John Stepper

Oh, the places you will go

Growing up, my world was small. We didn’t have money for vacations, so we mostly played in the street right outside our house, pausing only for cars that came through. Some days, I would bike for hours, retracing the same routes in our all-Italian neighborhood. A major adventure for me was to head towards Pelham Bay Park, a little over a mile away.

Gradually, my world got a bit bigger. Going to high school in Manhattan, a subway ride away, brought me into contact with other kinds of people, other perspectives and ambitions. I was 22 when I took my first trip out of the country.

Then came work and business travel. It was thrilling in the beginning to go to London or Moscow or Tokyo. But over time, visiting the same offices year after year, I felt a certain sameness, confined by the structure of a big corporation. We all largely thought the same way. Different languages, perhaps, but talking about the same things.

Well into my forties, something changed.

I started to make my work visible – my learning, ideas, projects. Often I simply shared my appreciation for someone or something interesting. Like pebbles in a pond, those small contributions brought me into contact with new people in new places.

Over the years, the ripples kept spreading. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve been collaborating with extraordinarily diverse groups of people. There were students at the University of Eisenstadt in Austria. Employees of a consulting company in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and an energy company in Essen, Germany. Even a large meeting of the Australian Tax Office in Canberra, Adelaide, and other cities. Just yesterday, ripples from my visible work led to connections with people in Tasmania. Then someone in Germany shared a picture of my work being discussed in a public school there.

Joachim Haydecker teaching WOL

This isn’t about commercial success. (None of these involved money.) Rather, it demonstrates the power of purposeful discovery. “Purposeful” in that you make work visible related to your goals and interests. “Discovery” because you’re not sure what will happen, if anything, when you do that.

One thing for sure is that being more open about what you’re doing (and want to do) brings you into contact with people and opportunities you never could have imagined. Each connection can be a link to a new set of possibilities.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had learned to do this earlier. I can’t change that, but I can help others make their world bigger sooner. 

What about you? Where would you like to go?

***

Oh, the places you'll go!

A fire on the 23rd floor

I miss having a fireplace. Stacking the logs just right and inhaling the earthy smoke of the burning wood. Staring at the dance of orange, yellow, and blue as you bask in the flame’s warmth. Listening for the crackles and pops of the overheated sap.

But I live on the 23rd floor of a modern apartment building, and we don’t have a fireplace. So early one cold Fall morning, well before the sun was up, I had an idea:

I would project a video of a fireplace onto the wall.

I remember being pleased with myself immediately. Though I wouldn’t have the warmth of the fire, I could enjoy the color and the sounds. Even better, there wouldn’t be any mess or smoke, and the projector could make the flames 9 feet high.

In the dark living room, I found a video of a Yule Log burning, and quietly set everything up. I sat down and luxuriated in the colors and sounds of a huge fire, still smugly reflecting on my own creativity and cleverness.

Until I heard the sirens.

My eyes widened. “No,” I thought. “Couldn’t be.” I went to the window and watched two fire engines turn off the West Side Highway, race onto our street, and stop short at our building. I quickly turned off the projector, and the room went dark.

Then the phone rang. “Mr. Stepper,” he said, “is there a problem in your apartment?” I hurriedly explained that I had been watching a video and that everything was fine. I sat down, embarrassed at having caused such a fuss so early in the morning, but glad the doorman was able to handle it.

The came the banging at the door. It wasn’t a knock, but more like a battering ram, the kind of sound you hear before the door explodes into the room in splinters. Still in my pajamas, I raced to open it and found myself facing a fireman in full firefighting gear, complete with a large ax.

“Hello,” I whispered, mindful that everyone was still sleeping. “Everything’s fine.”

“We got a call there was a fire,” he said in a loud, booming voice. “No, no,” I continued whispering. “I was just watching a video and someone from another building must have seen it and thought there was a fire. I’m so sorry.”

He looked at me with what I can only describe as a cocktail of disappointment, relief, and disgust. There were no people to save, and no danger to him or his crew. Just some idiot watching a fireplace video in his pajamas.

“A Yule Log video?” he asked, guessing correctly. He slumped away, equipment swinging and jangling. He didn’t even wait for my response.

Later that week, my son asked to watch a dinosaur movie on the projector. My wife looked at me, looked at the window, and looked back at me. She didn’t need to say a word.

We pulled down the shades.

Fire on the 23rd floor

“How do I make more of her?”

I was sitting in the hotel lobby, tired after having given a talk and two workshops, when she walked up to me.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. I recognized her from one of the tables at the front. She wanted to tell me about the women in one of her educational programs, and how ideas in my talk might help them.

The story she told me has stayed with me all week. I feel like it’s one of those times when the universe is nudging me to do something.

