My blog moved!

Hello!

As part of a blog makeover, I recently moved my blog to a self-hosted version of WordPress so I could have a bit more control of the features on it.

Unfortunately, if you follow me via WordPress that means updates from this blog will no longer show up in your WordPress.com reader.

But! You can continue getting my updates via email. Just click here and join my email list. In addition to the weekly blog post, I’ll soon start sending an email every two weeks with additional things that won’t be on the blog.

Thank you for your interest in the blog, in the book, and in Working Out Loud Circles. You’re part of a movement that’s helping people build a better network, career, and life.

Thank you!

John

Posted in Working out loud | Leave a comment

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Olivia & her Rubik's CubeWork, even life, is a kind of Rubik’s cube. Allow me to explain.

I’ve never solved a Rubik’s cube. I’ve tried, of course. I turned it this way and that till one side was the same color. Then, frustrated and having no idea what to do next, I tossed it aside. I didn’t know anyone who had solved it either.

So it was with pride and awe that I recently watched my 9 year old daughter, Olivia, teach herself to solve the cube. In a few weeks, she went from not knowing anything about it to solving any cube handed to her. Now she just competes with herself on time. Her personal best is 1 minute 33 seconds.

The way she learned to do that – methods that can apply to learning almost anything – are worth billions to large companies.

Where to start

When Olivia wants to learn something, she expects that someone else has already shared something related to it. Her first stop is usually YouTube and it’s there she found the Simplest Tutorial for 3×3 Rubik’s Cube (Learn in 15 minutes) by TheSergsB.

She watched it and tried to follow along, making slow progress. Like any video tutorial, she’d pause it when she couldn’t keep up and would watch the tough parts over and over.

Neither Olivia nor SergsB think of what they’re doing as working out loud, but that’s what it is. SergsB is making his work visible, framing it as a contribution, and in doing so is developing a network (now 14,000+ subscribers and 3+ million views) that gives him access to other possibilities. Olivia started by just consuming that content, but then she took it a step further.

Getting better

Even before she could complete the puzzle, Olivia started sharing her progress with family and a few friends at school. We offered encouragement which further motivated her to keep going. Since she wasn’t competing with other people, she wasn’t reluctant to share what she was learning. The goal was simply to get better.

As she started talking with people about it, she learned about a faster model of the cube and met more people at her school who were interested in Rubik’s cubes. One of them was Amiri Bell, a fifth-grader who had won a local contest for solving 4 cubes in 7 minutes. Amiri also taught himself to solve the cube by watching a YouTube video.

Sharing practices

At school, Olivia’s teacher told her about the Rubik’s Cube club in fifth grade. Amiri was part of that club but so were people who were learning to solve the cube for the first time. It is, in effect, a community of practice. As the definition states, “It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

I knew Olivia wanted to keep improving her time, so I asked her what she would do when she got stuck. “Probably watch more videos,” she said. She also wants to learn to solve bigger cubes. The original cube is 3x3x3 and the biggest is a mind-boggling 11x11x11. That will be something she can get help with in the fifth-grade club.

Life is a Rubik’s cube

Olivia learns other things this way too. Whether it’s playing golf or playing cello, she benefits from studying the visible work of others, she shares what she learns herself, and she connects with others who are learning so they can all get better.

Now think of how people in your company learn to do anything. Is knowledge from experts freely available online or is education outsourced to a Learning & Development department? Is the opportunity to learn reserved only for those labelled top performers?Do people compete with each other based on what they know, thus suppressing sharing and learning?

If any of that is true, it’s a colossal waste of human and commercial potential.

We could learn a lot from 9 year olds. We could all work out loud, focus more on getting better than getting ahead, and connect what we all know so we can build on it.

If we did that, think of how much better things would be for both the individuals and their firms.

Posted in Management, Working out loud | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The prospect of premature death didn’t make me change so I tried this instead

The Lipitor I no longer need“Take this pill, every day, for the rest of your life,” my doctor said. I sighed at this obvious sign of decline, envisioning the 7-day pillbox that all old people seem to have. “Already?” I asked.

Approaching 40 years old, I was overweight, stressed, and didn’t exercise. My medical history wasn’t great either, my dad having died of a massive heart attack and my mother having suffered from diabetes.

