When the road ahead isn’t clear

In 2012, I was sitting in my office at Deutsche Bank, dispirited and disillusioned, wondering what I could possibly do to alter the downward trajectory of my career.

I had a few ideas. I toyed with a startup idea, had begun exploring a topic called “working out loud”, and recently started a blog. 

But what should I do next? Should I try to make the most of my job? Quit and try something new? Do some other kind of work on the side? 

I didn’t know.

Climbing the hill (with your head up)

Around that time I was reading a book called Running Lean aimed at helping startups deal with uncertainty. (The idea for a Lean Canvas comes from that book, and I’m re-reading it now for reasons you’ll see below.)

The book contains a rather arcane reference to a search algorithm that can apply to startups—and also to careers. I dog-eared the page with this text box.

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The author’s conclusion underneath helped me see what I should do next.

While there is no way to completely avoid the local maxima problem, you raise your odds for finding a better solution when you are initially open to exploring and even testing multiple models in parallel.

Making it through the fog

That was it! Instead of just “climbing the hill” at Deutsche Bank, or risking everything to leap onto another hill, the key was to follow multiple paths and remain open to possibilities. So, while I tried “local optimization” in my current job, I also did small experiments with other topics and kinds of work. 

Some of those experiments (like designing an app) turned out to be dead ends. But they didn’t cost much and I learned a lot, so they were still good investments. The experiments related to Working Out Loud led to a book, tens of thousands of people in WOL Circles, and a new fulfilling chapter in my life.

A practical way forward 

Just today, someone wrote me to say that he’s challenged by a situation similar to the one I faced eight years ago. He said he’s looking for a clear path ahead for his career and doesn’t see one.

But do any of us see a clear path ahead, especially now? 

I replied that I still don’t know exactly where I’m heading (which is why I’m re-reading that book). The best we can do is to think of our aspirations and intentions as a kind of compass, not a map. You take a small step, look around and explore and learn, re-check your compass, then decide on a next step. 

The person who wrote to me is in a Circle now, and my hope is that the structure, shared accountability, and support in that Circle will help him to get moving—to take more steps and learn from others who are traveling similar paths.

I hope the road ahead takes him, and you, to some wonderful places. 

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How will they know how good you are?

When I first thought I was going to be laid off, I began interviewing for jobs. That was more than ten years ago. Yet I still remember how bad I felt about the process.

At the time, I had no network or online presence, so I relied on recruiters to get me in the door. They matched me to positions that had the same keywords on my resume, even though that was no longer what I wanted to do.

When I met with a prospective employer, all I had to show for my career and capabilities was a two-page work history and my answers to a few interview questions. If they called a reference, I’d have to hope that person had something good to say about me.

“Career roulette” is what it felt like. And the stakes were particularly high. 

Not a game anyone needs to play

Currently, more than 26,000,000 people in the US have filed for unemployment. That’s 73% more jobs that have been lost than in the 2008 financial crisis. 

For the millions looking for a position, how would any employers know how good they are? Or if the job someone used to do is no longer possible, how will they ever be matched to other opportunities that are suited for them?

The answer isn’t (just) a better resume and LinkedIn profile. It’s a combination of actively searching, experimenting, learning, and building relationships. It’s about contributions that shape your reputation and connections that earn you access. In short, it’s Working Out Loud.

Increasing your odds

Recently, I spoke with someone in Switzerland who works with job hunters, and he started to use WOL Circles to help them. In his program, they work on a range of fundamental skills like interviewing and new technologies. The Circles build on that, helping them put those skills into practice and develop their network. For some of them it “changed the way they see the modern world.”

If you or a friend are looking for a job, consider joining a Circle to complement your search efforts. The structure, shared accountability, and support can help you make progress and feel better while you do it. 

In an upcoming version of the Circle Guides, there’s a quote: “Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live.” That’s true now more than ever, and more important too.

How will they know how good you are? How will you find a next step that’s right for you?

How will they know how good you are? How will you find a next step that’s right for you?

“Look inside” - A story from the all-new edition of Working Out Loud

I was laid off in May of 2016, three weeks after turning 52 years old. 

Working Out Loud starts off eight years earlier, with a meeting where my boss tells me, “John, we have to make a change.”

The first thing he said when I sat down was that my area was being reorganized. “If you can find a new role in the next sixty days . . .” He didn’t need to finish that sentence. I sat there, stunned.….Eventually, I wound up finding another assignment elsewhere in my department, one with less responsibility, less status, and less pay. 

