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


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.

Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live

I was walking through the Frankfurt airport, jet-lagged and rushing to catch a train, when a poster in the terminal caught my eye. I stopped and took a photo. 

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

The tagline made me think of Working Out Loud, and the resistance I sometimes encounter when I suggest people make their work visible. 

“I don’t like to toot my own horn.”

“Why would anyone care what I’m working on?”

“My work should speak for itself.”

“What if they don’t like it?”

“I’m too busy for that.”

“What if I say something stupid?”

“I’m an introvert.”

And so on.

It’s understandable if you feel uncertain or uncomfortable about “being visible.” But you have many options. What you share, how you share it, and with whom you share it are all up to you.

If you do nothing, however, then you have ceded control over your reputation to others. A bad word from the boss or an unhappy client will have more weight than all your many contributions. If you insist on never showing your work, you have given up the chance to be discovered, and have greatly reduced your own odds. Imagine an artist with no portfolio. Or a writer with no articles or books. How would you know what they’re capable of?

Think about your online presence: your profiles, your projects, your ideas, your learning. Are you and your best work easy to find?

Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live.

“Like a pebble in a pond”

“Each contribution you make,” I’ll often tell an audience, “is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with more people and possibilities.”

It sounds a bit lofty, doesn’t it? Like an exaggeration? Here’s an example of what I mean.

A simple contribution

After reading Working Out Loud, Andrea could have quietly put the book on the shelf, but instead she offered public appreciation on LinkedIn and asked a simple question

“Is there anyone in the Munich area who is interested in forming a local #wol circle?”

Though I didn’t know Andrea, I was notified of her post because she mentioned me in it. So I offered some ways she could find potential Circle members and added that, by coincidence, I would be in her city in a few weeks.

“Fabelhaft! :-) One way to find Circle members is to ask in the WOL groups on Facebook or LinkedIn. There are many WOL practitioners in Munich. I'll be there myself in 2 weeks!”

One step unlocks another

Andrea’s short post didn’t exactly go viral, but it did draw a reaction from people in a few dozen companies and at least half a dozen countries. One of the comments, from someone who neither Andrea nor I knew,  said he would also be in Munich and perhaps we could meet. That led to a group message with a growing number of people. Soon, we had a date, time, and place to meet for dinner

There were 12 of us, and we had fun discovering connections between each of us. What motivated each person to attend? Did they know anyone else there? How did they even hear about WOL?

If that was all that happened, it would be enough, and Andrea summed it up nicely in a post.

“12 people from different companies with various backgrounds- and one common denominator: an interest in working out loud...It was a pleasure to see you all today! I feel enriched by your stories and I hope to meet you again in a circle, or otherwise :-)”

More people and possibilities

But the ripples kept spreading (and keep spreading). For example, six of the people there were from Airbus. Several of them brought a book, inscribed by their manager who, unbeknownst to me, was giving it to her team members. As we talked, we discovered other connections with Airbus in France, and the team resolved to start their own WOL Circles inside the company.

Stranger still, the woman I sat next, Gleyce, was already part of a group led by someone in Brazil working to translate the Circle Guides into Portuguese. The web of connections and coincidences seemed to grow, and we all remarked on how it all began with a simple post.

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

"Airbus starting to Working Out Loud - Elina Golke, Clotilde Martin, John Stepper, Gleyce Kastl Lima, Philipp Rathjen, Bernd Schmid" 

Pebbles and butterflies

In Week 10 of the Circle Guides, there’s a contribution checklist to help people become more systematic about what they have to offer. Your gift can be as simple as attention or appreciation, or it can be making your work visible: sharing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, resources and people that have helped you, things you’ve learned, questions you have, and more.

When I write posts like the one you’re reading now, most of the readers are people I don’t know, and aren't even connected to me, and the ripples take me and my work to some surprising places. Just this week I got a note from the principal of a school in Austria who wants to use WOL to help teachers with their professional development. It's a topic my wife and I are both interested in, and that I wrote about almost four years ago, and the Austrian principal and I agreed on an experiment we'll do together in a few weeks.

How do such things happen? And how can you make them happen more often?

In chaos theory, as a way to demonstrate that small changes can have dramatic and unpredictable consequences, it's said that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can affect the weather in New York City.

What if, like Andrea, you unleashed your own butterflies each day, offering contributions without expectations? What kind of changes could you make possible, for yourself and for others?

The Why of Working Out Loud

Earlier today, Seth Godin captured perhaps the best reason to help someone work out loud. He was talking about our expectations of ourselves and of each other, and how limiting they can be.

“If we can help just one person refuse to accept false limits, we've made a contribution. If we can give people the education, the tools and the access they need to reach their goals, we've made a difference.”

A little help for a friend

A little help for a friend

Giving people the education, tools, and access. It’s why I wrote the book. It’s why people sometimes buy a copy for a friend. “They could really use this,” they’ll say. It’s why you invite someone into your working out loud circle.

