Anja’s Story (from the new edition of Working Out Loud)

This story is from the first chapter of Working Out Loud. (Which is now available for pre-order in German too.)

Like other stories in the book, and thousands more in WOL Circles globally, it is about the power of making contributions and connections, earning you access to more possibilities. It’s about self-determination, exploring ways to make more of all you have to offer and realize more of your potential.

I hope you enjoy it, and that you will use Working Out Loud to write your own story.

Click on Anja’s photo to see her LinkedIn profile

Click on Anja’s photo to see her LinkedIn profile

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Anja earns access to more possibilities

Anja grew up in a picturesque small town of fewer than fifteen thousand people. Upon graduation from the local high school, she applied for an internship at a savings bank about fifteen minutes away. She got the job. 

After four years, Anja knew she wanted more from work but didn’t think she could get very far without a university degree. So she enrolled in a college with an evening program, and for several years she juggled working during the day with going to classes and studying at night. Meanwhile, as it became clear that a career in a local bank wasn’t going to be enough for her, she moved to a large company in a nearby city and got an entry-level job as a clerk in the Purchasing Department. 

When she finally graduated, though, after all those nights and weekends of extra work, she was offered a role as a secretary. It was disappointing. She said, “All that effort to get a degree just to sit there in the end and stick receipts on my boss’s expense report made me more and more frustrated every single day.” Then she paused and slowly repeated that last phrase, as if reliving it: “Every. Single. Day.”

It wasn’t that she thought being a secretary was beneath her or was necessarily a bad job. She just felt she could contribute more. “I wanted a job where I could bring in my passion, where my talents could be seen, and where they would be useful for the company at the same time.” Although her new company had many, many jobs that might be more meaningful or fulfilling, she had no idea how to show she was qualified for them, or to get any extra experience she might need. Although Anja was only in her early twenties, she began to feel stuck.  

Being a secretary is usually a behind-the-scenes kind of job, where few people other than your manager know what you do, how well you do it, and what else you’re capable of. But Anja figured out a way to make herself and her work visible. She had seen that the company was promoting their internal collaboration tools and that a “digital transformation” was part of the corporate strategy. So, she started a blog and called it “How to work digitally as a secretary.”

She began by writing about the tools and techniques she used to be more efficient and effective. The point wasn’t to show off, but to be genuinely helpful. A few people read her first posts, then a few more.

She started to get comments thanking her for the tips she was sharing, and wanting to know more about her approach and how she handled her work. Gradually, her writing began to attract thousands of views, and was shared by colleagues she didn’t know. Her network started to grow. “People started to consider me an expert,” she said. One of the people who took notice of what Anja had to offer was her boss, who offered her a different role.

Anja moved from being an assistant in the Purchasing Department to being a community manager for two online groups in the division. From there she took on the title of “agile coach,” conducting training, coaching individuals, and facilitating workshops. Now she regularly acts as a mentor for teams, departments, and leaders, and she actively promotes digital collaboration and networking throughout the division. Recently, she organized a huge cross-company conference, and shared the stage with two board members. 

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But it was worth it. I can now show my talents, and live my passion, in my new job.” Anja no longer feels stuck or invisible. Instead, she has found a way to realize more of her potential, and it feels like a new beginning.

Anja is on the far right, together with board members and other managers from Bosch & Daimler, celebrating the WOL Conference she co-organized.

The story of Pinkspektrum

Nicole is a software quality engineer. She’s smart, creative, funny. Born in Dusseldorf and now living in Switzerland, she speaks several languages. She also happens to have autism. 

This is her Working Out Loud story.

A small step

I first heard from Nicole more than two years ago, when she wrote to me (“Guten abend, Herr Stepper”) to tell me her company had started to form WOL Circles and that she was one of the first participants.

She had been diagnosed with autism in her early 30s. That diagnosis explained many of the challenges she faced, and also gave her insights into how to deal with them. 

She told me she joined a Circle to help her with her new goal: “to advocate and educate for autism spectrum disorders.” 

Emboldened

Gradually, Nicole began talking more openly about her condition, both with her Circle and her colleagues, and eventually with her boss at Ypsomed. The support and encouragement she received gave her the confidence to try new things. 

She was uncomfortable being “visible” but small posts on Instagram helped her experiment and also learn what others found useful. Positive feedback on those posts inspired her to be bolder, and she shared her first story on LinkedIn (translated as “Boss, I’m autistic!”).