I still remember what I was feeling back then. Shame. Anger. Humiliation. In the all-new edition of Working Out Loud, I tell a story about a similar meeting with an even worse outcome, but after which I felt very, very different. (You can also use Amazon’s “Look inside” feature to read it, as well as other stories.) 

A setback and a way forward 

Eight years after that meeting with my boss, a different manager told me my job was “restructured,” a clinical way to say I was being laid off. The bank where I worked had been struggling on many fronts, and someone decided I was no longer needed. After nineteen years with the company, my grand exit was a few minutes in a conference room with someone from Human Resources. My manager dialed in via speakerphone. 

This time, though, my reaction was different, because I had been Working Out Loud. 

I had gradually developed relationships with people around the world who knew me and my work and were interested in what I was doing. These relationships gave me a sense of connection and purpose. They also gave me access to knowledge and opportunities. Just a month before I got my severance letter, I had the chance to deliver a TEDx talk about WOL. A few weeks after I packed up my office, I was at Bosch, in Stuttgart, giving a presentation to a global audience—my first bit of revenue as a one-person start-up. Following that were talks at Daimler, Siemens, and BMW. The elements of Working Out Loud led me to more opportunities. I felt, perhaps for the first time, that I wasn’t playing career roulette anymore.

In a word, I was empowered. Even after being laid off, I felt—no, I knew—that I had something to offer that others would value. Instead of relying on chance or hoping to be chosen, I could choose myself. 

So many stories

Part of why I wrote an all-new edition of the book is because there are so many more stories to share. People realizing more of their potential, feeling more confident, and going on to do things they never expected they were capable of (including trying to change the culture of their company).

The paperback and e-book are now available for pre-order. I hope you enjoy it, and that you use Working Out Loud to write your own story. 

***

Note: We had planned to celebrate the WOL Community & the new edition with a big event on March 26th. But recently there is too much uncertainty and unease around such gatherings.

So, we will still celebrate, but in a different, virtual way. Here’s a registration link for a video webinar on March 26th where we’ll share more stories from the book and the community. I hope you will join us. 

A 21st-century skill & the jobs that require it

Recently, I happened to notice “Working Out Loud” in a job description on LinkedIn. Then Mara Tolja, my friend and WOL Coach in New Zealand, sent me another job that included WOL. Then another one. And another one.

“We should maintain a list,” I said. And she created one: workwell.co/WOLjobs

The diversity of roles is striking. From technology companies in Portland and Bucharest to the German train company in Berlin to the Cabinet Government Office in London. One job is for a UN Development Program in Mbabane, Swaziland, a town of 94,000 people.

Five years ago, the well-known author and analyst, Dion Hinchcliffe, recognized that companies would need employees who could work in a more open, connected way, an approach that enables greater collaboration and faster innovation. He presciently referred to Working Out Loud as one of the “essential next-generation digital workplace skills” and later called it “perhaps the most fundamental” of these skills.

Now it looks like companies are recognizing it too. 

What happened to “Working” in the last 45 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your perfect month

The inspiration to do this exercise came from Moyra Mackie, the first person I ever called “coach.” At the time, I was working at Deutsche Bank, struggling to write drafts of Working Out Loud, and feeling like I was paddling in a leaky canoe - lots of activity but not much progress or direction. 

On one of our phone calls, Moyra suggested that I write down what my “perfect month” might look like in a year or two. That timeframe was far enough away to give me the latitude to do different things, yet close enough that I needed to be practical. My perfect month wasn’t just about sitting on a beach in Okinawa, but about a way to earn a living while living a balanced life.

So I took a piece of paper, wrote down the days of the month, and started to imagine what I would do each day. 

The things I began listing I had considered before. Yet something about mapping those ideas to specific days in the month made them seem more real - and made me ask myself more questions. Yes, I would like to travel, write, do research, etc. But how much? One day a month? Five? Ten? I found myself visualizing my days and weeks. I imagined how it would feel - how I would feel.

I could see this was a good visioning exercise, and I enjoyed doing it. (It’s a nice companion to the “Letter from Your Future Self” in Week 7 of a WOL Circle.) Then I put the piece of paper away, and forgot about it. 

That was a few years ago. I happened to find that piece of paper recently and was struck by how much of it describes my last month, and the month before that. Though my “perfect month” wasn’t meant as an exact prescription or prediction, it captured a direction I wanted to take. It enabled me to see an example of what a more balanced, creative, fulfilling portfolio might look like.

