think, “Maybe he’s new, or had a bad day, or is disabled." I imagine what it would be like, to do a job surrounded by visibly annoyed customers, and I’m ashamed.

Eventually it’s my turn. I offer to pack the bags as a way to help out and move things along. By now, my negative feelings have been replaced with gratitude, and I see how even a long wait can be a teacher.

The next time you approach one of those seemingly empty spaces in your day, what will you fill it with? Will your habits take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Or will you try to take a step in a different direction?

“If we don’t let the cart of the mind keep running down the same deep ruts, down the same old hill, into the same old swamp, eventually the ruts will fill up. Eventually our habitual states of irritation and frustration over something like waiting will dissolve. It take times, but it works. And it’s worth it, as everyone around us will benefit.”

100 slices of Thanksgiving

Isn’t it strange how a label on a calendar can make a difference? It’s Thanksgiving this Thursday in the US. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been wondering the same thing. When I mentioned it to someone in an email this week, she said she felt the same way.

“Is it me or does NYC feel different on Thanksgiving week? I might be projecting, but it feels like a kinder, more caring place, and I love this time of year.”
“I agree with you about the holiday season in New York.  There is a special feel to the city.”

Yes, we all know that being grateful is good, both for ourselves and the people around us. Yet who has time for that? Thanksgiving is different. There’s something about the simple structure of it, and the synchronization. It’s on the calendar and everyone does it.

But what if we carved up that day a little differently?

1440 divided by 365

A few months ago, my good friend (and founder of Fearless Inventory) mentioned the five-minute journal. “It’s a gratitude journal,” he told me, and he said it was helpful, so I ordered one.

You use it twice a day. In the morning when you wake up, you write down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would would make today great. Before you go to sleep, you write down three things that actually made the day great, and something that might have made the day even better. (That last bit is meant less as a judgment and more as learning for future days.) I found it takes me even less than five minutes to do it.

Given a day is 1440 minutes long, writing in my journal is like a little slice of Thanksgiving every day. The simple structure helped me do things I somehow never had the time or attention to do before. After 100 days, I noticed some changes.

Intentional consequences

When you do something mindfully 100 times in a row, you notice some patterns. I would often write similar things day after day. Gratitude for my family, our health, the chance to do meaningful work. The things that usually made each day great were often about being present for small moments during the day, especially those with my family and people close to me. 

Over and over I would realize that a “better day” would have meant paying more attention to people and less to technology and other distractions, that I would have been calmer and more joyful. An affirmation I’ve written down many times is "To let the gratefulness shine through me."

I also noticed that the moments of reflection actually shaped my days in ways I didn’t expect. In the morning, writing down my intention for what would make the day great would attune my attention, making me more mindful throughout the day of what was truly important. Oh, that’s right! Watching the kids’ swimming lesson is one of the things that was going to make today great. I’ll focus on that instead of taking my book or laptop.

My attention also shifted when it came to gratitude. Instead of just thinking of things I already had, I noticed I was actively looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day. I’d be in the supermarket and think Aren’t I lucky that I can choose from so much abundance? In the doctor’s office I’d be thankful for having access to medical care and health insurance. A cold day would make me appreciate a hot shower and a warm comfortable bed. Later, I’d write those things down in my journal, reinforcing those thoughts and further attuning my attention.

After 100 days, I felt…happier. I realize now that happiness, like being grateful or kind or almost anything you can say about a person, isn’t so much about who you are. It’s about how much you practice.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Every day. 

 

 

 

The ultimate vanity search

I've done it myself, and I recommend you do it reasonably often. Recently, I learned that “47% of American adult internet users have done it,” though I think the real number is higher. 

It’s a vanity search. You type your name into a search engine and see what comes up, seeing yourself as others might see you.

When I first searched for “john stepper” all I found was stepper exercise equipment and an old article about work I was no longer interested in. Over time, I learned I could shape my reputation through my contributions online. I could amplify who I was, what I did, and what I cared about.

To help others do the same, Week 6 of the WOL Circle Guides focuses on improving your online presence, and the first step is to search for yourself and discuss the results. “Are you and your work easy to find? Are the results what you would like others to see?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking of a different kind of vanity search. As with the original search, I'm not happy with the results, and I'm working on improving them. In this new search, you go beyond your online presence to your overall presence - what you say and do, and how you say and do it.

Look in your email inbox and see the language you use. Watch how people act when they are around you. Look into the faces of your children, and into your partner’s eyes.

Search deeply. What do you see? What would you like to see?

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.”

You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself?