in Self awareness and improvement

A different kind of challenge

A few months ago, I started doing experiments in self-control. 30 days without alcohol. 30 days without dessert.

They were inspired by a book on Stoic philosophy titled A Guide to the Good Life as well as The Marshmallow Test by psychologist Walter Mischel. The experiments taught me to appreciate things I enjoy and the conditions under which I indulge (or overindulge) unthinkingly. They were lessons in gratitude and self-awareness.

My friend Marie-Louise was skeptical and, as usual, had a few questions.

“Is self-control and self-discipline the same as “self-denial”?

Does denying one’s self something (pleasure or otherwise) really increase the “chances of living a good life”?

Can it not instead be a disguise for, or deflect , what’s really inner most in our thoughts?

Is it a way instead of avoiding something else one may not want to confront?”

The challenge

Marie-Louise is a smart and intellectually curious woman whose questions always make me think. This time, she followed up her questions by suggesting a different kind of challenge.

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.

But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here.
I would certainly challenge you to “do”/”add” something every day for 31 days that you find “challenging” and then I will additionally challenge you to describe the difference between the two approaches and their respective affect on you?”

Challenge accepted. Instead of denying myself something, I decided to try something I had been wanting to do for some time: meditation. Every day, for 30 days, I would meditate for 10 minutes.

Meditation for 30 days

The results

Marie-Louise asked “Would it not be just as good to ‘add’ to one’s experiences and show self-discipline in that process?”

Yes, it was just as good and in some ways better. Both approaches are empowering. The feeling of autonomy is one of our basic human motivators. Knowing I could control how I eat, drink, or think (or not eat, not drink, and not think) made me feel I could do or not do anything I truly intend.

The meditation experiment was enriching as well as empowering. I now see how in addition to being able to impose limits on myself I can open myself up to new possibilities.

That’s no small thing for me. For example, I’ve wanted to learn how to play piano for decades but I had no signs of talent and never thought I had the discipline. Now I know much of what we call talent is related to effort and that I have developed the required self-control.

I approached a teacher who’s also a family friend and she was surprised. “Are you serious? Will you really practice?” I smiled, armed with a new-found confidence in my ability to take on new challenges.

My lessons start in September. And they won’t just be for 30 days.

Piano with Pride

Confessions of a not-so-busy person

I used to be busy. I also disliked what I did and accomplished less than I could have. Then some things changed.

I made three adjustments that made me happier and much more productive. Nothing as radical as a 4-Hour Workweek or Escape from Cubicle Nation. After all, I still have a job and I’m still at the same firm. My adjustments are about choices and small steps that may help you too.

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Cognitive surplus

When I was busy, I remember thinking that I didn’t have any time. Yet I managed to watch 10-20 hours of television each week, usually sports. Other hobbies, like golf or gardening, could take up another 5 hours a week. And my daily commute took up another 12 or so.

I’ve since made different choices. Living in the city has shortened my commute to a 20-minute walk. Cutting cable reduced television altogether and I now have other hobbies I’m passionate about.

I’m not suggesting those choices are inherently good, or even possible, for everyone. It’s just remarkable to me that I had a cognitive surplus and didn’t know it. Even without any changes to my job, I’ve found 20-30 hours a week to sleep better, eat better, exercise, and participate in things I enjoy more.

Saying yes and saying no

When I was busy, I would fill my calendar with meetings and obsessively look at my Blackberry. I would travel a lot. It felt like work and consumed all of my time at the office and often at home.

But was it necessary? Some professions (ER doctors, for example) have no choice but to react to things as they come in. But I was a manager in a large IT department. There was no blood, no life and death. What was I doing?

In retrospect, I was avoiding the real work: learning, improving, innovating, creating. It was easier to be busy than to confront all that I didn’t know. It was less scary to react to things, to go from appointment to appointment and “manage,” than to focus for a prolonged time on trying to make a difference and to care so much about the outcome.

Over time, I learned to craft my job, to shape it so it was more fulfilling and effective. That included saying no where I could, putting less emotional energy into meaningless but required tasks, and carving out blocks of time to attempt work that mattered.

Working out loud

The most important change I made was to change my job entirely. Working out loud made it possible to shape my reputation and build a network that led to new opportunities in the same firm.

Because of the other adjustments I made, I had time to learn and experiment. By making that work visible and framing it as a contribution that might help others (as opposed to promoting myself), I was able to find and connect with other people interested in what I was doing. Over time, that work became more valuable and I was in a role that never existed before.

That pattern continues and there’s largely no longer a boundary between what I do for work and what I do for fulfillment. By one measure, I don’t have a long workday at all. By another measure, I’m constantly working – researching, writing, engaging people, and building something that matters.

