How much is it worth?

I can only imagine what she felt like. A new job in a new country, thousands of miles away. And as soon as she arrives she’s forced into lockdown, alone and isolated.

This week’s story shows how, as much as Working Out Loud helps with business objectives, it goes far beyond that. It nurtures feelings of connection and confidence. It helps people thrive, even now.

Usually, when someone asks me about the value of Working Out Loud, I offer benchmarks and use cases and Net Promoter Scores. Now I will also talk about Maria Fernanda and the personal transformation she experienced in her Circle. I am grateful she shared her story with me, and allowed me to share it with you.

“How much is it worth for an employee to feel connected & empowered?”

“What’s the value of a happier, more confident person?”

***

“Hi John,

My name is Maria Fernanda and I am a first generation Mexican immigrant in the UK. I arrived, 24 years old, my first formal job contract, 2 bags and my cell phone on March 2020 to Heathrow airport, met my co-workers for 1 week, and then entered lockdown.

Even though I tried to train myself with all the vast material on the internet, I felt lost. Cultural work shock (imagine arriving to a new country and trying to understand the work culture via SKYPE), new methods of working for everyone, not knowing how to show my potential or how I could contribute to the team. 3 months passed like that and I couldn’t even unmute myself in conference calls without trembling.

But one day, a co-worker told me about a WOL circle, and that it might help us to connect and talk with more people. I joined because I was curious and craved for connection, but I didn’t expect to be touched the way I did. 

Apart from the fact that I was in a circle with truly remarkable women (5 of us), it was the highlight of our lockdown weeks. We all came from different places and different backgrounds, but all of that seemed to disappear, along with the worries of everything. It appeared like magic, a safe space; with time we realized we had deeply connected, we truly cared for each other and we could support our goals even though we are so different and we had never met in person. It helped us identify and concentrate in what we care about with all our hearts and how to track it in the middle of all the uncertainty and fear.

I was so scared to not be accepted the way I am, or to be rejected in a foreign country were I didn’t know anyone, but the WOL circle and the women that shared it with me made it go away with kindness. In the WOL circle I was accepted for who I am and that gave me the strength to show my abilities at work and in my personal life. The way the guides were written made me feel like I had a true friend that knew how to guide me, and I feel truly grateful. I now have the tools to make my life better John, and I promise I will make a difference with them, even a small one. I felt I was so alone in quarantine but I know I am not alone anymore.

Also, I can unmute myself and present powerpoints in conference calls which is a great step :-)

I hope you have been okay these last few months, and I wish you the best with all my heart. Everything will be better :-)

PS. My goal is to become a writer someday :-) so if life is kind, we might connect one day too. Thank you for all the hope and the support.”

Maria Fernanda - Thank you for the hope.001.jpeg

Investing in Yourself

Do you find that many of your friends are either looking for work or looking for a change? The only thing that seems certain at the moment is more uncertainty. 

What can you do?

“Simply astonished”

I found one answer in a student’s thesis that she shared online. Her topic was “Why is WOL accepted by employees?” and she interviewed dozens of people from 38 different companies. Two quotes stood out.

"Many are simply astonished by the number of opportunities that they were offered while applying their WOL practices." 

"The employees indicated that WOL has changed the way they approach and value others as well as the way they treat and value themselves." 

What Nadine discovered in her interviews is exactly what many people today are looking for today. Opportunity, Perspective. Connection.

“To connect on a human level”

This isn’t just an academic issue, of course, but something much more practical than that, something more personal. Andreas summed up his experience this way:

“Not only has it helped each of us to make a massive step towards reaching our growth goals, it also helped in times of remote work to connect on a human level.”

It isn’t selfish to develop yourself. Annette, for example, describes the benefits for her and her company, SAP. She calls it “the magic.”

Practicing WOL had not just an influence on how I approach goals, but how I approach people and challenges in life. It fosters cultural change and makes SAP’s values truly experienceable: tell it like it is, stay curious, embrace differences, keep the promise, & build bridges, not silos."

New Year. New You. 

The new WOL Membership Network makes it easy for you to take a step and realize benefits like these. Daniela described her experience in a Circle this way:

A profound program, the insights and tasks were an inspiring framework to our journey on which we worked, dreamt, and developed all together.

In your annual membership, you get three chances to join different kinds of Circles. Each time, we’ll match you with others, help you with your goal, and offer you coaching & support throughout the entire year. All for less than the cost of a conference or course. 

When will it be the right time to invest in yourself? When will you deserve it? The answer, especially as we come to the end of 2020, is obvious:

“Now.”

When will it be the right time to invest in yourself? When will you deserve it?

When will it be the right time to invest in yourself? When will you deserve it?

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.

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 first thing we must all do to be free

Everybody deserves to be somebody. Yet at every workplace I visit - all of them modern companies in developed countries - I see limits that prevent people from realizing this basic right. 

Some of the limits are at a corporate level. We preach innovation, collaboration, and purpose - “We must change the culture!” - yet the need for control and allocation of power makes it unsafe for those who seek to actually change the status quo. 

Some of the limits are at an individual level. We share universal needs and wants: respect, recognition, the opportunity to contribute. Yet we also share a heightened sensitivity to our status in an organization (and the world at large), and most of us hold back until we know it’s safe.

It isn’t always safe, of course, and so even the simplest of acts are questioned. Can I approach that person? Can I say this? Can I write that? You quickly learn there are unwritten protocols for who gets to say and do what they think is best, for who matters.

Reflecting on this made me search for a speech from fifty years ago, of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. The recording was only discovered recently. I listened to it multiple times. 

