The day after Election Day

As I write this, it’s Election Day in the US, one unlike any other I’ve lived through. Here in New York City, some friends are looking to escape to a safer place, wherever that might be. One is talking about boarding up his business in anticipation of protests or riots or worse. People in other countries are telling me, “We’re watching to see what happens.”

It’s as if we’re all trapped in a snow globe, waiting for things to settle down so we can see clearly. Except things don’t settle down. The snow globe keeps shaking, and the change and uncertainty and stress don’t go away.

How will you manage?

The Snow Globe.001.jpeg

A new approach to well-being

More and more companies recognize the need to do something extra to help employees. Even before the pandemic, a research brief by the RAND Corporation found that “69 percent of employers with more than 50 employees offered a wellness program, and 80 percent of the larger ones (more than 1,000 employees).”

Later this week, I’ll kick off a WOL Mindfulness program for a new corporate customer, with more programs planned all throughout next year. 

WOL Mindfulness is an 8-week peer coaching program that cultivates skills we need now more than ever: how to better relate to ourselves and each other, how to be more resilient in the face of change, how to be calmer and happier.

Why would a company spend time and money on this? Because it’s a good investment. Last year, the American Psychological Association estimated that workplace stress “costs U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.” And that number is surely going up. 

But WOL Mindfulness isn’t just for big companies to invest in their employees. You can choose to invest in yourself, too.

“A maximum outcome with a minimum investment of time”

The WOL Mindfulness program that’s offered to companies is also available in the new WOL Membership Network. The program is designed to help you deal with the shaking snow globe. As part of your annual membership, you get coaching and support all along the way, enabling you and your Circle to practice well-researched methods that yield tremendous benefits. (Your membership entitles you to participate in as many as three Mindfulness Circles or WOL Circles.)

For example, Melanie used WOL Mindfulness “to reduce stress and to realize how much good is happening in my life.” Her new habits, she said, “have become an integral part of my everyday life.”  Maria, just today, shared the impact of her first WOL Circle: “I now feel empowered, optimistic and better connected.”

Maybe you’re seeking these kinds of benefits for yourself, or want to help a friend. Or maybe you’re looking for ways to help your organization and colleagues.

In a sense, every day is Election Day. More uncertainty. More change. Yet waiting and hoping for a better tomorrow is a poor strategy. You deserve to take more control of your own future, to be less stressed, to be happier.

We form the first WOL Mindfulness Circles in January. You can sign up now.

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?

“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.


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?

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What would make next year great?

Looking back, my career was a series of accidents, not intentions. All the major shifts were reactions to something someone else did, or opportunities that just popped up. I wasn’t purposeful or self-directed. Things just…happened. You could say that rather than me living my life, life lived me.

I’ve been working on changing that. Part of my approach involves keeping a journal in which, every day, I write down my answer to this simple question: 

What would make today great?

Those few minutes of thinking and writing in the morning help me focus my attention on what matters at different points throughout the day, and that helps me to make better, more mindful, choices. The days when I do what I intend to do are all extremely satisfying. 

A friend and I both use the same journal, and when we met for dinner in Stuttgart this month, I thought I would ask him a different question:

What would make next year great?

It led to an intimate discussion about what we each feel is important - relationships we want to deepen, experiences we want to have, meaningful work we want to do. Then we talked about steps we might take to make those things happen. It felt strange for me to chart such a course, but also exhilarating. It felt like I was trying, perhaps for the first time, to be “the author of my own life.” 

What about you? Are you living intentionally, or accidentally? 

What would make next year great?

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Note: Thank you for reading these posts, and for all the wonderful messages in email and on social media. This is my last blog post in 2018. I wish you all much joy and wonder, next year and beyond.

If the odds are 100-to-1 in your favor

Suppose you were offered a bet that was practically a sure thing. If you win, you get smarter, you get access to more opportunities, and you feel more empowered and fulfilled. If you lose, you risk a small hit to your ego.

What would you do?

When the odds are in your favor.png

The game we play

This isn’t an abstract exercise. It’s a game you already play multiple times a day whenever you consider making a contribution.

When you have something you think is helpful, you hesitate even if your experience tells you that others would appreciate it. There’s a chance that someone won’t like it or won't like how you offered it. That person could be someone specific, like your manager, or it could be someone you imagine when you wonder “What will they think?”

Time after time after time, I come across people who are doing extraordinary things - people who are admired by colleagues and a network of people around the world - and they'll tell me privately, “My boss doesn’t like what I’m doing.” Yet even if it was upsetting for them at the time, they persisted. 