On Monday, I’ll speak to 350 people at my firm about something no one asked me to work on. They’ll each be holding a book no one asked me to write. On Friday, that book became available around the world. It’s work that’s good for me and good for the firm.

Working Out Loud on amazon.co.jp

Am I lucky? Absolutely. And by working out loud, I tilted the odds in my favor.

What about you?

I wrote this post because in the Q&A after one of my presentations, someone remarked on how busy I must be. She meant it as a compliment and yet I was worried it was a barrier for her. “I could never do what you do.”

I wanted to let her know I’m not busy. Though her own job, story, ambitions, and trade-offs will all be different from mine, I wanted to let her know that she has more choices and more control than she might have assumed. I wanted her to think about the possibilities. I wanted her to take a step toward making her own luck too.

The 6 feelings I experienced when my book was finally on Amazon

As of Thursday, June 11th, you could buy “Working Out Loud” on Amazon.

I thought I would simply feel happy. But it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

 

Surprise

My first reaction was surprise. You might find that odd considering I had been working toward publishing the book for a few years. But on Wednesday, I was told it would take “3 to 5 business days.” Then on Thursday morning at 10:15, I saw this:

Pia Helm buys Working Out Loud

My pulse quickened. I didn’t know Pia Helm from Munich. She must be mistaken, I thought. So I went on Amazon, searched for “working out loud,” and there it was.

Pis Helm buys Working Out Loud - pt 2

Camaraderie

I sent out tweets and Facebook updates to let people know, and the next 2 days were filled with congratulations and good feeling from around the world.

A colleague I have never spoken with before wrote this beautiful Amazon review:

“I am using this book currently in a Working Out Loud Circle at work and I am so impressed with how simple it is to implement and how effective the techniques are. After just one WOL Circle meeting, I was already feeling more connected with my colleagues and more encouraged about my career. I believe at the end of 12 weeks, I will be well on my way to new habits to accomplish my goal. I believe I will return to this method to reach future goals, and hope to implement many of the insights in my day to day work habits as well.

Bravo! It is long overdue for someone to address the problem of work not being as fulfilling as it could be. The secret indeed lies with us, our interactions with our fellow human beings, and gratitude and kindness.”

Although I’ve been writing for a while, it’s still an extraordinary thing to feel connected with people around the world. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers – all connected by their interest in an idea. I felt like I was part of something bigger than me and it felt good.

Happiness

All the nice comments from my network made me happy. Seeing a bulk order from my firm for 350 copies (one for every intern in the US) made me feel even happier. Not just because I sold books but because it felt like a symbol of institutional validation.

The day the book was available, I was invited to give a keynote speech in Sydney. And I spoke to two other companies who are interested in spreading the practice of working out loud among their employees.

I was feeling happy about the present and also about the possibilities.

Anxiety

Anxious? Yes. It didn’t take long for the snakes in my head to appear: What if someone gives it a 1-star review? What if they don’t think it’s good enough? What if there’s a problem with my thinking, writing, or research?

As those thoughts popped into my head, I remembered the two quotes I cited in the book.

“You can be a delicious, ripe peach and there will still be people in the world who hate peaches.” – Dita Von Teese

“It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it.” – Seth Godin

Slight letdown

Of course I looked at the online royalty report to see how many I sold. I won’t tell you how often I did that but it was more than once. It’s clear that whether I sell 1,000 or 10,000 or even 100,000, it’s still a small number compared to how many people I want to help.

In my letter from my future self that I wrote over five years ago (and is also in the book), I included that I’ll have known I reached my goal when “I will have authored a book or other notable content that more than 20,000 people read.”

Now I know that books alone are not enough.

Determination

I remind myself that the book is both a culmination and a beginning. It’s an important step, and now there are other steps to take.

One of the most important next steps is a movement to form at least 1,000 Working Out Loud circles this year. In the first few days after it was announced, already people from 7 countries have pledged over 300 peer support groups. (You can see the growing list and add your own name here.)

Other steps include making it easier for people to take their own steps and make working out loud a habit. Working with companies and HR associations to include working out loud as a practice. Helping students work out loud so they have access to opportunities. Work with people who normally don’t have such access to equip and empower them to get it.

Nine months ago, when I thought the book was almost finished, I wrote that the book launch party might take three years. That sounds about right.

Asking for help

If the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that you have one, then consider this a first step for me.

This week, I’m asking for advice instead of giving it.

unnamed

 

Good news, bad news

Most of the work I’ve done on Working Out Loud has been solitary. Writing, Giving talks. Sending out books and peer support guides via email. Many people have contributed ideas and shaped this work – the acknowledgments are several pages long – yet looking back I see I’ve been doing things largely alone.

That worked well up until now. The book is finally ready (just need to approve the physical cover before it’s available on Amazon) and peer support groups are gradually spreading across 7 countries. There may be 1,000 of them by the end of the year.

But to help the millions of people I want to help, the movement needs things I can’t give it, or at least that I’m not good at. It needs better logistics, beautifully-designed materials, engaging short videos, and a long list of other things. Doing everything myself is limiting how quickly we can spread the practice and help more people. I have to make some changes.

When I ask & when I don’t

It’s not that I don’t like working with other people. I ask for help all the time – Would you mind looking at this draft? I’ve even written about ways to ask for help.

But usually I limit my requests to things that are reasonably small, like asking for ideas and opinions. When it comes to asking someone to do work, I freeze. I can pay someone to produce videos, for example, but even then I’m afraid of…something. Maybe it won’t be worth it. Maybe it won’t come out well. So I’m more comfortable doing it myself – “I’ll go to YouTube bootcamp!”

That approach will take too long as there’s too much I don’t know. Although I’ll benefit from the learning involved in doing things myself, if I’m going to help more people I’ll need to let go, take more risks, and start forming a team.

What would you do?

Amanda Palmer, singer, songwriter, deliverer of an excellent TED talk, wrote a helpful, intensely personal book called The Art of Asking based in part on her years as a performance artist on the street asking for contributions. This quote may hold some of the answers to why I’m reluctant to ask for help:

“Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me.

Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you.

But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.”

And this one:

 

“What was the difference between asking and begging?

A lot of people related their experience with their own local buskers: they saw their tips into the hat not as charity but as payment for a service.

If asking is a collaboration, begging is a less-conected demand. Begging can’t provide value to the giver; by definition, it offers no exchange….Asking is an act of intimacy and trust.”

Whether the issues are shame or trust or fear, it’s time for me to get over them. So here’s a commitment I’m going to make to myself:

  1. Pick the top 3 things I need to get done to improve and scale the Working Out Loud movement.
  2. Actively look for people who can help me.
  3. Trust enough to ask them to contribute or collaborate with me (paid or free).

What would you do? How do reach out to people to ask them to contribute or collaborate, to build something together that’s bigger than anything you could do alone?

Happiness & The Two Kinds of Love

As I try to understand what makes people happier and how to put that into practice for myself, I’ve learned from books on neuroscience and cognitive behavioral therapy, on Buddhism and Stoicism, and on changing habits and mindsets.

One book had a chapter on love that seems particularly important.

Perrault Leon Jean Basile Cupids Arrows

Passionate love

“Passionate love is the kind you fall into,” writes Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful and useful book, The Happiness Hypothesis.

“Passionate love is a drug. Its symptoms overlap with those of heroin and cocaine. It’s no wonder: Passionate love alters the activity of several parts of the brain, including parts that are involved in the release of dopamine…if passionate love is a drug – literally a drug – it has to wear off eventually.”

He asserts that, physically, the brain adapts to such drugs and so the powerful feelings must, naturally, fade. “Nobody can stay high forever.”

Compassionate love

The other kind of love is compassionate love and it, too, is based on biological systems that have evolved over many millennia.

“Compassionate love grows slowly over the years as lovers apply their attachment and caregiving systems to each other, and as they begin to rely upon, care for, and trust each other.

If the metaphor for passionate love is fire, the metaphor for compassionate love is vines growing, intertwining, and gradually binding two people together.”

Which one is the true love?

Haidt highlights how, because people are unaware of the different kinds of love, there’s a risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. These are the danger points in the graph below. We commit too soon, perhaps, feeling we’ve found true love and want to keep that feeling forever. Or when the fire is no longer blazing, we fear that love wasn’t true love in the first place, and we leave to seek another.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, p. 127

From looking at this graph, compassionate love looks woefully unrewarding. Perhaps, to paraphrase an old expression, it’s better to have passionately loved and lost than never to passionately loved at all.

But knowing that the two loves are distinct, and that they have natural biological underpinnings based on our humanness, can help us gain perspective and make better choices.

“Passionate love does not turn into compassionate love. Passionate love and compassionate love are two separate processes, and they have different time courses.”

Looking at love over the course of a life instead of over the course of six months or a year can provide that different perspective. That graph looks very different.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, p. 128

Haidt doesn’t reject passionate love. It’s just not enough for long enough. When it comes to love, long-term happiness comes from compassionate love. If you can occasionally feel passionate about that person as well, that’s all the better.

“True love exists, I believe, but it is not – cannot be – passion that lasts forever. True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong compassionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other.”