That exercise helped me appreciate how articulating your intention can be extremely powerful. It can help you identify what experiments you might do to see if the direction is a good one for you, and who you might build relationships with to discover more. It can help you make that all-important shift from feeling stuck to taking a step.

When you reflect on your own career and life, where are you heading? What’s your perfect month?

The bridge from where you are to where you want to be

It seemed like something was missing for her. She was working inside one of the world’s largest corporations and, though she liked her job, what she really enjoyed doing was coaching other people. When she told me how she had looked into professional certifications and coaching jobs, her eyes were shining.

Then she paused. “But there are already 200,000 life coaches in Germany,” she said, “and I have a child.” She knew it would be tough to make a living, and was aware the odds were against her. Yet if she didn’t try, she might always wonder “what might have been.” 

What would you do?

The problem with building bridges

For most of my life, I thought of a career as a set of well-planned steps. Like building a bridge, there’s a grand plan, and you need to spend a lot of time and money (training, entry-level jobs, struggles to get customers), before you can reach the other side.

That’s an awfully risky approach - for two reasons. The first is that there’s a huge gap between the idea of doing something for a living and actually doing it every day, and it’s a terrible thing to realize your dream job is nightmarish in reality. Second is that the job you chose to strive for is just one job you happen to know about, and ignores the much wider array of possibilities you never knew existed.

You might build a bridge only to realize you don’t want to go to the other side after all.

More possibilities with less risk

Now more than ever, career planning is an oxymoron.  Instead, a much better approach is to start with only a general direction in mind, and then conduct small experiments that help you learn what a good next step might be. That’s “purposeful discovery.” Your experiments could be as simple as contributions to people related to your goal, or a conversation with someone who’s already doing what you have in mind.

For the woman who wanted to be a life coach, she might start by offering her services for free to colleagues at work, thereby helping people and gaining valuable experience while still getting a paycheck. She could meet with professional life coaches to better understand what being a coach is truly like. She might even try to find all the other life coaches in her company and connect them online so they could all share their experiences.

These kinds of free experiments would help her refine her sense of what she likes and doesn’t like, and expose her to other possibilities she hadn’t considered. Maybe over time she discovers her dream job is not to be independent after all, but to act as an internal coach in her company, or lead a community there, or offer a coaching framework that lets other companies tap into their own internal expertise. Only with experimentation, feedback, and connection will she discover that.

The bridge between where you are and where you want to be isn’t a bridge at all. Rather, it can be more like a leisurely hike through the woods. You have a general direction in mind and take a few steps, mindful of the signs and clues around you, and a path emerges. This approach gives you access to more possibilities with less risk. It may still be strenuous, but you’re much more likely to enjoy the journey.

When you’re looking for your purpose, “Build your way forward”

Even if you’re fortunate, it’s a common pattern. You begin with a sense that you’re meant to do something purposeful, that you’re special. With the passing of time and with each job, however, that sense of specialness fades. It’s replaced by a nagging disappointment or, worse, resignation. I guess that’s all there is. 

That certainly was my own experience. When I was young, I had high hopes but I also had no idea of what I wanted to do. So I simply reacted to whatever presented itself. As I got older, I relied on my experience in my first jobs to advance and make more money. Doing anything different seemed increasingly impossible. How could I start over?

Recently though, I’ve observed a different pattern. It’s one that gives me hope, and is something anyone can implement on their own. The pattern has three stages: Interest, Practice, and Purpose.

1. Interest

The best description I’ve found of how to explore your interests is in Designing Your Life, based on a course taught by two professors at Stanford. They refer to it as “wayfinding.”

“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map - a direction… Since there’s no one destination in life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you and make your best way forward.”

Maybe you have an inkling of what you’re interested in. Maybe you took a test and it pointed you in a direction. Then what? What would you do next, and how might you explore other interests that might be even better for you?

“Try reframing the challenge as an exploration of possibilities (instead of trying to solve your problem in one miraculous leap)…The way forward is to reduce the risk (and the fear) of failure by designing a series of small prototypes to test the waters….one of the principles of design thinking is that you want to ‘fail fast and fail forward’ into your next step.”

The book is filled with many examples of such prototypes, and the simplest and easiest one is a conversation with someone doing something related to your interest or goal. If you’re interested in real estate, talk to people already working in different real estate businesses. If you have a hobby you love, seek out and connect with people who’ve developed that into something more. 

2. Practice

Now comes the part most people miss: deliberate practice. The goal of prototyping and experimenting isn’t to get to some finish line. It’s to get you to the next experiment, to help you explore possibilities while you learn and develop new skills. It’s the combination of doing, interacting, and getting feedback that enables you to advance in the direction you’re interested in. 