It's beautiful to see the reactions of people who work out loud. Like Rita who wrote "I honestly feel empowered to own my success and not wait for it to come knocking." Or Sharon: "I know that I don't have to feel trapped in my job...I can create my own luck."

The why of working out loud is to help people get more out of work and life.

The great equalizer

“You’re not angry enough!!” I was in the Apple store in Soho and my friend was giving me feedback about an early draft of the book. She handed me a package with her comments all over the printout. Her tone was insistent.

“This is important,” she told me, soberly. “People need help…”

More than a year later, I think I finally understand what she meant. Too many people are struggling to get access to the chances they deserve, and working out loud can give them an advantage when they need it most.

Access to people & possibilities

Access to people & possibilities

When you’re just getting started

Whether you’re a recent graduate, a new employee, or you’re starting to explore a new career, it can be particularly difficult to develop your network. You’re (sometimes literally) on the outside looking in, and it can take months or even years to get to know the people who can help you be effective.

Working Out Loud events with new hires are a way of making things easier for the employee while shortening the on-boarding time for the firm. Employees transitioning out of their firm also need help as they start a new chapter in their career, so I’m looking to work with outplacement firms on specific training for them too.

When you’re a victim of conscious or unconscious bias

For some people, the problem is more insidious, and they’re denied access because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation. I’ve been lucky to work with employee resource groups to help their members learn how to deepen relationships and gain access through their own networks so they rely less on an individual manager.

As the saying goes, “sunlight is the most powerful disinfectant.” When a qualified person makes their work visible and receives public feedback on their work, it’s much more difficult to overlook them in favor of lesser-qualified candidates who may be favored for reasons other than merit.

When you have a bad boss

My friend’s comments in the Apple store were based on her own experiences with bad managers and dehumanizing workplaces. She used the word “psychopaths” at least once.

Your experience at work can fundamentally change when your boss changes. From simple things like whether flexible work schedules are allowed to judgments about your performance and value. I’ve seen exceptional people reduced to tears when their new boss had a very different set of measures - and set of friends.

In the worst cases, you may not have a choice but to move on, and the expanded network you have from working out loud gives you access to more opportunities. When you’re unlucky enough to have a bad boss, you can take comfort knowing that you have some control and you don’t have to take it any more.

We're calling an upcoming event "Working Out Loud: The Great Equalizer" because working out loud levels the playing field more than anything else I've seen.Whether you’re starting out, trying to get ahead, or just trying to get along, working out loud can give anyone the access they deserve.

The smartest kids in the world

My youngest daughter was doing fine in first grade. She was fluent in two languages, played piano, and seemed to enjoy school. The teachers and staff we met at our public school were dedicated and kind. Then, last summer, I got an education about what goes into making a great school and smart kids.

3 signs that something was missing

It was towards the end of the school year when we heard the second-grade student-teacher ratio would be 33:1. That seemed high, and my wife and I wondered how any adult could maintain order in such a class, never mind teach all those children.

Some friends were looking at private schools, and my wife suggested we find out more. But I resisted. I loved the sense of community at our local school. Besides, I said, “It’s only second grade.” When our daughter? seemed to struggle with math, we figured “maybe she’s just not good at math” and took solace in knowing she was good at languages and music.

We talked about this over dinner with my cousin, who founded the Milestone School in Mt. Vernon, NY. Her young students put on Shakespeare plays, learn a foreign language, and play chess. Her curriculum seemed fundamentally more rigorous. She taught me that, although our daughter was only in second grade, the skills and learning habits she acquired now were crucial?for when things get more difficult in later grades.

Then in July we went to Japan and stayed with my sister-in-law’s family. Their kids attended public school but they also went to after-school sessions and did extra homework. We saw how even the younger child was doing math far beyond what our daughter was doing. She was embarrassed. So she took some of their worksheets and practiced. With a little help, she caught up in a few weeks.

If the US is 36th in math, who’s better?

The Smartest Kids in the WorldI saw that I had, in effect, completely outsourced my children’s education to a school and that was irresponsible. My wife and I started doing more research, which included reading an excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World. It’s a book I strongly encourage?every parent to read.

It’s from that book I learned about PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. It’s a test aimed at gauging critical thinking in a standardized way around the world. The results for many countries are shocking. The US ranks 36th in math, on par with Lithuania and the Slovak Republic. Countries that spend far less per student than the US, including Finland and Poland, ranked much higher. Why?

Common suggestions are that the US has more diversity, more immigrants, or more poverty. But none of these are the cause of our educational issues. What the PISA data show and The Smartest Kids in the World brings to life is that three factors make the biggest difference:

Great teachers. In the education superpowers, teaching is a respected, competitive, well-paid profession. “Getting into a teacher-training program [in Finland] is as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States.”

Higher expectations and more effort. The school days are longer and the curriculum is more rigorous.

A culture of learning. Students, teachers, and families all take school seriously because it is serious. Your performance in school often dictates your access to a better career and a better quality of life.

