John Stepper

Three kinds of fear

I’m not talking about the real threats – safety and shelter, for example – but the perceived threats that are largely in your head.

When are you afraid? How often do you feel that way and what do you do about it?

I routinely experience three kinds of fear. By sharing them, I thought I might help those of you who face them too.

Fear of the uncomfortable and unknown

Trying something new

“I’m surprised you were nervous,” she said. This Tuesday in my Working Out Loud circle I was describing a presentation I gave to a few hundred people, something I’m usually comfortable doing. This one, though, was in front of a camera instead of an audience. I was anxious for days beforehand, my nervousness peaking when the director said “30 seconds before broadcast.”

I have this same feeling whenever I’m trying anything I’m not comfortable with, and I’ve learned two tricks to deal with it. One is preparation. With practice comes familiarity and that reduces the anxiety. The other trick is to frame things as a learning goal, to focus on the process and not the outcome. I’m not good or bad at it, I’m just getting better. This growth mindset defuses my fear and can help me improve at anything.

Being vulnerable

I’m the kind of person, I realize, who wants to be liked, who wants people to say nice things. “Good talk, John!” “I liked the book!” Of course that feels good.

Yet it’s the critical feedback that makes me and my work better, and this presents a conflict. My aversion to negative feedback can make me avoid doing things that will help me improve.

Here again, I’ve learned two tricks. One is to separate feedback about my work from feedback about me, the human being. So when my wife read my final draft and said “I don’t like it,” she wasn’t saying “I don’t like you.” (It felt that way at the time, but I’m slowly learning that her candor is a gift.)

The other trick is to have a “lean startup” mindset. You frame your work as a series of experiments, share them early for the purpose of getting feedback – before you’ve invested heavily in them – and adapt. That way, rejections and negative feedback aren’t hurtful, they’re helping me find a better path sooner.

Seeking meaning and fulfillment

This third fear is the toughest for me to deal with. It’s a fear of not trying to do something more with my life. In writing today’s post, I found something I wrote more than 3 years ago titled “When are the best years of your life?”

“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.”

That’s the kind of fulfilling, meaningful work I want to do. But I’m afraid to try. I’ve worked in big companies for 30 years and changed jobs only twice. While helping people and companies as Deming did is inspiring, it’s also daunting. The prospect of such a shift in my work and life makes me afraid.

I don’t have any tricks for this one. If you do, please let me know. For now, I just focus on one step at a time. I figure if I keep taking steps, getting feedback and getting better along the way, it will lead me somewhere I want to be.

“What are you doing right now?”

Every moment is a choice, and I’ve been choosing poorly.

Here’s an example, and a practice that’s making a difference.

Dinner for six

I went to dinner with my five children this week. They range in ages from 5 to 20, so you can imagine what’s going on at the table. The youngest one is complaining he doesn’t like the food there. Two of them are on their phone. There are minor arguments about seating.

So…what would you guess I’m thinking about during dinner?

  1. Things the kid should/shouldn’t be doing.
  2. What happened at work during the day.
  3. Things I need to do.
  4. The taste of the food.
  5. The people around me.

What would you be thinking about?

A simple practice

I’m slowly learning that I have a choice. I could focus on what’s wrong. I could distract myself by letting my mind wander. Or I could try to shift my attention to the miracles that are right in front of me, savoring what I’m doing and who I’m with.

Such a choice was captured in a short essay by the buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh titled “What are you doing?”

“One day as I walked through the kitchen, I saw someone cleaning vegetables and I asked, “What are you doing?” I was playing the role of a spiritual friend. Even though it was obvious that they were washing vegetables, I asked the question to wake the person up to how happy they could be just washing the vegetables. If we aren’t doing something with joy, that moment is wasted.”

What are you doing right now?

The number of choices each day

The buddhist Shōbōgenzō text from the 13th century described just how many moments we have each day.

“There are sixty-five moments within the time it takes for someone to snap his fingers…in the passing of a single day and night there are sixty-four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty moments.”

I am not mindful of almost all of these moments. But I’m trying to change that. I know that if I can be present for more moments each day, my life can be fuller, and I can experience more joy.

Throughout the day, you can be your own spiritual friend by asking yourself, “What am I doing right now?”

Wake up to how happy you could be.



If you want to discover something wonderful, try this

Photo credit: Chris Chan/Creative Commons

When people want something more from work or life, I advocate purposeful discovery instead of the more traditional advice like listing your strengths or following your dream.

Purposeful discovery is a kind of goal-oriented exploration, and it’s one of the 5 elements of working out loud. This week – in Stuttgart, Germany of all places – I found out just where that kind of exploration can lead you.

What is purposeful discovery?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport wrote that “‘Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.” He’s right, and I used his quote in a chapter of Working Out Loud. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter:

One of the major problems with identifying your true calling is that you’re aware of only a tiny fraction of the possibilities, and picking solely from what you already know is grossly limiting…

Fortunately, I found a much better way to guide your decision making that will lead you to more rewarding possibilities. That better way is purposeful discovery, a form of goal-oriented exploration. You start by choosing a goal you care about and then using the different elements of working out loud to build a network of relationships, get feedback, and learn about ways to improve and about other possibilities. The goal orients your activities, and as you get feedback and learn, you adapt your goal accordingly”

Pebbles in a pond

Each contribution you make to your network is like a pebble in a pond, spreading ripples that put you in contact with people and possibilities you may not have known about before.

This post is my 282nd. (229 at and 53 at All that writing and thinking every week enabled me to write a book, which might seem like a logical next step. Getting invited to speak about the book at a conference in Stuttgart this week might also seem like a reasonable consequence.

John Stepper - Author

But each post was also a pebble in a pond. More than three years ago, a woman who works at the largest private company in the world read one of my early posts on working out loud. It was interesting enough that, unbeknownst to me, she kept following my work.