Helping mothers and their children

She works at a university, and has for a long time. She had been running a program to help mothers learn about nutrition for their children. They would talk about what’s in foods that people commonly feed their kids, and what to watch out for. They would introduce them to foods they might not be used to cooking with, like avocado and quinoa.

While many of the women found it helpful, some were particularly enthusiastic. They truly cared about the topic. So when she got funding for a related program and needed to hire people, one of her team members suggested they consider hiring women they were already helping.

apple-avocado-cranberry-walnut-salad

Working with (and around) the system

This wasn’t the normal recruiting process. But the woman running the program had been doing this kind of thing for decades, and she knew how to work with the system. She hired them.

She started reading some of the texts and emails from one of the women. In the program, they would cook meals so they could all try the food themselves and learn how it was prepared. A mother-turned-nutrition educator had been searching for recipes. She was exploring and creating (“What if we tried cranberries with that instead?”) and was excited to share her ideas. I could feel the administrator’s sense of wonder and hope as she read the exchanges. I could feel the mother’s empowerment as she tapped into new ways she could contribute. 

Then she put down her phone, somewhat downcast, and said, “Normally, the system rejects this kind of thing.” In addition to rules about hiring, there were rules about which recipes they were allowed to use, about which communications channels to use. But she said she had followed the rules for too long, and now she cared more about helping people, whatever it took. I could tell she was gratified to have helped one young woman, and also that she felt compelled to do more. That’s when she asked, “How do I make more of her?”

“What if?”

As I listened to what was being shared by email and text, I thought of Jane Bozarth’s book, “Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud,” in which she offered a wide and wonderful range of examples of everyday people making their work visible. I started to ask some “What if?” questions.

What if all of the recipes and other ideas were more visible? Instead of being hidden in emails and texts, the mothers, teachers, and others who cared about the topic could interact, share, and learn in an online community, or even a simple Facebook group.

What if the program administrator wasn’t the one responsible for “making more of her”? The women in the program could use their visible contributions to make their own connections and find people as passionate about the topic as they were. 

What if you didn’t need to ask permission or make it part of the program at all, but empowered the women to set things up for themselves?

This. This is at the core of what I hope to do, to spread this kind of empowerment, one that enables people to take a bit more control over their lives. To enable people of any background or circumstances to learn, connect, and access opportunities they might never have known existed otherwise.

We shook hands as she said goodbye. “I’ll definitely contact you,” she said. I hope she does.

It’s time to step up

its-time-to-step-up

Things did not turn out the way I hoped they would. What should I do next?

I could be angry, and make my anger visible with a nasty comment on social media.

I could search the internet for extreme examples and share those that validate my fears and beliefs, ignoring my confirmation bias.

I could taunt or confront people who have different opinions, mocking them for their obvious lack of principles and education.

I could defriend the few in my network who disagree with me, thereby repairing the small breeches in a social bubble I have carefully cultivated, one that brings me comfort that I’m surrounded by people who think like me.

I have done all of these things in the past, and it has yielded nothing but unhappiness.

I’m done. I am no longer willing to be part of the problem, to feed the escalation of polarizing, dehumanizing behaviors that seems to be the new normal.

It’s time to step up.

If I want more kindness and compassion, I can be kinder and more compassionate, online and in person, throughout my day.

If I see unkind behavior, I can speak up and offer my support.

If I want more opportunities for people faced with systemic bias, I can do something to give them a voice, to help them gain access they might not have otherwise.

If I want to improve how people relate to each other – to replace hate and fear with empathy and generosity – I can continue to develop and spread a practice that does that. I can make that my life’s work.

I am not angry. I am not depressed.

I am committed.

The old man in seat 8A

I was on a flight heading to Florida to speak at a conference. The plane was full. As I approached my row, I noticed there was an old man already sitting in the seat next to mine. I noticed the newspaper in his hands was shaking slightly. I said hello.

When the stewardess told him she needed to store his cane for takeoff, I assured him I would get it if he needed it. When he dropped his newspaper, I picked it up. When he was struggling to open up his bag of pretzels, or figure out how the folding tray worked, I helped him. He seemed embarrassed, but I told him it was tricky and only looked easy when you knew how.

He was worried about forgetting his cane. He told me that his son had driven him to the airport, and it was only after they had traveled 20 miles that he remembered he left his cane back at the house. “Do you really need it, Dad?” his son asked. They drove back.

“I was just glad he wasn’t mad,” he said. “I felt bad but he didn’t get upset. That was really nice of him.”

I couldn’t help but think of my own parents. Of how I reacted to their infirmities with impatience, to their limited education with visible shame, even disgust. I had more empathy for a total stranger than for the people who made my life possible.

My father died in 1986. My mother in 2003. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “I’m sorry!” I wanted my younger self to be the kind of son who says “It’s okay, Dad. I’ll help you.”

I sat quietly for a while, silently wishing I had done things differently. Silently committing to doing things differently in the future.

seat-8a