In some countries, access to such an education wasn’t a privilege but a right. “In the twenty-first century, it was easier for a poor person to get a great education in Finland than in almost any country in the world including the United States.” As one UK politician put it, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”

The best school

After reading The Smartest Kids, my wife and I were determined to be more engaged? in our children’s education. She spent weeks investigating the complex web of public, charter, and private schools. We watched chilling?documentaries like The Lottery. We attended information sessions and spoke with other parents.?BASIS Independent Brooklyn

We finally decided on Basis Independent, which was mentioned in the book. “At BASIS public charter schools in Arizona and Washington, D.C., teachers train students for academic conquests the way most American high schools train fort players for Friday night games.”

They were opening up a a new school in Brooklyn, kindergarten through 12th grade. We were awed by their curriculum: Mandarin and Engineering from the beginning, Latin in 4th grade, Logic in middle school.

I was lucky to attend a high school that changed my life. It was led by smart, accomplished professionals who had high expectations for us and pushed us to meet those expectations. I loved that school. At BASIS, it seemed like my children could have that experience starting at a much younger age.

So far, after more than half a year, the academics have surpassed our?expectations. We’re also seeing two things we didn’t expect. The first is that the teachers and administration are providing a caring, nurturing environment. There’s rigor, for sure, but it’s backed up by a support system that helps each child through their individual challenges.

The biggest surprise has been my daughter’s reaction. It used to be a struggle to get her out of bed at 8am to walk the 2 blocks to school. Now, she’s up and eager at 6:30am to catch the bus. She loves her teachers and they’ve instilled in her a love of learning.

The smartest kids in the world don’t get that way because they’re rich or gifted. They’re smart because they have great teachers and high expectations, because they put in more effort, and because they’re surrounded by people focused on learning.

Every kid deserves a chance to be a smart kid.

When are the best years of your life?

A group of us were in the hotel bar late one night after an all-day business conference. Fueled by some polychromatic cocktails, I asked the people I was with - all of us in our 40s - whether they thought their best years were ahead of them or behind them.

“Ohhhh,” said one woman. “No question. My best years were in college.”

“Really?” I asked. I was surprised. She was smart, attractive, and had a successful career. Not only was college decades ago, but she had 30, 40, or even 50 more years of living to do.

Why would she spend that time looking backwards?

“I always thought you’d be something special”

I was surprised and yet I understood. I used to look backwards, too, thinking of times that seemed more full of promise and potential. Of things I could have done but didn’t.

That feeling was particularly strong one night when I reunited with an elementary school friend I hadn’t seen in 30+ years. After a few minutes, she asked me with particular curiosity “What did you wind up doing? I always thought you’d be something special.”

She meant it as a compliment. We grew up in the Bronx but she knew I’d been admitted to the city’s best high school and had high hopes for me.

I paused, unsure of my response. I’d had a fine career and life, but I remember wistfully thinking “Yes, I thought I’d be special, too.”

The wrong model

The problem was that the woman in the bar and I both had the wrong modeI for how life really works.

We viewed life as a continuously dwindling set of possibilities. You start with an almost infinite set of things you can do or be. (When I was 5, I declared I was going to be a paleontologist. At 11, a baseball player. At 17, a psychologist.) But, over time, your options - particularly the special ones - become fewer and fewer.

Then I started to think differently.

Body and mind

My change in perspective started with how I viewed my health. I also had the wrong model for that, thinking of my body as a machine which, over time, inevitably started to wear down and break. So my best physical days were necessarily in the past.

Then a friend gave me a book called “Grow Younger Next Year”. It taught me, in simple language and accessible science, that my body is a much more dynamic system than I’d imagined. That by moving and eating differently I could change my circulatory system and produce new possibilities. I changed my habits and I changed my outlook.

Similarly, I learned how thinking and learning differently could change how my brain works?and open up new possibilities there, too:

“During most of the 20th century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood”

The same is true in other parts of your life. Working differently and relating to people differently open up possibilities you might have never even imagined when you were younger.

The road ahead

If I have a hero, it’s W. Edwards Deming. Born on a chicken farm in 1900, he was a statistician who worked with the census bureau into his 40s. At 47, he travelled to Japan to help with the first census after the war. While there, he met with people about statistics and quality control. And his subsequent fieldwork with factory managers in Japan marked the beginning of the Japanese quality movement.

His efforts unlocked tremendous commercial value while also helping individual workers regain their pride of workmanship. In 1950, Japan awarded the first Deming Prize.?Still, for decades, Deming was largely unknown in the US, where he lived and worked. It was only after he was mentioned on a television show (“If Japan can, why can’t we?”) that his consulting business took off. He was 80. At 82, he published his most popular book.

He died at 93, having experienced things he could never have imagined as a young man on a chicken farm or in mid-life at the census bureau.

Deming is a great role model for me. And now it's even easier to create the kind of full life he led. With new tools and practices developed since his time, it's easier than ever to?shape your reputation, control your career, and make a difference. Easier than ever to create new possibilities.

The best years of your life? They’re ahead of you.