In that post she announced a new website: pinkspektrum.ch

“With this website I would like to help you to understand autistic perception and to recognize the potentials & strengths. Because autistic people have a lot of it, as long as you manage to create the right environment.

Therefore it is a matter of my heart to educate about autism spectrum disorders, so that even more autistic people have the opportunity to ‘blossom.’"

Nicole kept exploring. Earlier this year, she spoke with a German newspaper who has seen her website and wanted to feature her in a story. Then she launched a pinkspektrum YouTube channel. Nicole said she is “finding her voice” as she also discovers new friendships, support, and cooperation with other YouTubers and Instagrammers. 

A bigger world

With each step, Nicole’s confidence grows and so do her aspirations. When we spoke on the phone last week, she described how raising awareness might help kids get diagnosed earlier, and help parents, teachers, and employers create environments where autistic people can thrive. 

When I asked her what’s next for her, we talked about a TED talk, maybe a television show. She laughed. But why not? Nicole is much, much more than a diagnosis or label. She is an inspiration, and the steps she’s taking are helping her realize more of her potential, more of all she has to offer. 

Nicole on Instagram: “I have autism” versus “I am autistic”

Nicole on Instagram: “I have autism” versus “I am autistic”

“Why not me?”

I didn’t mean to judge her, but when she told me her goal it seemed like an uninspired choice. Given all her experience and skills, surely she could aim higher? I know her well enough that I asked her, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

She sighed. Then, in almost a whisper, she described an aspiration that would be challenging and fulfilling. But as soon as she gave voice to it, she gave up on it.

“Perhaps in a future life,” she said. 

1000 reasons not to try

Five years ago, I was working in Deutsche Bank and my career was in a long, slow death spiral. I had joined a WOL Circle with two friends who had started multiple companies, and in one of our meetings they asked me, “Why don't you do this Working Out Loud thing full-time?” I immediately started listing the reasons. 

I’m too old. 

I have five kids. 

I’m too conservative.

I’m not like you.

I’m not that kind of person.

Step by step, though, with the help of many people, I gradually wore down my resistance to the idea, and I began erasing the labels and limits I placed on myself. Two years later I was on my own. Three years after that I enrolled in Start-up School. Today, I am (finally) comfortable saying, “I’m building my own business.” 

2020 vision

As this year draws to a close and we anticipate another, it’s a good time for taking stock of what we’ve done and what we have yet to try. 

For many of us, the saddest words can be “What might have been…” Do not wait for “a future life.” Reflect on what might give you a sense of greater purpose and fulfillment, and dare to ask yourself, “Why not me? Why not now?”

What ever happened to the piano teacher?

More than three years ago, I told the story of Mari, a piano teacher, in a TEDx talk about Working Out Loud. What she experienced back then was wonderful. What she’s done since is remarkable.

Click to view the TEDx talk. Mari’s story starts at 04m:24s

Click to view the TEDx talk. Mari’s story starts at 04m:24s

3 Years Ago

Mari is a piano teacher in New York City, and she’s extremely good with children. She’s also an extraordinarily talented musician. Yet one night as a group of us were talking about work, she shared something that surprised us.

“My world is too small.”

How could that be? The students adore her, and she seems to enjoy her work so much. But she told us she yearned for interactions with people beyond the same families she met each week. What she most enjoyed doing, she said, was composing, and she wanted to do more of it. As much as she liked teaching, she wanted to have people hear her own music. I suggested she join a WOL Circle. 

Mari wasn’t comfortable with being visible or talking about her work. She was shy and felt her English wasn’t good enough. (Her native language is Japanese.) The prospect of writing a blog post or starting a YouTube channel was too foreign to her, and she felt she “wasn’t that kind of person.”

In our Circle, she started with small steps, writing down the names of people from music school she had lost touch with and re-connecting with some of them. She played Internet detective, searching for people who might be interested in her music. 

That’s how she discovered independent filmmakers who needed musical scores. It took her several weeks to work up the courage to reach out to a particular director via email, sharing a piece she created. “I’ve enjoyed your films, and I thought this music I composed might be useful.” That led to an email exchange, and then to working together. I was with her when she got the news, and she lit up.

“You made my world bigger,” Mari told me, and that’s how I ended her story in the TEDx talk.

Now

For Mari, progress in her first Circle was being able to voice a goal she cared about and take small steps toward it. In the years after our Circle ended, those small steps made other, bigger steps, possible. 

She created a website - marikotskyy.com - and began experimenting with recording and publishing her music using iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, and other tools. She released an album online, and submitted her music to different competitions and publishers. One of her pieces, a trio for piano, was performed by a youth group in Boston. A solo piece won an international composition contest for “The contemporary piano.” Yet another has been selected by RMN Classical to be included in a new compilation album.

I asked Mari if I could write about her, and she replied right away:

“OF COURSE!!! WOL is amazing. I used the method you taught me, and now I have many connections with other composers and musicians."

More than just building a network, she shaped her identity. She is still a piano teacher, but she is not defined or limited by that label. If you search for “Mari Kotskyy” today, you’ll find “Composer,” “Pianist,” and “Musical Artist.” Sometimes all it takes is a small step to set people in motion, and set them free.

Mari’s music is beautiful. Click on the image to play.

Mari’s music is beautiful. Click on the image to play.


The courage to connect

If only she could see what I see.

We don’t know each other. But even a quick scan made it clear that she’s highly-skilled, has done interesting and relevant work in a company I admire, and is in a location I enjoy visiting and working in.

Her first email to me was lovely and generous. She had been following me and wrote to offer support and assistance - for free - just because she believes in what I'm doing.

Yet she almost didn’t send that message.

“I just finished part 1 of your book which provided me with the courage to reach out to you.”

I re-read that line several times. "The courage to reach out." It struck me that she has so much to contribute and was offering it in such a nice way, and yet she felt constrained, held back by a fear of some kind. I thanked her and shared what I was thinking.

“I'm thrilled that you took the time to write your note which was both kind and generous. Isn't it fascinating that we hold back even when we have such gifts to offer? If we could change that mindset and unlock more such gifts, the world and workplace would be better for everyone.”

We continued our email exchange (she’s also witty and a good writer), and I look forward to speaking with her about her work and to ask for her ideas and opinions about mine. Given her experience, I can easily imagine a wide range of collaboration opportunities. 

What about you? Is there something holding you back from reaching out to someone? Something preventing you from making the contributions and connections you want to make?

There are so many people who could benefit from all you have to offer. Developing the courage to share it just takes practice

Sketch by Janine Kirchhof -  janinekirchhof.com  &  @ THE_HR_GIRL

Sketch by Janine Kirchhof - janinekirchhof.com@THE_HR_GIRL

Alexander's Story: "A complete change of my mindset"

Alexander Weinhard works in a software company in Esslingen, Germany. I didn't know him or his company until I came across a post he wrote. It appeared a few weeks ago on a site that connects "businesses and individuals dedicated in some way to helping people become happier at work.It was his first public blog post

I enjoyed reading about his experience so much that I wanted to share his post here in its entirety. If you're in a Working Out Loud Circle, maybe you can relate to what he wrote. If you haven't joined one yet, maybe this will inspire you to take a step.

***

MY PERSONAL WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE STORY

“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that — when you work in a more open, connected way — you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”
John Stepper: The five elements of Working Out Loud

When I read this statement for the first time, I thought: “Higher efficiency in my work and more opportunities? That is exactly what I need!” I am a software engineer at the more than 18,000-person Festo, and I am used to supporting my colleagues with their IT problems in our collaboration environment. 

I thought, “Support is a form of reactive knowledge sharing, so why not proactively share my knowledge? It totally makes sense!”

I was so na?ve…

After publishing some Tales from the SharePoint Forest, a collection of learnings I had made in my job packed into fable-style stories, which were very positively received from the audience in our company internal social media, I quickly discovered that sharing knowledge alone is not enough. I needed to learn more about how I could make connections with people, how to address people better and how to be more systematic in my sharing.

When I heard that our knowledge management department was planning to organize a Working Out Loud Circle and was searching for volunteers to participate, I was immediately hooked.

WHAT IS A WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE?


Working Out Loud Circles are in essence peer support groups which meet regularly to learn more about Working Out Loud. The participants try to answer the following three questions:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • Who is related to my goal?
  • How can I contribute to them to deepen our relationships?

The original approach plans a 12-week cycle with weekly one-hour meetings. At Festo we have reduced it to a ten-week cycle but stick to the weekly one-hour online meetings. Each weekly Circle meeting has a different subject with one or two corresponding exercises illustrated below.

Our Working Out Loud team consists of five of us, from different departments, functions and locations. The host and two of the participants are from our knowledge management HR team based in Germany. One participant is a local IT guy from one of our branch offices in the UK and I introduced myself already. We do all the meetings online.

The goal of the UK colleague is about his personal Balanced Scorecard. The host’s goal is about how to organize a Working Out Loud Circle. One HR colleague’s goal is to learn more about knowledge management because he is new to the subject, and the other HR colleague’s goal is to improve her trainer skills.

That’s the cool thing about a Working Out Loud Circle — all participants can have their own goals. The Circle is more about general methodology, not about a specific subject. Still, we can each help the others, if goals are not too specific.

I have had knowledge management as a main course during my master studies, so I can provide material for the colleague who wants to learn more about knowledge management. I have implemented our IT’s Balanced Scorecard, hence I can connect the UK colleague with the responsible persons for an exchange. We each bring our varied experiences to the table to help each other out.

HOW DID THE WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE MAKE A CHANGE FOR ME?

At the moment I am writing this blog post, the Working Out Loud Circle is still going on. So far, we have held seven out of the ten Circle meetings. But nevertheless I already experience a big change:

The goal I set for myself was to learn more about management. Before the Circle started, I was a nerd technical specialist who thought that management in general was something evil. Now I am a nerd technical specialist that thinks that I can change his whole work environment through the practices I’ve learned so far, potentially making a real difference for my colleagues (and myself). Ultimately, I am rethinking my personal goals and don’t think I’d fundamentally turn down the idea of going into management anymore. Our Circle has really kicked off a complete change of my mindset and I am just getting started!

Probably I was a bit lucky too, because at the same time I started to participate in the Working Out Loud Circle, I started reading #Workout by Jurgen Appelo (now published under the title Managing for Happiness.). Through the Working Out Loud Circle exercise in Week Three, I started using Twitter and followed Jurgen. That’s how I learned about the Happy Melly network and immediately joined it. I have published my experiences from the Working Out Loud Circle as experiments I’m running, got a lot of great feedback from the Happy Melly members and finally one thing lead to another… Now I am sitting in front of my computer, writing a blog post for Happy Melly, sharing my experience from the Working Out Loud Circle to an audience I could not have imagined a few weeks ago!

WHAT EXPERIENCES HAVE I MADE PARTICIPATING IN THE WORKING OUT LOUD CIRCLE?

For me, the Working Out Loud Circle at Festo is an institution I wouldn’t want to miss any minute of. I even turned down an appointment with my CEO to be able to join the kick-off!

In my first report on Happy Melly about my experiences in the Working Out Loud Circle, I wrote:

“Finally I have found a channel where I can let my thoughts run wild, where I can exchange with like-minded people. It feels like an escape from the everyday routine.” And guess what? Nothing has changed since then.

Many of the exercises we put into practice during the Circle meetings already found their way into my daily habits, e.g. into the way I write emails or post on our company internal social media. And the feedback which I receive from recipients or readers is exceptionally positive.

In addition, the number of public posts I write in our company social media has increased tremendously because, due to the Circle I found the confidence to be more public. Before the Circle started, I most often just answered questions, provided support and assistance. Now I post about my ideas, experiments, outcomes, achievements. I post kudos and recognition and sometimes also just post my thoughts and opinions. I hope my colleagues will not consider me a spammer in the near future…

To get a more detailed insight in the experiences I have made while participating in the Working Out Loud Circle, you can check my Happy Melly profile, where you find reports about all the experiments I execute at work.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

I already incorporated with a couple of colleagues from different countries and different business departments to launch a new community with the target to overcome the organizational barriers between software development and affiliated departments in our company. I will share my development knowledge as well as my management learnings there too, thus bringing my Working Out Loud contributions to a whole new level, and, who knows, maybe we might also form some new Working Out Loud Circles inside this community.

I am already looking forward to the next Working Out Loud Circle meetings and want to gain more insight into the subject. I will definitely go on sharing my experiences from the Circle at Happy Melly to spread word to a wider audience. I am also highly motivated to go on using the practices I have learned from the Circle in my next projects, with my remote developer team and with the new community. And when our knowledge management department starts more Working Out Loud Circles, guess who will try to join…

“Are you in or are you out?”

