The best gift my mother ever gave me

Growing up, my mother’s lack of education and limited worldview were infuriating and embarrassing. Though she raised me, she seemed so different from me.

That led to a sense of detachment and indifference. There were times, when she had moved to another state, that months would go by before I’d think to call, usually prompted by a reproof from my older sister. I didn’t seem to have anything to say.

Yet today, more than ten years after my mother died, I think of her almost every day. All because of a gift she gave me.

How I saw her

My mother, born Fiorentina (“Flo”) Bruno, was the youngest of 7 children all raised in New York City. She didn’t graduate high school and she married a man, my father Joseph, who didn’t make it past the 8th grade. “The 13th Joe,” she reminded us, hinting at her bad luck. Her life seemed tinged with disappointment and regret, a lingering sense that things should have been different.

Even at age 76, lying in a hospital bed with a broken hip she’d never recover from, she was still reminiscing about her best years as a single woman working in the gloves department at Macy’s.

Belated love and respect

Mom and me at my sister's weddingIt was only when I was older and my mother was into her 70s that I started appreciating her. I started noticing how other people loved and respected her. I saw I’d taken for granted the qualities that made my mother special.

Despite having little money, for example – our family car was purchased for $25 – she was extraordinarily generous, always handing out small gifts for people. “Just a little something,” she’d say.

And the food! My best memories of my mother are of her in the kitchen, cooking and baking. We may not have had much but we always had good food and guests to share it with. On Thanksgivings, we could sit at the table for 3-4 hours as she presented course after course. Every holiday, she’d make special trips to deliver her homemade cookies, cakes, and breads to family and friends. She’d stay up into the night till her hands would ache from rolling dough. One Easter she made 40 loaves of bread.

She was fun, too. How could I not love that? She’d tell jokes, dress up for Halloween, host parties. The very things that embarrassed me then are the things I admire about her now.

Yes, she had regrets. But they stemmed from simply having a thirst for life and wanting more from it. As I entered my 40s, my condescension turned into empathy.

The best gift she gave me

There was one other quality she had, her best gift, that she somehow passed down to me: my mother was genuinely interested in other people.

“Are you a Gemini?” she’d ask a complete stranger while I rolled my eyes and skulked away. Though not everyone engaged her in conversation, many did. She was charming, genuinely curious about people, and could talk to anyone. As a result, she had an extraordinary social network of people who cared for her.

When I was a child, I was too shy to even answer the phone. But, as my mom would say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and through her actions she influenced me, instilling in me her interest in other people. Now, I’m just like my mother, talking, talking, talking simply because I like people and like getting to know them better. And now it’s my own children’s turn to be embarrassed.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

I regret the missed opportunities. I did too little, too late. But there’s still a way I can show my appreciation for what you gave me. There’s an opportunity, with every person I meet, to share your wonderful gift. Each time I do that my life becomes a little richer and my bond with you becomes a little stronger.

Now, although you’re gone, you’re with me every day.

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A letter from my future self


Lincoln's adviceIf you’ve ever wondered where you’re heading, or what your work and life is leading up to (if anything), then I have an exercise that might help you.

This week, I suggested this exercise when several people I’m coaching were struggling a bit with their purpose. That reminded me I had done something similar for myself more than 4 years ago, and when I read it again this week I was surprised at what I found.

A vision of your future

In Coach Yourself, Anthony Grant and Jane Greene advise that to help decide what’s important to you and what to focus on, a good method is to write yourself a letter from the future. (Other variations including creating “vision boards” made up of pictures from magazines.)

Simply choose a date a some months or years ahead. Then imagine what happened during that time if your life had gone well and how you’d feel if you were successful and fulfilled. The real examples in the book showed there’s no one right way to write such a letter. The common theme was simply people writing earnestly about what they were doing and feeling at some future point.

“For it to be real, for it to be useful, you need to engage your emotions. It seems that there is something quite special about writing it down that allows you to reaching into your deepest self.”

My own vision

In, 2009, I took part in a Keith Ferrazzi “Relationship Masters Academy” that’s now an online offering. When we began, he had us write up our dreams and goals, a short summary of our long-term vision, and three specific results that would tell us if we’d accomplished our goal. He also had us describe how we would feel if we didn’t pursue our goal and if we did.

It was a variation of a letter to my future self. And I remember, when I wrote it, that I was nervous. How odd to be nervous simply writing something about myself that no one else would see! I also remember, once I let go of my anxiety and let myself write, that I could taste the future.

Here are my answers, unedited, from four years ago.

My Dreams/Goals

“To live in different countries for months at a time – Japan, France, Spain, Italy…(to name the top 4)

I would like to write (publicly – beyond my weekly work blog, which was at least a start) and to connect with an audience.

I’d like to create! Books but also software and other projects. Things that people would use and love.

I’d like to do something genuinely helpful, particularly when it comes to education for kids who may not normally have access to it. (I benefitted from going to a free scholarship high school which changed my life.)

Oh, and financial independence… 🙂 Actually, I don’t mind the idea of having to work to earn a living. But the dream is more to be able to research/write/speak/ present about ideas and connect with people. Perhaps ideal “jobs” are those of a Malcolm Gladwell, Clay Shirky or Seth Godin…or Keith Ferrazzi 🙂 ”

Articulating my vision

“I will become a champion of ideas. Who will write, speak and connect. Within 10 years. (But taking steps NOW!)”

How will I know?

“I will have authored a book or other notable content that > 20,000 people read. I will have been paid to speak. I can earn a living from writing, speaking and (only some) consulting.”