I knew I was killing myself slowly. But the specter of the many changes I needed to make was too overwhelming. I couldn’t face all of it for the sake of some still-distant benefit. So I just kept doing what I was doing.

Yet 10 years later, I’m back to the weight I was in high school, eliminated most of my harmful stresses, and my doctor says I don’t need that pill any more.

Here’s what worked for me. Whatever your goal, I hope it helps you make the changes you want to make.

Food as metaphor

What I thought I wanted was just a habitPart of my problem was ignorance. I simply didn’t know what was in the food I was eating, where it came from, and what it was doing to me.

But the bigger problem was the set of habits I had developed. That bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel was like an old, familiar friend I’d see every day. So too was the hamburger with fries, the Chinese food takeout, the slumping on the couch watching TV after a long commute from a stressful job.

Although I knew it wasn’t good, it was what I knew. It also seemed to be what everyone around me was doing. Only now do I understand how much our habits and our environment shape so many aspects of our lives.

Change at work

Verbal persuasion isn't enoughIn my job, I’ve spent years showing people how their way of working was bad for them and for the firm. The pointless meetings. The armies of people processing emails. The ludicrous HR policies and systems. This is the fast food clogging the arteries of corporations.

I pointed out better ways, gave them examples, and they still didn’t change! “What’s wrong with these people?” I would think to myself. But nothing was wrong. I had only to look at my own behavior to see how difficult change is. After all, if verbal persuasion was enough then people wouldn’t buy so many packs of cigarettes with “Smoking kills” pasted on them.

The only thing that worked

There was no single thing that made the most difference for me. It was a combination of things that I learned and applied gradually over time. A few months ago, I found that much of the wisdom and research I discovered in a decade of reading self-help books was distilled into a simple, practical list in Coach Yourself. This short list summarizes the basic approach towards changing anything in your life.

  • Take small steps towards your goals
  • Set some realistic, achievable goals
  • Structure your life to help you attain your goals
  • Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe
  • Look at the areas where you’re successful
  • Reward yourself for your successes
  • Focus on your achievements
  • Enlist the support of friends
  • Chart your progress
  • Picture the way you’d like life to be

Where my previous attempts at change failed, it was because I attempted too big a change too quickly, overreacted to my failures, lacked peer support, or missed some other element on this simple list.

The next small step

As I wrote this I reflected on what I did and ate yesterday. My day started with meditation. Then I walked to work, ate a wide range of scrumptious vegetarian meals, had a cold-pressed green juice for a snack. I even went to yoga with my wife, something I hope will be my newest habit.

10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine such a set of changes. But each small change empowered me to do a little more. This process led to a new career, writing a book, and creating a  “guided mastery” coaching program that helps people change their own work and life.

Of course, what’s right for me may be wildly different than what’s right for you. The path you take will also be different. But for most of us the change begins with a small, simple step.

What will yours be?

 

Posted in Self awareness and improvement | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The worst management training I ever had – and the best

Traditional management trainingHow do people learn to be good managers? For most of my working life, I’ve received terrible advice about management. All of it came from bosses who felt that becoming an effective leader necessarily meant sacrificing part of your humanity.

But one comment 19 years ago made me start looking at things differently. Since then, I’ve had some of the best management training possible.

The 3 worst pieces of advice

After a few years in my first job, I was inquiring about a promotion. My supervisor at the time said that while he appreciated my friendly, sociable nature, supervisors needed to be “more serious.” So I tried to change how I appeared.

In a later job when I was managing a large group, my boss cautioned me in a feedback session that I was “of the people.” The clear implication was that senior management was above “them” and I should choose which side I was on. I chose to be on management’s side.

In a similar vein, I was told not to get too close to people who reported to me. That would prevent me from making the tough decisions that senior people must make. I resolved to be tougher.

Looking back, a lot of management advice seemed to focus on putting people in their place – to let them know who’s boss. Doing so made it easier for me to rate people I barely knew or to lay off people. But being inauthentic and impersonal made me miserable and made my teams less than they might have been.