She could tell I was uncomfortable. I was sitting across from Kelly Kimball, the respected acting coach and director I've written about before. I had just told her about a video project I wanted to film, unlike anything I created before. She quickly laid out all that might be involved, the preparation I could do, some adjustments I would need to make. It was masterful. 

I must have visibly sunk into my chair. This will be worse than 10 TED talks, I thought. It was too much, and I would never be good enough.

Kelly noticed my apprehension, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’ll be great.” She talked about the work she had seen me do and why she knew I could pull this off. Then she paused. “Just ask yourself, before you start, ‘Am I in or am I out?’” It’s a question she has her acting students ask themselves before they do a scene.

If you’re out, you’re thinking about all that might go wrong. You’re focusing on why it needs to work - for the money or status or both. You’re questioning your ability and your choices. 

If you’re in, you’re thinking about why you wanted to do this kind of work in the first place. You’re focused on who it’s for, and how it can help them. You’re thinking about the contribution you’ll make and the learning you’ll take away no matter what.

I sat up, smiled, and thought, I’m in. I told her that was a question I could ask myself before every talk or workshop, whenever I write, and any time I was about to do something I cared about.

This year, as you take a step, as you attempt something new - to learn, explore, or do anything that stretches you in some way - what mindset will you bring to your work, to your aspirations?

Are you in or are you out?

Photograph by Steve McCurry

Note: For years, I've written every Wednesday and Saturday but on two different sites. Today, I've changed that, and merged everything here, including mailing lists because over time my work and life have blended. I'll continue to publish twice a week, and almost everything will relate to improving how people relate to themselves, to each other, and to the work they do.

Wherever you wish to go next with your career & life, I hope my work can help you in some way.

Two years after “A year without meat”

When I wrote “A year without meat,” I was unsure what would happen afterwards.

Was it just another one of my experiments, and I would revert to normal behavior? Or was it something more than that?

Two years later, I know something fundamental changed, and it wasn’t just my diet. 

Meat

The dietary differences

The first thing that happened was that six months after the post, I stopped eating fish, too. The pattern was similar. I saw a documentary and became more aware of the extraordinary overfishing and waste as well as health issues related to eating certain fish.

I wondered, “Do I really need to be part of this?” and I decided to become a vegetarian.

Instead of my diet becoming boring and limited, just the opposite happened. I replaced the usual chicken sandwich and burger with a much wider range of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains. I gradually learned the joys of fresh, whole foods artfully combined. Avocado with a drizzle of olive oil, cracked pepper, and walnuts. Spinach salad with strawberries, asparagus, almonds, and a bit ofv?sterbotten cheese. Watermelon with feta and arugula. Food so beautiful you want to take photos of it.

Watermelon feta salad

When people ask, “Do you ever crave meat?” the answer is “Yes, sometimes.” But it’s usually a smell or other cue that sparks a desire, and after thinking about it for a few seconds, that desire passes. My family still eats meat, but much less of it than we all used to.

The changes I didn’t expect

I haven’t seen any dramatic changes in my health. My cholesterol is still too high, for example. (I have high HDL (good) and high LDL (bad) which may just be hereditary.) But rather than go back to medication, I’ll first try exercising more and modifying my diet in other ways.

Those are changes I now know I can make, because even after the first year of not eating meat, I felt that things I once considered impossible were within reach.

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

This confidence helped me write and self-publish a book, and it made me open to creating all sorts of other possibilities.

My wife noticed the difference. When I was talking with her about a new habit I was thinking of developing, she said “You became a vegetarian, darling. If you can do that, this will be easy.”

The next big thing

It has all been a bit unsettling. I’m so used to ticking certain boxes that define me that even ordering the vegetarian meals when buying a plane ticket feels like I’m changing my identity.

When someone asks if I have food restrictions and I say “vegetarian,” it feels like I’m wearing new clothes that I’m not quite used to. I like it, but I just never thought I would be wearing that label.

So now I wonder what other labels I might change - where I live, the work I do, the adventures I go on. What other limits might I examine and redefine?

I’m not sure what the next big thing will be or if there even needs to be one. But whatever it is, I feel ready for it.