How will it feel if I don’t try and if I do?

“If I don’t pursue my mission now, I will continue to live my status quo and…. My sense of being special will fade. My frustration at not doing “more” will increase. My (constant) fear of having to earn enough for the next 20+ years will remain. My entire life will be colored by the 2 statements above.”

“If I do pursue my vision now, I will be increasingly happy and… My sense of peace and inner calm will be much, much greater. My energy and enthusiasm will be much higher – every day. My family will be happy because I’ll be “present” and happy.”

What will your letter look like?

I hadn’t looked at this exercise since I wrote it four years ago. What surprised me is how much of it still feels right or is coming true. Either I’m a fantastic forecaster or, much more likely, the act of envisioning the future and writing it down shaped my thoughts and my actions.

What about you? What would your letter look like? Not your bio or about page or whatever else you might write to impress someone else. Write to your future self for yourself. Maybe share it with one close friend who can support you.

Destiny isn’t something that awaits you. It’s something you create.

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The best meal in Florence

Duomo in FlorenceOverlooking the Ponte Vecchio





For many travelers, their best meal in Florence might be high on a hill with views of the Duomo. Or along the Arno river, overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. Or maybe in a piazza near the Uffizi museum.

But for me, while celebrating my 50th birthday this week in Florence, a small neighborhood place stood out from all the others.

The restaurant: I Carbonari

I CarbonariNormally, my wife would research restaurants and get trusted recommendations. But we were all tired on Tuesday night and so we chose the restaurant closest to our hotel. It was I Carbonari,  less than 50 meters away and so new that there weren’t any reviews we could read.

As soon as we walked in, the place felt inviting. The brightly colored kitchen was open and smelled wonderful. One entire wall was a chalkboard with an area reserved for kids to draw. Instead of a printed menu, they listed a few specials based on what was fresh that day. And they also offered to cook other dishes based on what we liked.

I went with the classic dish listed that day: spaghetti vongole. It’s so simple – just spaghetti, clams, garlic, olive oil, some herbs – and yet somehow this was different. The dish sang and not a note was wrong. The amount of oil and blend of seasonings was pitch perfect. The clams tasted like they just came from the sea. And the pasta had a firmness and flavor that stood up to all of it. Despite a generous portion, I ordered a second helping.

And the wine! Again no menu, just a carafe of house wine. I chose red and it had a wonderful taste that I could only describe as – and I know this is a strange word to use for wine – “fresh.” I asked about it and they proudly told me the wine was made without preservatives. Making a stomping motion, he emphasized “with the feet.”

After we ate, the kids were tired and walked backed to the hotel with my wife while I sipped my wine. Now alone, I indulged myself with a 3rd glass accompanied by a slice of ricotta cheesecake like no other. I thought of my grandparents, Vito and Angelina Bruno who took the boat from Piaggine to New York almost 100 years ago. Perhaps it was the effects of the wine, but I felt more Italian than ever.

Contributions & curiosity

The daily specialsNormally, that would have been it. After all, restaurants for tourists are usually a simple transaction, rarely if ever to be repeated. But in writing about working out loud, I’ve developed a greater sense of curiosity and contribution.  I wanted to know more about these people and to do something for them besides just say “grazie” and leave a tip. But what else could I do?

The most obvious contribution was to come back the next day for lunch. When we did, the Ciaos! and Buon giornos! we exchanged had even more feeling. Immediately, I noticed a familiar dish on the counter. Pizza rustica is a traditional Easter pie and the last time I had it was before PCs were invented. We started our lunch with 4 slices and some red wine.

Other people came and went, everyone wearing warm, genuine smiles. We met the woman who baked the cheesecake from the other night and another chef (he was “the meat chef” as opposed to “the fish chef”). Seeing everyone interact in this small, friendly space made me feel like I was in someone’s home. I very much liked being there and that gave me an idea.

“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” I said. “I’d like to come back again.”

“Your birthday?! Really? She’ll make you a cake!” he said, excitedly, pointing to the baker. “What kind of cake would you like?”

The best meal in Florence

Kids at the kitchenThe next night, we got to know each other better. I learned that Stefania and Fernando have been married for 20 years and just opened the restaurant recently. They met while doing other work in London and lived there for 10 years.

And we learned their restaurant is truly a family business. The meat chef is the brother of the husband. And Andrea (in the photo, on the right) is the fish chef and their brother-in-law. He’s married to the wife’s sister, Gabriella, who’s also the baker. Andrea is also responsible for the wine as it comes from a vineyard he owns in Puglia.

During all of this conversation, our family busily swapped plates, sampling everything. Whole squid stuffed with ricotta and vegetables. Marinated sardines and orata. Pasta with pureed asparagus that tasted like the sun itself. Between courses, the kids drew pictures for my birthday while I lost count of the wine glasses (both white and red this time).

My cake!And then came the cake. I had asked for “something with Nutella in it” knowing my kids would love that. Stefania dimmed the lights, Fernando lit the candles they’d purchased, and everyone sang. Then they presented us with a bottle of champagne and entertained the kids while we all talked and drank. We encouraged them to come visit us in New York City and we even connected on Facebook before we left. Back at the hotel, I saw they’d posted pictures of the cake and I did the same.

And that’s how I came to experience my best meal in Florence. We did eat at other places but I don’t remember the names of those restaurants never mind the people. At I Carbonari, we made a connection. And that’s what turned our meal into an experience and a story I wanted to share.

Mille grazie to my new friends.


Andrea, Stefania, and Fernando

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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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