No matter where people are assembled…. The cry is always the same: "We want to be free.” I would like to suggest some of the things you must do in order to be truly free. The first thing we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebody-ness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody. Because the minute one feels that way he is incapable of rising to his full maturity as a person. 

He was speaking to an audience that faced oppression more severe than anything at a modern workplace, more than anything I can imagine. Yet even in those dire, unsafe circumstances he told them not to wait for change but to realize more of their potential now, through action, with whatever was available to them. 

We must make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. We must not wait for the day of full emancipation before we set out to achieve certain basic developments in our lives.

Quoting a poem by Douglas Malloch, King exhorted the students to “be the best of whatever you are.” That advice applies to each of us now as it did then. Yes, the people and environment around you may not make it easy. But don’t let anybody - even yourself - make you feel that you are nobody.


Sunday Night Syndrome

The symptoms appear gradually. A slight knot in the stomach. A mounting sense of dread, a feeling of irritation, even anxiety, about what’s about to happen. Sunday Night Syndrome affects an alarming number of people, and it’s beginning to feel like an epidemic. 

A telltale sign is when you say, “I wish I didn’t have to go to work on Monday.” 

I suffered from SNS for most of my life. Sometimes the symptoms appeared as early as Sunday morning, even Saturday night, further spoiling the already too-short weekend escape.

Since everyone around me suffered from the same symptoms, I did nothing about it. Week after week after week. 25 years old, 35, 45, 50. I sat there like the proverbial frog placed in a pot of water on the stove, slowly dying inside, never jumping out.

Do you suffer from any signs of Sunday Night Syndrome? Or know someone who does? The only cure I’ve found is tap into a sense of self-determination, a sense that you have some control, that you’re not a victim. 

It doesn’t have to be a big leap. You don’t have to quit or change your entire life with a bold move. I find such remedies too risky anyway, and not terribly effective. Instead, I recommend a small step, an experiment of a kind: block out one hour every Monday to invest in yourself. 

Maybe you use that hour (less than 3% of your week), to work on a new skill or research a topic you’re interested in. Maybe you use the time to shape your reputation, sharing what you’re learning or doing on your intranet or LinkedIn. Maybe you form a WOL Circle and meet on Mondays, taking advantage of the structure, shared accountability, and support to make progress towards a goal you care about.

Don’t be the frog, waiting to be rescued. If you don’t invest in yourself, who will?

Disengaged at work.jpg

Perfect just the way you are. And...

That’s the thing about Zen masters. You never really know when they’re joking.

Shunryu Suzuki is best known for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and one of the most influential Zen organizations in the US. In the late 1960s, he was giving a lecture on “non-gaining mind” in which he was emphasizing practice for its own sake, as opposed to some benefit in the future. The striving and clinging to expectations not only distorted your practice but could also leave you miserable. 

“You become very idealistic with some notion or ideal set up by yourself and you strive for attaining or fulfilling that notion or goal. But as I always say this is very absurd because when you become idealistic in your practice you have gaining idea within yourself, so by the time you attain some stage your gaining idea will create another ideal…Because your attainment is always ahead of you, you are always sacrificing yourself for some ideal. So this is very absurd. “

A student asked Suzuki to clarify what he meant, so he simplified it.

“You are perfect just the way you are. And there’s room for improvement!”

Although I’m not sure if Suzuki was kidding, something clicked for me when I read that. I had always thought that being content with the way things are would be a sign of laziness, something not to be tolerated. My way to motivate myself has been to keep focusing on the improvement, the thing to be fixed or made better.

But as I get older, I see it only leads to a life of never-good-enough. You race towards a finish line that doesn’t exist, unable to complete the simple declaration: “I will be happy when…”

What if you could tap into all the benefits of getting better without the stress and drama? What if you accepted yourself exactly as you are - and others exactly as they are - and still remained open and curious about further development?

An example of kintsugi, or making art from damaged pottery - Photo credit: June’s Child

Your one word

At first I dismissed it as a gimmick. After all, what difference could one word make? 

But several of my friends have been doing it for years, and towards the end of 2018 they posted about their one word. My friend Fiona chose “energy” last year. She described how it helped her make better choices, and how she could build on that this coming year.

Whether privately or professionally, every time I had to take a decision I would ask myself the following question: "Will this decision increase my energy level?"

Having increased my energy level in 2018, I am now ready to work on my roots, my foundations, what makes me who I am and what makes me stand up. 

Anne-Marie Imafidon also wrote about her one word. She was featured in chapter 22 of Working Out Loud, and I’ve continued following her many accomplishments and accolades since then. She described the effects of choosing a word in past years and what’s next for her.

So 2019, for me will be the year of ‘Beyond’. I’m venturing beyond my normal boundaries and spheres of influence. I’m looking beyond the realms of what I’m doing now and what I’m currently capable of.

From reading their posts, I saw that your one word could be a kind of guidepost, something that reminds you of which direction you want to travel. At the end of last year I wrote about intentions and what would make the year great, and your one word can be another way to express what you intend to do and be.

My one word is “discipline.” Like Anne-Marie and Fiona, I feel like I’ve been building up to this word for some time, gradually developing habits - work, physical health, mental health - that make it possible for my one word to be more than just a wish.

For me, “discipline” isn’t about limits or stoic deprivation. Just the opposite. It’s about enabling me to make more mindful choices so I do what I truly intend to do. Whenever I have a choice to make, I remember my word and ask myself, “What would a disciplined person do?” Of course I won’t make the right choice each time, but it has already helped. (Some examples include work on important new projects, losing six pounds, and reducing time on my phone by more than 50% .)

What will your one word be? Where do you want to go?

My one word - Discipline.001.jpeg