A different kind of management training program

Hudson Akihiro Stepper19 years ago, when I had my first child, a mentor told me that raising kids is the best way to learn about management. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. But I reflected on those words this week as my youngest child turned 4 years old. For me, raising children has taught me more about management than any corporate program or any advice from the boss.

I’ve learned about motivation, how applying the carrot and stick only works for the short-term and undermines the relationship in the long-term.

I’ve seen how my crude attempts attempts at controlling someone’s behavior only leads to detachment and cynicism.

I’ve learned that trying to fit people into my own concept of what they should be leads only to frustration and a squandering of potential.

It’s true that I could live another 100 years and still not be the kind of parent or leader I’d like to be. But I can be better. I know now that a manager’s job, like a parent’s job, is intensely personal. The best thing I can do is to genuinely care about the individual and provide an environment that helps them be the best they can be.

Posted in Management, Self awareness and improvement | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Accelerated intimacy at work (without a call from HR)

Even during some of the worst times in my life, I’ve responded to How are you? with Everything’s great!  I thought by showing people that I didn’t need help, that I was always happy, I could somehow make them like me more.

It’s a mistake I still make. Now though, I know it actually distances people. I’ve seen how the lack of intimacy leads to shallow relationships, to bonds that are easily broken.

Thankfully, I’m gradually learning some ways to get closer to people – and let them get closer to me – at work and in the rest of my life.

A strange & beautiful business dinner

A strange & beautiful dinnerAfter walking down a long, twisting corridor, through a wine cellar and then an undersized entryway, I stepped into a gorgeous, candlelit private dining room where there was one long table and 16 lavish place settings. Most of the people arriving had never met before, so you can imagine the small talk before dinner. What do you do? Do you live in the city? Such a lovely room.

Like most business dinners, I anticipated leaving with a full stomach but emotionally empty.

At this one event, though, the host wanted us to remember the evening and to genuinely get to know each other. So after a brief introduction about the purpose of the evening, he asked us to talk with our neighbors about something we were struggling with. Then he went first.

He told us how he had recently adopted a teenaged son who was having emotional issues. There had been a problem at the house. Police had to come. He shared how he loved his son but was unsure whether they should continue to live together.

The room was dead silent. No one talked or checked email. We were all focused on our host and his story – and we cared. Then the host again asked us to share our own current struggles with the people sitting next to us. We formed groups of three and started talking about things we’d have never considered sharing just a few minutes earlier.

I’ll never forget that dinner.

Making it safe

The host of that party gave us permission to be vulnerable. He made it okay for us to share a weakness or a struggle. He encouraged us to offer help if we could or at least our full attention if we couldn’t.

That made all the difference. Instead of my usual Everything’s great! I could be myself. Instead of trying to size up the people around me so they fit in neat little boxes, I saw them as real human beings.

Intimacy at work

When Dale Carnegie wrote about how to make people like you, he didn’t say Tell them everything is great! or Talk about the same trivial things everyone else talks about. Instead, two of his principles were Become genuinely interested in other people and Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.

You needn’t respond to each greeting in the elevator with probing questions  or a list of your challenges. But even a slight shift from professional to personal can make work more meaningful and fulfilling.

On an individual level, for example, I try to show that I care more about the person than the role they play. For me, that means I replace What do you do?  with

What are you excited about?

What would you love to learn?

What could you use help with?

I’ll offer up my own short example so they feel they have permission to share. When I let them know I’m genuinely interested in them, the almost universal reaction is surprise. That’s often followed by an intensely personal conversation that forges a connection between us.

In our Working Out Loud Circles, a kind of purposeful peer support group for careers, one of the first things we do is to share an intimate story about ourselves and our goals. In the initial meeting of a new circle  just this week, I learned things about friends and strangers in our group that made me care more. That bond will increase our desire to help each other and collaborate throughout the next 11 weeks we’ll be working together.

Even on a corporate level, we’ve encouraged intimacy using our enterprise social network. Though the majority of contributions are directly related to work, I’ve shared my own failures and personal challenges so others know they can, too. People from around the world have shared poignant stories about work and family that – amidst all the inhuman trappings of a modern global corporation – help people care about each other. Their stories help us realize we’re not just cogs in a machine but human beings connected by the work we do and potentially much more.

It took me a long time but I’ve learned that greater intimacy, while not always comfortable or safe, makes work and life better.

