Why I’m thrilled to be 50 years old

Little Johnny

Here I am as a baby. When this picture was taken, my whole life was ahead of me.

At some point, though, most of us stop looking forward and start looking back. We stop thinking that the best is yet to come.

For me, that point came in my 30s. That’s when I started thinking of aging as a process of inevitable decay. I saw signs of it in myself, and if you asked me then what I’d feel like at 50, I’d have likely said “depressed.”

Well, I’ll turn 50 this week and I’m not depressed about it. Instead, I’m genuinely happy.

Here’s why.

The basic elements of a good, long life

In my 40s, I started learning that the secrets to a good, long life weren’t so secret. While the science isn’t perfect, there’s broad agreement on the basics: good food, regular exercise, strong social connections, a sense of purpose. Persistence and conscientiousness help, too.

These things don’t guarantee a long, healthy life, but they do increase the odds quite a bit. And you can readily learn about them by reading up on The Longevity Project, for example, or by watching this TED talk on “How to live to be 100.”

Certain cultures seems to live this way naturally. The people in Okinawa, Japan for example, have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world partly because they have a very different diet and way of living than, say, people in New York City. They’re also aware of the importance of having “ikigai”, meaning “the reason you wake up in the morning.”

Their outlook on life and aging, one I increasingly admire, is reflected in this Okinawan saying:

“At 70 you are still a child, at 80 a young man or woman. And if at 90 someone from Heaven invites you over, tell him: ‘Just go away, and come back when I am 100.’”

Changing habits, changing perspective

When are the best years of your life? I’ve realized that the answer to that question depends more on your habits and your perspective than on how long you’ve been on the planet.

As I learned more about better ways of living, I gradually changed my life. I exchanged junk food for whole foods (and ultimately a vegetarian diet). I stopped commuting and started exercising regularly. I unplugged cable TV and started spending more time learning new things. And, thanks to the work I do, I developed a bigger social network and found my “ikigai.”

Of course, these habits may not be right for you. But my hope is that, no matter how old you are, you make choices that give you a healthy perspective. And you develop habits that help you live with both an appreciation of the present and a sense of excitement about the possibilities.

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How to love your job (even if you hate it)

Punching the clock  (Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS)When I asked her “What’s the best part of your job?” she looked at me wistfully and said “Nothing, really.”

She was smart, young, and creative, but somehow her spark had gone out. She told me she didn’t want it to be that way but, given the environment she was in – the people around her and the way things were – she didn’t know how to feel better about work.

I tried to show her she had more control than she thought.

A Job, a Career, or a Calling?

It turns out that fulfillment and meaning at work aren’t correlated to our specific jobs as much as they’re correlated to how we approach our jobs and the conditions in which we do them. The job of a surgeon isn’t innately more or less fulfilling than the job of a factory worker. What matters more is their very subjective view of surgery and factory work and the environment in which they do it – the people, physical environment, systems, and processes.

To test this assertion, researchers surveyed people in a wide range of jobs to understand how they viewed their work. Did they think of their work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling? People with Jobs viewed work as being just about money and not an end in itself. Those with Careers had a deeper personal involvement with their work, marking their achievement through advancement. And those with Callings worked for the work itself and the fulfillment that came from doing it.

Surprisingly, people in the same roles (executive assistants, for example) were evenly split in viewing their work as a Job, Career, or Calling. Simply put, the way people related to their work “could not be reduced to demographic or occupational differences.” So it must be something else that makes us view similar roles so differently.

What makes you not hate work

That something else is whether we are intrinsically motivated to do the work. There’s been a lot of research on why we do what we do and it all points to the same, basic truths, summarized succinctly here in this quote from Drive:

“…we have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

Your drive – your motivation to do something and how you feel about doing it – is based on whether or not you’re meeting these needs. And that’s highly subjective and personal. Do you feel related to your company’s purpose or to the people that work there? Do you feel you’re getting better at what you do? That you’re in control? If the factory worker taps into this drive and the surgeon doesn’t, the factory worker will indeed find work more fulfilling.

Crafting your job

What the researchers Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton found is that, even in highly prescribed jobs, individuals can makes changes that can fundamentally alter their view of what they do. They called it “job crafting.”

“We use the term job crafting to capture the actions employees take to shape, mold, and redefine their jobs. Job crafters are individuals who actively compose both what their job is physically, by changing a job’s task boundaries, what their job is cognitively, by changing the way they think about the relationships among job tasks, and what their job is relationally, by changing the interactions and relationships they have with others at work.”

They provided examples from a wide range of jobs. In each of them, workers tapped into “competence, autonomy, and relatedness” by proactively making changes that helped them develop skills and relationships. “Even in low-autonomy jobs, employees can create new domains for mastery and shape facets of job tasks to take control over some aspect of the work.”