For example, I’ve always had an interest in writing, yet for decades I didn’t do anything about it. I started by simply reading more, which sparked my curiosity. My first experiment was to write a blog post on my company’s intranet. I was in my 40s. Then I talked with a journalist who encouraged me and gave me constructive criticism and advice. In the first year, I only wrote 6 posts. I struggled, got more feedback, and learned. I began writing once a month, and later wrote my first public post. Writing became a habit, leading to hundreds of blog posts and a book. The skills I developed along the way - and the relationships I developed as I did it - enabled me to discover a new career in my 50s.

“Deliberate practice” isn’t just for one particular skill, it’s for life.

3. Purpose

Angela Duckworth describes the three phases - interest, practice, and purpose - in her bestselling book, Grit. Her research brought her into contact with thousands of accomplished people and she found few “naturally talented” people. 

“The more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.”

It’s that third stage that is perhaps most surprising to me, and I’m only now starting to understand it. It feels like an awakening of some sort. A psychologist interviewed for Grit described the third stage as when “the larger purpose and meaning of work finally becomes apparent.”

Your next step

The way to design your life is to “build your way forward," using a series of prototypes and interactions to enable you to make it through the three stages. For me, Working Out Loud is what helped me explore my interests, and my WOL Circles have helped me to keep practicing, to continue experimenting and connecting and learning until a purpose emerges.

If you’ve ever felt there is a gap between what you do and something that would be more meaningful, the way to bridge that gap is not with a daring leap but with hundreds or even thousands of small steps. Purpose isn’t something you discover or are born with as much as something that emerges from your passion and perseverance. 

A different kind of graduation present

It's graduation season now. Young people all over the world are leaving university and embarking on their next adventure. Many of them will be joining new companies and will take their place in a graduate training program.

What would be the best thing you could give them? Money? Nice things? What if you gave them a skill they could use now and forever? One that could make their work and life better?

When I left college, there were just a small number of well-worn career paths. Now it seems there’s an infinite number of trails in ever-changing terrain. The wonderful book Designing Your Life makes the point that we no longer have a map for our career (if we ever did) but just a general direction, and we have to “build our way forward.” The way to do that is by building relationships with people and learning from them, leveraging their experience to refine our own sense of what we like and what’s possible.

The first pilot of WOL Circles for a graduate training program is starting in a few weeks, enabling each of the participants to have a global network inside and outside the company in just 12 weeks. The company that sponsored it wanted to give their new employees something besides a job. They wanted to give them control over their career and access to more possibilities, more chances for meaning and fulfillment.

That’s a wonderful gift. 

“Perhaps if I liked my job more…”

I’ve been thinking about what she wrote since I got her message a few weeks ago. She had stumbled across an old blog post of mine from five years ago about "career insurance."

She had been working at a job she never really loved for a long time, and a recent lay-off left her wanting something more from work, something she could “feel at least a little passionate about.” She was interested in Working Out Loud, but some of the exercises seemed pointless to her given the state of her career. “Perhaps if I liked my job,” she wrote, “I would be more interested in becoming visible.”

I wanted to tell her that even in a job you don’t like, you have more control than you might imagine. Not only can you craft your tasks, relationships, and perceptions at work, but you can use your existing job as a platform for building new skills. She shouldn’t wait till she found a job she loved to Work Out Loud, she should Work Out Loud to find a job she loves.

In a post called, “If you want to discover something wonderful, try this” I described it as “purposeful discovery.”

“One of the major problems with identifying your true calling is that you’re aware of only a tiny fraction of the possibilities, and picking solely from what you already know is grossly limiting...
Fortunately, I found a much better way to guide your decision making that will lead you to more rewarding possibilities. That better way is purposeful discovery, a form of goal-oriented exploration. You start by choosing a goal you care about and then using the different elements of working out loud to build a network of relationships, get feedback, and learn about ways to improve and about other possibilities. The goal orients your activities, and as you get feedback and learn, you adapt your goal accordingly”

I encouraged her to join a Working Out Loud Circle with people from different locations and companies. The peer support would help her take a step in a way that felt safe and confidential. The contributions she would make would help her refine her sense of what she liked and didn’t like. Her growing network of deepening relationships would give her access to new ideas and opportunities.

I know it's hard to take a step when you're not feeling good about what your work, but I hope she does. If you wait for your job to be interesting before you take control of your career, you may wait for a very long time.