More common is the person who doesn’t take a step at all. The mere possibility that someone may not approve is enough to prevent them from making the contributions they would like to make.

I say this without judgment. For me, all it takes is one contrary opinion to fuel my doubts, even in the face of a hundred expressions of support. It took me almost five decades to realize I was ceding control of my life to anyone who said “no.”

Take a spin

The truth is that we have a negative bias in our heads that amplifies our fears and causes us to hang back. We hesitate to reach out, to share our ideas and experiences, to offer what we have to offer. But when it comes to making contributions, “Better safe than sorry” is a terrible long-term strategy, one that leads to regret and a haunting lack of fulfillment. Instead, "it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission" - advice commonly shared but seldom heeded.

The point isn't that you ignore feedback, or that you need to rebel against the system. It's just that you decide whether the negative opinions have merit, choose what adjustments you might make, and continue on with clarity and confidence.

It means you claim your right to having a voice and being heard, to realizing more of your potential, to living an authentic life.

The odds are clear. The benefits far outweigh the risks. What will you do?

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.

What empowerment looks like: Daniella's story

I loved reading Daniella's story for many reasons: her desire to help young children get exposed to science and technology, the photos of her and the “inspired little scientists with shining eyes,” the article in the German newspaper.

I was inspired by how she turned an idea into reality, using her Working Out Loud Circle to create a possibility she hadn’t imagined before. When she started, she had the same doubts and fears we all have. But by taking small steps over time, with feedback and peer support along the way, she made something wonderful emerge.

Here’s the beginning of Daniella’s post on LinkedIn. (You can read it in full by clicking on the image below.) As you read it, think of how empowered you would feel if you could bring ideas to life like that. Think of what your organization would be like if more people approached issues and opportunities like Daniella -  with generosity, creativity, and persistence. It’s an approach you can learn - and spread. 

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

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"Just scary enough"

I saw the phrase in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, in a chapter on happiness and resilience. He described it as “a delicious mix of being a bit frightened yet knowing it would end up all right.”

Making things “just scary enough” can be the key to changing your behavior and to learning in general. 

“Stress inoculation”

“Some of the most convincing neuroscience data for the benefits of getting just scared enough,” Goleman wrote, “comes from studies of squirrel monkeys.”

In 2004, experimenters at Stanford University took young monkeys from their mother for an hour, once a week for ten weeks, and put them in a different cage with adult monkeys they didn’t know. They were terrified, as evidenced by a range of observations, and when the hour was up they were returned to their mothers. A control group was left with their mothers the entire time.

After the ten weeks, both groups young monkeys were placed alone with their mothers in a new cage filled with treats and places to explore.

“Young monkeys who had earlier been exposed to the stressful cages proved far braver and more curious than others their age…and showed no biological signs of fear arousal…those who had never left the safe haven of their mothers just clung timidly to her.” 

The regular visits to a challenging environment, they concluded, “acted as an inoculation against stress.”

Developing self-efficacy

Forty years earlier, other Stanford researchers made similar observations about humans and found related benefits. Albert Bandura and Nancy Adams treated people with snake phobias by taking them through progressively more challenging steps. The researchers would model the behavior first - e.g., looking at a picture of a snake, peering into a snake’s cage, and ultimately holding one. Gradually, at their own pace, the patient would take these small steps too.

Most patients were cured with this “guided mastery” in an hour or two, and it changed their lives. Overcoming their fear improved their “self-efficacy,” their sense of personal effectiveness and confidence to take on other challenges.

“Those who persist in subjectively threatening activities will eventually eliminate their inhibitions through corrective experience, whereas those who avoid what they fear, or who cease their coping efforts prematurely, will retain their self-debilitating expectations and defensive behavior.”

Goleman described it this way: “If we are exposed to too little stress, nothing will be learned; too much and the wrong lesson might become embedded the neural circuitry for fear.”

When you’re overwhelmed

But what if what you’re trying to do is too daunting or challenging? Pema Ch?dr?n described three strategies in The Places That Scare You. “One way is to train with a less challenging subject, to find a situation we feel that we can handle.” In Working Out Loud Circles, we refer to that as “touching the treadmill.” You break down the change you’re trying to make till it no longer triggers your resistance or flight mechanism. 

The second way is to realize that you’re not alone, that millions of other people are going through something similar, feeling what you’re feeling. Shifting your attention to others in this way can make the experience seem less personally threatening. 

Finally, “if none of these is yet possible, we engender some compassion for our current limitations and go forward.”

Are you trying to make some change in your life? Make your next step “just scary enough.” Each small step you take will develop your confidence, each small failure will build up your resilience, and you'll increase your chances for success.