  • Computer engineers who offered help to colleagues, either doing the work themselves or connecting them to people and resources they needed.
  • Nurses who viewed themselves as patient advocates, taking extra time to provide information to patients and their families.
  • Hospital cleaners who interacted more with patients, families, and staff.
  • Hairdressers who sought to know their clients better (and fire clients they didn’t like).
  • Restaurant cooks who took extra steps to “create a product worthy of pride.”

Imagine what you can do

Now imagine what you can do in your own job which may have even more freedom than the examples above. Even better, by working out loud – making your work visible and extending your network – you can amplify those feelings of control, learning, and connection while opening up possibilities for yet other kinds of work.

Yes, some jobs and some bosses are awful. And yes, work is different from pleasure. But you can create a more blended life, one that you find genuinely appealing and one that’s more fulfilling. It’s not just for those with certain skills, for the young, for the technology savvy, or for extroverts. It’s for everyone.

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Discovering your purpose

Looking for a purposeAsk a roomful of people whether they think networking is important and everyone will knowingly nod. Now, ask them for the purpose of their network.


Most will be thinking “Networks have a purpose?” or, worse, “I don’t know, I’m still searching for my purpose.”

Networking needn’t be an aimless collection of contacts. Instead, you can think of building a network as developing relationships towards some end. It’s why one of the 5 elements of working out loud is being purposeful. 

Not sure of your purpose? Here’s how to discover it.

The myth of purpose

For most of us, thinking about the One True Purpose of our career or life is daunting, even dispiriting. A career counselor, interviewed in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, described the pathos of his profession:

”…he remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited – long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms – what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling.’”

Cal Newport said it even more succinctly: ‘Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.” 

When I was 5, I was going to be a paleontologist, digging up dinosaur bones. At 11, I knew I’d be a baseball player. Then, in turn, a psychologist, a reengineering consultant, and a computer scientist modeling how the brain works. None of that happened. Instead, I spent most of my career working on trading floors in big banks. 

The sad part isn’t that I didn’t fulfill my early career aspirations. It’s that I bought into a romantic myth that I had One True Purpose in the first place. 

Learning to explore the possibilities

Fortunately, you don’t need to identify your true calling – astronaut, actor, arctic adventurer – to find fulfillment and meaning at work. You can start with a purpose that’s simple and practical. Here, for example, are the most common goals of the people I coach:

  • Find a job in a new company or location
  • Get more recognition at their current job
  • Explore possibilities in a new field
  • Find people with the same interests
  • Get better at what they do

Notice how these goals are more modest, short-term, and practical than you might expect. It’s because in coaching people, I’m not trying to help them find their One True Purpose. Instead, I’m helping them learn how to work in a more open, connected way that helps them build relationships. It’s those skills that will equip them to pursue any goal in the future. And it’s those relationships that will shape what their future can be.

A few decades ago, perhaps, we could take a personality test, list our talents, and find a suitable career. Not any more. Today, the world of work has splintered into a infinite set of ever-changing possibilities. So we have to learn to explore and discover our purpose. As Seth Godin wrote (just today, in fact):

“Discovery is what happens when the universe (or an organization, or a friend) helps you encounter something you didn’t even know you were looking for.”

Discovering meaning & fulfillment

Remember the story of Jordi Muñoz, the Mexican kid who grew up to be the CEO of a robotics company specializing in drones? Growing up, he dreamed of being a pilot. But that’s only because he had no idea of all the other possibilities. Jordi’s humble purpose in working out loud was simply to get better at something he loved doing. And that exploration helped him combine several of his interests into a job he could never have imagined otherwise.

For me, even the wisest career counselor couldn’t predict the arc of my career or have foreseen the work I’m doing now. My current job didn’t exist just a few years ago and I’d have never considered coaching and writing a book related to it. It was only through making my work visible and building relationships that I was able to discover possibilities I’d have otherwise missed. 

Do you have a purpose? Start working out loud so you learn how to explore and discover one. Let the universe help you encounter how to make the most of your work and life. 

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What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

A (literally) breathtaking moment in Yakushima, JapanFor most of my career, I’ve been afraid. As I approach 50, though, that fear is being replaced by something else. Not quite confidence and certainly not peace. It’s more a sense of fuck-it-I-need-to-do-something-that-matters-now.

Here are 3 stories about fears I’ve had at work and how I learned to deal with them.

Afraid of speaking up

In the first investment bank I worked in, the head of our division was a fearsome character, the kind of guy you’ve seen in movies about Wall Street. One day, after he had just given a talk to all the officers in his division, he asked for questions. Ten seconds passed. Twenty.  A minute. When it was clear no one was going to raise their hand, he lit into the audience with an expletive-filled tirade questioning our right to be in the firm. Ouch.

That was 17 years ago. But from that day on, at every meeting and event I attended, I always made sure to have something to contribute. Not to promote myself, but because I learned to be more afraid of the consequences of not speaking up at all. 

Afraid of my boss

It seems obvious that you should do what the boss expects. And for most of my career, that’s what I did. It was my own version of the Tiara Syndrome that Sheryl Sandberg referenced in Lean In: you keep doing your job well expecting someone will notice and recognize you for it.

It’s a trap. Over time, I saw people doing exactly what they were told only to have the boss hire a leader precisely because they wanted someone who’d do things differently. Or, even more common, bosses keep changing. Each time management changes, so do the objectives and the expectations. And, each time, the people who do only what the boss wants become un-moored, unsure of themselves until a new boss tells them what to do.

After a string of such changes, I finally learned to focus less on the boss and more on work that mattered. And, to provide career insurance, I made my work visible and built a network of people who also cared about that work so I had options if and when I needed them.

Afraid of myself

For much of my career I worked on technology for traders, spending much of my time on trading floors. I still twitch when I go near one. The demands of the traders combined with the stress of anything going wrong at any given moment made for an unpleasant day. There are worse jobs, certainly. It’s just that this kind of job was particularly unsuitable for me. 

I felt trapped. I remember thinking: “I can’t do this for 15 more years. Nobody does this for that long.” But I was too afraid to look in the mirror and ask “What do you want to do? If this doesn’t make you happy, what will?” 

So I just kept at it, stuck in a prison I’d built myself, until somebody else made a decision for me and forced a career change. Once confronted with the need to do something different, I felt liberated. And I learned to think more deeply and more often about what would make work fulfilling for me as well as for others.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

There’s a lovely story about fear in The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander. A student of Zander’s from Spain was applying to be an associate principal cellist in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. The first time he played the piece for Zander, it was “of an absolutely professional standard.” But though he played all the notes correctly, Zander thought he “lacked flair and the characteristics of true leadership.” 

They worked and worked until they experienced a breakthrough. And before the student  traveled for the audition, Zander said “Remember, Marius, play it the second way!”

Marius didn’t get the job. “What happened?” asked Zander and Marius confided, “I played it the first way.” So Zander tried to console his young student.

“But you haven’t heard the whole story,” he said. “I was so peesed off, I said ‘Fock it, I’m going to Madrid to play for the principal cellist in the orchestra there!’ – and I won it, at twice the salary of the other job.”

In amazement, Zander again asked “What happened?” Marius laughed: “I played it the second way!” And so BTFI – Beyond The Fuck It – became part of the folklore of Zander’s classes.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to take a big leap to experience BTFI. You just need to take a step. For me, I started to write more. I started looking for people and projects I cared about. I played more offense and less defense. 

If I’m not afraid, I’ll write Working Out Loud to help people change how they work, building better networks, careers, and lives. I’ll build a movement so people can help each other in small groups and we can, collectively, scale that change. And in the process, I’ll raise money for public education so kids will have the basic tools they’ll need to work out loud when they get older.

I’m not sure how big my dent in the universe will be. Can I really change how big companies work? Can I improve the working lives of millions of people? I’m going to find out. Because, now, my biggest fear is a tombstone that says “He was too afraid to try.”

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

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5 gifts for your boss you may have never considered before

I love my bossA lot of the rhetoric about management, including my own, can come across as pitting us against them. But I’m actually a manager, too. And my boss has a boss. So who’s us and who’s them?

Okay, maybe your boss is a jerk. But it’s more likely they’re just a normal person in a role that’s conducive to jerk-y behavior. They probably have the same fears and anxieties you do. And they certainly share your same intrinsic needs for autonomy, purpose, and relatedness.

Working out loud can help them, too. So, for a change, here are 5 ways to frame working out loud as a contribution your boss will appreciate.

Make their team better

At work, we see how individuals who work out loud improve their entire team. One manager saw how  “working out loud makes it far easier for the team to see what everyone is working on and contribute to others objectives.” He also saw how the additional feedback they were now getting had improved the quality of their products.

By making work visible, you make the work better while making everyone, including the boss, look good.

Engage their constituents

Another common use of our social collaboration platform is for teams to discuss plans for their products and services and to support their internal customers. The teams who do this find the extra visibility positively shapes their reputation and helps spread the word about their work.

Besides the improvement in quality, that extra visibility increases your boss’ stature in the firm. And it makes it easier for her to highlight the importance of her organization’s work when she’s fighting for resources.

Improve their productivity

Interaction workers (professionals, managers, salespeople) spend 28% of their time reading or writing email. They spend another 19% of the time trying to track down information (including searching through email). And it seems the higher you are in the hierarchy, the more emails you get and meetings you attend.

Help your boss by shifting more of their organization’s work online so it can be done in an asynchronous way. That’ll reduce their over-reliance on email and meetings for things like status updates, freeing up time for work that’s more meaningful for them.

Recognize their work in public

Recognition, gratitude, and appreciation are universal gifts that are rarely offered in corporate settings. When’s the last time you offered public praise or a thank you for something your manager has done?

It doesn’t have to come off as fawning. It could be about the presentation they delivered well. The environment they created to help the team succeed. The budget they fought for. Simple, direct, authentic recognition for someone’s work is powerful at all levels, including management.

Expand their personal network

Ever hear of Impostor Syndrome? As people become more successful, there can be a tendency for some to feel like it’s luck, perhaps, and that it’s only a matter of time before others discover the truth. That kind of fear can lead to all sorts of behavior that’s bad for the boss and for people around them.

Help them by showing them examples of leaders communicating in less formal, more authentic ways. And gradually demonstrate how they, too, can work out loud and connect with their organization, their constituents, and managers just like them.

Remember: Invite, don’t indict

Pointy-haired bossYes, it seems most senior executives cling to ineffective work habits and are uncomfortable working in a more open, connected way. But posting Dilbert cartoons and laughing at your own version of the pointy-haired boss won’t help you and it won’t help them. In most cases, managers want work to be better, too. They just don’t know what to do.

Your boss, like it or not, is one of the most influential people in your network, so start thinking differently about the contributions you can make. Help them and you’ll be helping yourself.

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Why your boss is a jerk (and what you can do about it)

Complete this sentence: “My boss is a …”

Did you say “role model”? Or “true leader”? No. When you start searching the Internet for “My boss is a…,” the most common completions are “bully,” “idiot,” “jerk,” “liar,” “psycho,” “moron,” and some other words that aren’t very nice.

Every day, millions of people are subjected to work situations that rob them of control and often their dignity. Maybe it’s a boss who mistreats you. Or rules that tell you what to do and when to do it. Or management systems that force you to compete with colleagues, bringing out the worst in human behavior.

Here’s why your boss is a jerk – and how you can fight back.

The perils of obedience

The Milgram control panelIn July, 1961, three months after Adolf Eichmann went on trial for Nazi war crimes, the psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments on obedience to authority figures. Milgram’s famous for a wide range of experiments, but this was surely his most controversial.

There are 3 roles in the experiment: the Teacher, the Learner, and the Experimenter. Volunteer subjects act as the The Teacher. They sit in front of a panel with 30 switches labeled with increasing voltages, from 15 to 450 volts. The Learner (who, unbeknownst to the subject, is a confederate of the Experimenter) is in another room and has to answer questions. When the Learner doesn’t get an answer right, the Teacher is supposed to deliver a higher shock.

There are different variations of the experiment but, in all of them, the Teacher can hear the distress of the Learner as the shocks grow more intense. If a Teacher objects, dismayed at the distress they’re causing, the Experimenter tells them to continue. Actual quotes from these exchanges are chilling.

Teacher: But he’s hollering. He can’t stand it. What’s going to happen to him?

Experimenter (his voice is patient, matter-of-fact): The experiment requires that you continue, Teacher…

Learner (yelling): Let me out of here! My heart’s bothering me! (Teacher looks at Experimenter.)

Experimenter: Continue please.

How many people would continue all the way to the level marked “Danger: Extreme Shock” even in the face of obvious distress they were causing? Milgram polled his colleagues and “psychiatrists predicted that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board.”

The actual answer was 600 times that. More than 60% of the subjects obeyed the Experimenter till the very end. People refused to believe the results. They pointed out flaws in the experiment. But, 35 years later, a researcher reviewed experiments that tried to replicate Milgram’s work over the prior decades. He found the percentage of participants prepared to inflict the highest voltages was consistently between 61–66 percent. Here was his own conclusion:

“What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience.”

Milgram at work

Shatner as MilgramTo get a feel for what these subjects went through (and for a glimpse back into the 1970s), watch “The Tenth Level,” a dramatization of the experiments starring none other than William Shatner as Milgram. I saw this movie when I was 11 years old and it’s stuck with me till this day.

While Milgram was interested in Nazis, the parallels to modern-day work are clear. Ordinary people, when placed in management, do things to employees they’d never do to friends or family. When I managed large organizations, I did it, too. Drawing up layoff lists. Denying promotions. Reviewing performance by rating people on a curve. Management routinely meant doing things that didn’t seem right.

Wait, what if I don’t know them well? What if they did everything they could but failed due to circumstances beyond their control? What if we didn’t provide the right resources to even make success possible?

The experiment required that I continue, and I did.

What can you do?

It’s not just bosses that are trained. It’s the employees, too. In the Five Monkeys Experiment, for example, we saw how employees can actually aid and abet the experimenter, reinforcing bad behaviors even though they’re harmful for the group and the individuals in it.

What can you do when you’re trapped in a malevolent experiment? Instead of just accepting the work environment you happen to be placed in, you can now change it in two ways.

Individually, you can gain more control over the system by working out loud. By making your work visible and getting public feedback on it, you’ll make it more difficult for your manager to unfairly assess your work. It will also help you expand and deepen your network, enabling you to discover other possibilities as you come into contact with more managers in your own firm and elsewhere.

As a group, you can connect mistreated people and their experiences to show the scale of a problem. Think of it as change.org at work. A private complaint of a single employee can be easy to dismiss. It’s a completely different matter when there are 1000 such complaints and the people making them are online, connected, and able to organize.

You don’t have to take it any more. Milgram’s Experimenter and all the Teachers who volunteered could only do what they did because they were in a closed room. When you work in an open, connected way, it changes everything.

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How to ask for help

If leading with generosity is the best way to build your network, what do you do when you actually want something from someone? How do you reconcile being generous with being needy?

I need help all the time. In the last week alone, I’ve asked for and received help on starting a new project at work, analyzing European data privacy rules, and reviewing the first 80 pages of my upcoming book. Many of the responses were from people I’ve never met.

Here are 5 things I keep in mind when I ask for help.

Get to know them first

Before you ask someone for help, do all you can to get to know them first. Look for them online and offer them the universal gifts of recognition and appreciation. Read what they’ve written. Follow them. Like their content. Offer a comment.

For example, if you’re an entrepreneur, you would surely benefit from the advice of Fred Wilson, perhaps the most notable venture capitalist in NYC. He’s so busy, though, that he’d likely never see your email or your offer to have coffee.

But you can read his blog and get to know him that way. Over 10 million people have visited Fred Wilson’s blog. But only 10,000 have commented. Only 1,000 have contributed in campaigns for donorschoose.org. And even fewer people regularly participate in online discussions in what he calls the avc.com community.

Who would Fred be more likely to help, someone who hasn’t bothered to read what he’s already offered or someone who’s made the effort to be part of his community? Before I’d approach him for help, I’d try to get closer to him in other ways.

Frame it as a contribution

Empathy, empathy, empathy. As you’re writing that email or LinkedIn request, imagine yourself reading it and asking What’s in it for me? Here’s a story from Tim Grahl, who helps authors market their books:

“Two authors recently emailed me for the first time. The subject line of the first read “Let’s meet.” The email shared the author’s struggle marketing his book and a request for a phone call so he could “pick my brain” about what he was doing wrong and how to fix it.

The subject line of the second email read, “Interview.” The email was a request to interview me for his podcast so that he could share my advice to educate his listeners and promote my business.

Which one do you think got a response from me?”

Coffee and brain-picking aren’t incredibly attractive offers. Before you ask for help, spend time figuring out how the other person can gain something too. It might take some creative thinking on your part, but it will help you stand out and get better results.

Be the 8-foot bride

Amanda PalmerVulnerability can be a gift, too, when presented in the right way. Amanda Palmer delivered a beautiful presentation about this in her TED talk “The art of asking.” One of her first jobs was standing on a crate dressed as a bride with a hat or can in front of her for donations. Those who gave money were treated with deep eye contact and a flower.

Later, as a struggling musician, she needed places to stay as well as food or equipment. She let fans know where she’d be and what she needed. The people giving got something in return: the chance to connect with her and be part of her journey. Her vulnerability made that possible. She felt strongly that “You don’t make people pay for music. You let them.” Her gifts didn’t appeal to everyone, of course. But when she asked for money on Kickstarter to launch a new album, 25,000 individuals donated a total of more than $1.2 million.

I think of the 8-foot bride when I ask people for help with my book or when I imagine selling it in the future. Most people will walk by. Some will stop and pick up a copy. Some might love it. I need to accept that my gift isn’t for everyone and ensure my requests feel more like an invitation than an imposition.

Don’t be a badger

When you’re vulnerable and people don’t respond, it can sting a bit. You might naturally feel rejected and that feeling can lead to bad behavior. I haven’t heard from you. Did you get my last email?!

Tim Grahl has more good advice for people seeking help from others.

“When you’re in outreach mode, revoke your right to be offended. You’re not always going to get the answer you want. People are going to turn you down or just ignore you from time to time. That’s a part of the game; that’s a part of life. When you don’t get a favorable response, take a breath and move forward. Keep looking for ways to help people. Assume the best of people.”

When the people I’m coaching don’t get a response, we practice Tim’s advice. We assume the best of people – they’re simply busy or have some other legitimate reason – and we focus on what else we can do to be helpful. That mindset ensures your requests don’t feel like burdens and makes it much more likely people will respond favorably in the future.

Say thank you

Despite its simplicity, a sincere “thank you” is still a rare and cherished gift. When’s the last time you received a hand-written thank you note? Or a personal email describing the positive impact of your generosity? Or a public thank you on social media calling out your contributions?

You can turn your thank you into a special gift by making it personal or public. It costs you nothing but can be the thing that transforms a transaction into a meaningful connection. When people I’ve never met offer me appreciation for something I’ve done or written, I can’t help but feel especially connected to them and willing to help them even more.

When I get help, I try to think of meaningful ways to say thank you. More than 30 people are now reading the first two parts of Working Out Loud. Several people read the 80 pages in a few days, offering me everything from line edits to suggestions on flow and style. All of it valuable. All of it generous. For them and for all of you reading this, I offer my version of Amanda Palmer’s deep eye contact and a flower.

Asking someone for something is a normal and natural thing to do. Go ahead. When you present your request in the right way, asking for help can be its own special kind of gift.


p.s. Part III of Working Out Loud includes techniques, exercises, and stories that will help you work out loud towards a specific purpose.

If you’d like to receive more techniques like the one in this post, subscribe to johnstepper.com by email. (In a browser, it’s the “Sign me up” button on the right.) In addition to weekly blog posts, I’ll send you practical information once a month that will help you work out loud effectively.

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“How’s the book coming along?”

Book coverA difficult conversation with someone who cares about you can help you confront an uncomfortable truth.

I’ve been writing a book for the past 18 months. My friends will ask “How’s the book coming along?” I’ll respond with some vague reply and they’ll offer encouragement.

Five weeks ago, over morning coffee, my wife asked me the same question. And the ensuing conversation is making it possible for me reach a goal I care very much about.

The adjustments I learned I had to make might help you, too.

The conversation

My wife sees me brooding in front of my laptop for countless hours, so when I told her that the book is going well, she had a few more questions.

“When will it be done?”
I don’t know. I really don’t have enough time.

How much more time do you need?
I don’t know.

How much time have you spent on it so far?
I don’t know.

How much did you work on it last week? Or yesterday even?
I don’t know.

A long awkward silence ensued. Inside my head were two other questions. Did Hemingway’s wife ask him these questions? And, more importantly: Am I just kidding myself?

Instead of trying to defend my lack of a meaningful publishing plan, I made 3 adjustments. The first one I made while the coffee was still hot.

Spending time

Hanako's chartI was aware of the irony that, in coaching others, I often help them to better manage their time so they get things done. It was clear to my wife (and now to me) that I wasn’t applying my own advice. 

A few weeks earlier, my wife and daughter came up with a simple chart posted on the refrigerator to motivate us to achieve goals we cared about: more exercise for the parents and more time practicing piano for my daughter. It worked.

IMG_4364So, after the conversation with my wife, I posted another simple chart to track hours spent on the book each day as well as when I shipped something to readers for feedback. 

Just like my Nike Fuel Band encourages me to move more, the simple and public display of my efforts on the book helped me to write more and ship more.


Later that same day, I was reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. Two chapters in particular helped me with my problem. “The Low-Information Diet” made me realize that, while I was reading a lot and meeting many interesting people, much of it was only marginally related to the book. If I wanted to actually publish a book, I’d have to be much more focused.

The chapter on “Interrupting Interruption” helped me see that, despite knowing the importance of focus, I was frittering away time and my capacity to pay attention by responding to far too many interruptions. Worse, I’d interrupt myself by impulsively checking my phone. James Altucher referred to it as “The Loop.” You’d check email, then Twitter, then Facebook, then the blog. Before you knew it, I’d wasted spent 10-20 minutes. And I’d do that a few times a day.

I recognized  I somehow had time for books, for “The Loop,” for coffee with people, but not enough time for my most important goal: writing the book.

So I became more ruthless in practicing what I preach. Now I turn off WiFi when I’m writing. I process email and check social media in batches rather than impulsively throughout the day. And I carefully budget the time I spend on things not related to my goal. Having better control of my time and attention made a tremendous difference.

The last adjustment had to do with my motivation. Why was my goal important anyway?

Clarity of purpose

There are so many books. Why bother writing another one? I knew it wasn’t to make money. (Books don’t generate much and I always thought to donate proceeds to donorschoose.org and public education anyway.)

An even worse reason – my original purpose – was to enhance my personal brand. But the idea of marketing my book just so I could sell myself and more copies was grossly unappealing. It felt inauthentic and was perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress.

It was only when I started coaching people that the purpose became clear: I’m writing the book to help people. To help them discover possibilities for making work and life more meaningful and fulfilling.

I see such positive change in the people I coach that I want to coach everyone I meet. People who’ve grown to hate working in dehumanizing corporations. People trying to start their own companies. People of all ages who are struggling to find jobs and, ideally, work that’s more than just a job.

The book, if I get it right, will help people help themselves and help each other. Once I was clear that the book wasn’t about me but about helping others, it was clear I had to work on it.

Thank you

Since that conversation with my wife, I’ve written and shipped more in 5 weeks than in the preceding 75 weeks. Earlier this month, I shipped the first few chapters of Working Out Loud to volunteer reviewers and their feedback has already made the book better. Two days ago, I sent the first half of the book to 15 more reviewers. I’ll keep doing that until I self-publish the book in September. (If you’d like to review a draft, or have any ideas or suggestions for the book, please leave a comment or contact me.)

I’ll use this blog to share more about the book in the coming months. And I hope that sharing the process itself will help you as you work on your own goals that are important to you.

Thank you for your time and your continued encouragement. It all means a lot to me.

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Becoming a trusted advisor

The Trust FormulaHave you ever worked with someone you’d call a “trusted advisor”? I mean the kind of person who has a network of close relationships and gets business based on the trust they’ve earned over time. They get paid, of course, but you think of them as a partner more than a vendor.

Recently, I met with 2 small consulting firms, friends of mine, who are seeking to earn trust while they earn business. Distinguishing themselves is difficult and getting new business is even harder.

So we talked about how they could  accelerate the process of becoming trusted advisors.

“The Trusted Advisor”

In 2000, three experts in managing professional services firms wrote “The Trusted Advisor” which the Boston Consulting Group CEO described as “an invaluable road map to all those who seek to develop truly special relationships with their clients.”

With chapters like “The Art of Listening”, the authors give sound advice that would have resonated with Dale Carnegie. They break down the elements of trust and put them into a simple formula:

Trust  = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation

They note that “the most effective sources of differentiation in trustworthiness come from intimacy and self-orientation.” Trusted advisors, through their words and actions, showed that they told the truth, did what they said they’d do, and put the interests of their clients before their own.

Traditionally, this takes a long time. The trusted advisors I know took many years to build their network and earn the trust of the people in it. The small consulting firms I visited, still considered start-ups, didn’t have that kind of time.

Another approach

Fortunately, my friends already had the ability to amplify their work and extend their reach by Working Out Loud. They could make their work visible and expand their network in a way the authors of “Trusted Advisor” could not fully envision when they wrote their book. 

Here are the authors’ 4 trust elements and how Working Out Loud provides extra benefits.

“Trusted Advisor” 

Benefits of 

Working Out Loud


“Credibility isn’t just content expertise…We must find ways not only to be credible, but also to give the client the sense that we are credible.” When your work is visible on social platforms, the public feedback and discussion about your work enhances its credibility.


“Judgments on reliability are strongly affected, if not determined, by the number of times the client has interacted with you.” Interacting online gives you many more opportunities to demonstrate publicly that you follow up and do what you say you’ll do.


“The most common failure in building trust is the lack of intimacy. Some professionals … maintain an emotional distance from their clients. We believe they do so not only at their own risk but also their clients’.” In addition to what you say in client meetings, you can deepen relationships through small contributions between meetings. The ambient intimacy you can develop online will bring you closer to your clients more quickly.


“…self-orientation is about much more than greed. It covers anything that keeps us focused on ourselves rather than on our client.” Framing your work as a contribution and leading with generosity demonstrates both your confidence and your willingness to serve.

What should they do next?

The groups I spoke with believed in the need to build their network and that leading with generosity would be a way to do it. But they still weren’t sure what they would do next. So, in a condensed version of the 12-week program, we talked about the people they wanted in their network and, for each person, the contributions the individuals in the firm had to offer.

Want to help recent graduates you might recruit? Each of the analysts could write about what they’re doing and learning. That could help recruits understand what the work was really like and how best to prepare for it.

Want to help potential clients navigate the industry? Maintain a list of the people you genuinely believe are thought leaders and trusted advisors in your industry and then profile some of those individuals. You’ll benefit by association with such people and producing such a list will demonstrate your confidence and generosity.

Want to help clients understand the issues? Publish your work and your thinking that went into it. You don’t need to provide client details for this to be valuable. Dissect that strategy project you just completed, for example. Show what goes into such a project, cite your research, and point to case studies. 

Finally, we walked through examples of people and firms that do this well. All of the members of  Change Agents WorldWide Work Out Loud. Jeremiah Owyang did it when he was at Altimeter and does it now at his new firm, Crowd Companies. The venture capitalist Fred Wilson has been doing it for 10 years at Union Square Ventures. Through their contributions, they’re all demonstrating their trustworthiness to a much, much bigger audience than would ever know them otherwise. Just like them, each person in those consulting firms should be working in a more open, connected way to build trust both for themselves and for their firm.

As one meeting ending, the group decided to start by helping graduates as a way to improve recruiting. The CEO, a trusted advisor himself after decades in the business, said: “It could really bring our firm to life.”

That’s exactly right.

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Guided mastery at work

SnakeImagine you’re afraid of snakes. You don’t just dislike them. You’re so afraid that you can’t even walk on grass for fear a snake might be there. Like other phobias, the fear paralyzes you and the paralysis affects other parts of your life.

Then imagine you’ve discovered a way to learn how to overcome that fear in a few hours. Perhaps 45 minutes. You’ve not only overcome your fear of snakes, you’ve changed your life.

Now imagine you could apply this approach at work.

The technique

In 1969, Albert Bandura, the most-cited psychologist alive today, used a technique he later called “guided mastery” to help people overcome their snake phobia. In his experiments, subjects would receive treatment combining “graduated live modeling with guided participation.”

First, they’d watch for 15 minutes through a 1-way mirror as the experimenter interacted with a snake. Then, after the snake was back in its glass cage, the subject might enter the room and sit on a chair at varying distances from the cage. Gradually, the experimenter would model more and more interactions and help the subject follow along.

It was the subject who set the pace of progress, based on their apprehensiveness. And it worked. More than any other methods Bandura tested, guided mastery was the most effective, produced the most sustainable change, and produced benefits that went beyond curing the subject’s fear of snakes.

“Having successfully eliminated a phobia that had plagued them for most of their lives, a number of subjects reported increased confidence that they could cope effectively with other fear-provoking events. As one subject explained it, ‘My success in gradually overcoming this fear of snakes has contributed to a greater feeling of confidence generally in my abilities to overcome any other problem which may arise. I have more faith in myself.’”

What Bandura witnessed, and what he went on to study for the next 40+ years, was a strengthening in self-efficacy, “the extent or strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals.”

Guided mastery in the classroom

This technique’s effectiveness isn’t just limited to phobia treatment, of course. We’ve probably all had some experience with guided mastery, perhaps in learning to play piano or golf. In a recent TED talk, for example, David Kelley from IDEO described using guided mastery to help build people’s creative confidence. Advances in technology, combined with a better understanding of how people learn, are making it easier for all of us to experience guided mastery.

Khan Academy, for example, combines 4500+ online videos, 100,000+ problems, sophisticated dashboards, and real-time coaching from other kids as well as teachers. Just as Bandura helped cure people of their snake phobias in 1969, Salman Khan is using guided mastery to help over 1.5 million subscribers overcome the challenges of learning algebra, physics, and dozens of other subjects.

And he’s finding the same improvements in the student’s sense of self-efficacy.

“There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said ‘these are the gifted kids’, ‘these are the slow kids’…But when you let every student work at their own pace – and we see it over and over and over again – you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted.”

Guided mastery at work

What about work? Often what we call “talent development” is simply labeling who’s good and who’s not. Instead, firms should help people strengthen their sense of self-efficacy so everyone feels they can get better. In 2000, thirty-one years after the snake phobia study, Bandura was clear that using guided mastery at work produced a wide range of benefits.

“Organizations that provide their new employees with guided mastery experiences, effective co-workers as models, and enabling performance feedback enhance employees self-efficacy, emotional well-being, satisfaction and level of productivity.”

Even better, regardless of the management practices at your firm, now you can experience guided mastery and its benefits by Working Out Loud. Readily coming into contact with experts modeling the work you’re trying to get better at. Making your work visible in small steps. Getting feedback on that work and make progress at your own pace. And, importantly, strengthening your self-efficacy. 

After Sal Khan delivered his TED talk, Bill Gates talked with him and told the audience, “It’s amazing. I think you’ve just got a glimpse of the future of education.”

As I  coach people to Work Out Loud, I feel the same way about work.

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