Posted in Self awareness and improvement | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The best peer support group for your career?

Peer SupportI’ve got a problem and I’m hoping you can help me.

I know that working out loud – working in an open, generous, connected way – increases your chances of finding meaning and fulfillment in your work and life. I also know I can teach anyone the necessary ideas and techniques, and I can coach individuals to gradually develop new habits to do it regularly.

But how would you help millions of people to work out loud?

Part of the answer, it seems, is a self-organizing peer support system for people’s careers. So we’re setting out to create one.

When peer support works & when it doesn’t

I’ve been in exactly one successful peer support group. It was part of Keith Ferrazzi’s Relationship Masters Academy and everyone in the class was part of a 4-6 person group. Some worked and some didn’t. Our group was effective because we got to know and trust each other quickly, we had specific things to do, and we had a schedule for meeting in person. When any of those things broke down, so did our group.

There is a wide range of peer support programs. People who want to lose weight, to become better speakers, to be happier. It’s easier than ever to form groups but as hard as ever to maintain them or have them actually achieve something.

One program in particular has most of the elements I’d want in a support system for working out loud.

A great peer support group

When Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, it wasn’t for the money but for the movement. She wanted to genuinely help women (and men) develop new habits and new mindsets related to everyday work and to their overall career. 

 The book and her TED talks are important in raising awareness. But to help people actually change, she created a distributed peer support system called Lean In Circles.

Lean In Circles

Today, there are over 14,000 Lean In Circles and the available support is excellent.

  • It’s easy to join an existing group or form your own.
  • There’s a moderator role to help keep things organized, positive, and productive.
  • A rich FAQ provides answers to common questions.
  • Circle Kits provide clear instructions for running meetings & simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • There’s a range of additional online resources on a beautiful website, including video lectures for developing specific skills.

No wonder so many groups formed. The book inspired many people and Lean In Circles provide an easy way to build on that and help people put the ideas into action.

Working Out Loud Circles

There’s a lot to learn from Lean In Circles and much to emulate. Washington Post writer felt it was the Circles, not the book, that would define the legacy of Sheryl Sandberg’s movement. But their mission is somewhat different from mine.  After spending time with 6 different Circles, the Post writer described them this way:

I found the Lean In Circles to be more like Alcoholics Anonymous fused with Girl Scouts — a support group built around a social movement.

That may be both appropriate and effective given Sheryl Sandberg’s book – often called a “feminist manifesto” – and her goals. Working Out Loud is not a manifesto. It’s based on my experience with the 12-week coaching program. In addition to having people support each other, I want the groups to develop specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

So while aspiring to achieve the best of Lean In Circles, I’d do three things differently:

Limit the groups to 4-5 people including the moderator. More than that and there’s too much free-form discussion and not enough time for detailed feedback on individual’s goals and progress.

Meet for 12 weeks only. After an initial meeting to get to know the other people and their goals, groups members would be asked to commit to 11 additional meetings. It’s hard for support groups that meet indefinitely to maintain their early enthusiasm and momentum. People tend to view meetings as optional and come and go as they feel they need them. Instead, we’ll seek to build a sense of shared commitment – “emotional communion” – over a finite period. That will focus people’s attention and greatly increase the odds they’ll make progress.

Provide a more structured curriculum. The 12 weeks are meant to be a guided mastery program. The more specific the exercises and the more tangible the results in terms of artifacts and feedback, the more likely that people can develop new habits that stick.

What’s one thing we could do better?

We’re starting small. Some very good friends in London already launched the first Working Out Loud Circle. I’ll moderate a circle in New York starting next week and a small group at work in Barcelona just decided they’d form a circle.

It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. There’s so much to do and learn. I don’t dare propose I can help as many people as Sheryl Sandberg but I dare to dream it. When the doubts arise as they always do, I’ll just do the work and ask people who care about it for honest feedback.

So please contribute your opinions in the comments. Does the idea of forming Working Out Loud Circles make sense to you? Have you ever been part of a peer support group? What worked and what didn’t?

To help millions of people work out loud, what’s one thing we could do better?