Late last year, when I was on a video call with a group of people in Germany who were interested in learn more about Working Out Loud, she was on that call. We started exchanging emails and ideas, and she started spreading WOL circles – small peer support groups in which you build a network toward an individual goal you care about in 12 weeks.

When I mentioned I would be in Stuttgart in early November, she told me she was based there. An interesting coincidence! We planned a visit to her company where I could learn more about their work in the morning, speak to hundreds of people around the world after lunch about Working Out Loud, and talk about leadership with over a hundred managers in the late afternoon. “That woman in Stuttgart” has become a trusted friend and collaborator, and I’m excited about working with her smart, capable, generous colleagues.

Possibilities + wonders

More pebble and more ripples. Those sessions led to more possibilities the very next day, as my new friend told other companies at the conference about the events and about my work. Companies as different as a manufacturer in Germany, a dairy in Norway, and a satellite company in Luxembourg asked if I could help them.

Sometimes the ripples lead to more connections and more opportunities. Sometimes they lead to beautiful human moments.

For example, at one of the events a woman presented me with custom art they had made based on my work. People in different parts of the world collaborated on it and she framed it for me as a gift. I was speechless.


At a separate event, a person who sat in the front row for two of my talks came up to me afterwards. He had read some of my personal blogs and said, “I know you’re starting to practice meditation and wanted to give you my favorite book on the topic.” He inscribed it “Thank you for coming to my company.”

Even a short bus ride to the conference could be a special moment. During the trip, I happened to sit next to someone from London whose work I’ve long admired. We talked openly about what was working well in our careers and what was missing. Within an hour, we met with my friend from Stuttgart and hatched a plan to work together on something I had long wanted to do but didn’t know how to make progress on.

All from a blog post three years earlier.

When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back. It doesn’t require a grand plan, and it’s more than hoping for serendipity. It’s purposeful discovery. You offer contributions – your work, your attention, your vulnerability – to deepen relationships and they bring you into contact with possibilities, joy, and fulfillment you may never have anticipated or imagined.

Photo credit: Chris Chan/Creative Commons

Photo credit: Chris Chan/Creative Commons

What will you do when they lay you off?

“I wasted 18 years of my life,” she said. The HR person had just contacted her, and my friend was clearly shaken. She felt all her years of effort should have added up to something more than a meeting in a conference room with people reading from a script.

This was a few years ago, and her reaction stuck with me. It made me think of what my own reaction would be.

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Even the mere prospect of being laid off – or “RIF’d” referring to a reduction in force – brings up strong emotions: fear, shame, anger, denial. But what good does any of that do?

Most firms run like machines. They don’t want to lay people off. It’s wasteful and expensive. But they’ll do it to ensure the survival of the machine. It’s the epitome of what we mean when we say “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” For the person being laid off, though, it is intensely personal.

So think for a moment about what you would do when you get that call: “Can you step into the conference room for a minute?” Think of what will you say to your spouse, your friends, and to prosepctive employers. Think of what you will do that day and that week.

Will you only then start to reach out to contacts, or document what you’ve been working on, or update your LinkedIn profile? Will you regret not having invested in relationships that could have helped you now?

Put yourself in that moment and let yourself feel what it would feel like. Now, channel the disappointment and anxiety into constructive steps you can take to build your network, into a practice that will help you feel better and take control of your career.

What will you do when they lay you off?

Why don’t you do that today?

Planting my piano tree

Planting my piano tree

Twenty years ago, my friend Dave was in his thirties and mentioned he started taking piano lessons. It was a casual remark, but I still remember the envy I felt.

Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to music, short of listening to Kiss or Led Zeppelin on 8-track tapes. Learning to play an instrument seemed like something reserved for other people, not for me.

Times changed, and I changed. When I started taking piano lessons recently, I thought of my friend, and wondered what happened to him.

Early progress

My first few months of learning have been liberating, allowing me to shed limits I had placed on myself. I’m able to do things much sooner than I had expected, including playing a few simple songs and reading simple music. I surprised myself.

On Tuesdays, I take my lesson right after my daughter takes hers.  My young son even practices a bit. Then our teacher and a friend join us for dinner and wine, and they’ll play some more. I mentioned that someday I wanted to play “Bye Bye Blackbird” as Nina Simone played it. We found it on YouTube and my teacher started to play it by ear. One night my cousin and my daughter played a duet.

We have music in our house, I thought. It’s a miracle.

Early struggles

The failures still sting. The worst ones are when I fail to try. The lack of a strict practice schedule means I missed 5 days this week.

Comparing myself to someone else presents a different kind of struggle. Below, for example, are the pieces my daughter and I are learning to play. Mine is on the left and hers on the right. I’m fifty-one and she’s seven (“almost eight,” she reminds me).

Planting my piano tree

Attempting to play my simple piece, I realize how stupid and stubborn my hands can be, refusing to carry out even the simplest of independent instructions.

I can feel my inner critic telling me, Give up. You’ll never be as good as them anyway.

The best time to start learning piano

Perhaps if I had started playing twenty years ago, I would have given up. But not now. I’ve come to know that learning almost anything includes learning how to deal with setbacks, learning about discipline, learning about yourself.

After many years, I had a chance to see Dave recently. We had lunch with some of his colleagues and I told them about my learning to play piano, and about how I felt when Dave said he started taking lessons.

“He plays beautifully”, his colleague said.

I smiled. I was happy for him, and I was happy for me. I thought of this old proverb:

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

I’m planting my piano tree now. Maybe twenty years from now, someone will say “he plays beautifully.” Maybe I’ll just enjoy nurturing my new practice and watching myself develop.

What tree could you plant today?