Posted in Working out loud | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

How to not suck at receiving feedback

Self-worth in a dishwasherI usually suck at receiving feedback. Even a constructive suggestion from my wife about loading the dishwasher feels like a personal attack, as if my very self-worth is tied to whether the dishes should face in or out.

Yet in writing Working Out Loud, dozens of people are giving me feedback and I like it. Somehow I’ve learned to be grateful for the criticisms of my wife, my friends, and people I’ve only met via this blog. As a result, the book is already much, much better.

Three things helped me, and whether your goal is cleaner dishes or a better life, I hope they can help you too.

Frame the goal as a learning goal

Several years ago, Keith Ferrazzi first introduced me to the idea of framing things as learning goals. If I wanted to be a better public speaker, for example, he taught me not to ask “How was I?”after a talk but “What’s one thing I could do better?” That empowered the other person to give me constructive help instead of just simple encouragement.

Seth Godin wrote that “Applause is great. We all need more of it. But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback.” Besides, I’d much rather learn about weaknesses in the book now than read about them in Amazon reviews after I’ve published it.

Here’s some feedback that made me wince at first but made the book better. Sometimes, the reviewer is describing a section or my editorial style:

“you started to lose me”

“It felt that there were a lot of commas!”

“the exercise becomes a bit cheesy to me”

“intro wordy and a bit ‘la di da’”

Then there were more general comments:

“The one aspect I didn’t really enjoy”

“While I was reading it, I didn’t get much sense of the overall reason for the content”

“Well, you asked me to be blunt…”

But the most negative comments were on the graphics I used. In the 82 pages draft, there were only two graphics and they were both universally hated.

“Surely, it’s just a placeholder”

“The pentagon of 5 elements…needs improvement because it is not interesting-looking or memorable”

Appreciate it as a gift

All of these particular comments were useful. The visuals did stink. I did use too many commas. The confusing parts were confusing.

But Ferrazzi also taught me that I didn’t have to take on every bit of feedback. After all, of the 25 pages of comments I received, there were sometimes conflicting suggestions or points I simply didn’t agree with.

Feedback is a gift. You accept it graciously and if it isn’t right for you after due consideration, you put it aside. Viewing it this way also helped me to take the criticism and myself less seriously. In The Art of Possibility, the conductor Ben Zander reinforced this when he described reacting to mistakes not with irritation but with “How fascinating!”

Choosing amateurish graphics doesn’t make me a bad author or even a bad selector of graphics. It just highlights an opportunity to improve in yet another area. “How fascinating!”

Accentuate the positive

It seems we’re all wired to look out for threats and overlook the good things. In a page full of positive comments, I’d immediately focus on the one criticism.

Being mindful of that tendency, I would purposefully read the positive feedback again and again. Besides bolstering my confidence, it helped me put the negative comments in perspective.

“I love this book.”

“I love the way you write.”

“LOVE LOVE LOVE a home run”

“The stories of people thru out, embedded in the chapters, are great.”

“Like your blogs, this draft is captivating and I didn’t want to put it aside.”

“Eff YEAH!  So, so, SO exciting seeing it all come together REALLY REALLY REALLY awesome”

“I also selfishly wonder if there is a version for 11 – 13 years old which I can use with my daughter. I am serious!”

The results

A friend of mine is an author and when he heard how much feedback I was getting he mused to himself “What would you do with all of that?”

I thought “What would I have done without all of it?!” My early drafts were pathetic, like high school book reports full of quotes to show the teacher how much research I’ve done. Without the generosity of the reviewers, I may never have gotten beyond that stage.

In addition to making the book better, asking for and getting feedback has done something else, something surprising and even more important. It’s transformed the solitary experience of writing into a global communion, full of good feelings and intellectual exchanges. The book doesn’t feel like mine alone any more but like the collaboration of a small tribe. Now I’m about to send out another draft to another round of reviewers and I’m asking for other help: marketing, graphics, self-publishing, copyediting. I’m not good at any of these things but with the help and generosity of others, I can get better.

When it comes to getting feedback about something you care about, Seth Godin summed it up nicely just two days ago:

“Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Not imaginary, but practical. Not based on fear, but on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you better.

Seek it out and embrace the true friends that care enough to risk sharing it.”

Posted in Self awareness and improvement, Working out loud | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments