John Stepper

Ten posts on the way to the best years of my life

The longest hedge maze in the world. Photo credit Jason Hawkes/Getty Images

The longest hedge maze in the world. Photo credit Jason Hawkes/Getty Images

The scarcest resource we have isn’t money or time or some precious metal. It’s attention.

In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. Only forty!

That one statistic captures why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time. Since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

One way I help myself to pay attention, to be more mindful and aware of something, is to write about it. A few hours of writing and the feedback over time helps make the ideas stick.

Here, in order, are the ten posts I’ve written that have helped me pay more attention to things that matter, things that make for a better life. Each heading is a link. I hope that some of them might help you too.

1. “Do you think today is just another day in your life?”

The one video I link to in the post has help me reframe each day and increase my chances of appreciating it.

2. Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

I taped the three quotes in this post to a cabinet in my office. They remind me to control my reactions and help me maintain a more balanced perspective.

3. When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back

This was one of my favorite posts to write, particularly citing the story of M. Deschamps and connecting it to quantum physics and social networks. It  made me more mindful of the often unwitting, unintended influence I have on others and that they have on me.

4. Taming the hamsters in my head

Writing this helped me tune into my inner critic and learn how to cut him off before he does too much damage.

5. Changing the habit of hurrying

Learning to be present is by far the most difficult thing I’m trying to do. This post reminded me of how everyday moments can be opportunities to practice.

6. The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.” It seemed ludicrous at first and yet now I often repeat it to myself as a way to channel the energy of worrying into action.

7. A glimpse of rapture, a glimpse of peace

This post helped me be aware that once-in-a-lifetime, wondrous moments can be experienced on any given day.

8. The prisons I build myself

I was uncomfortable writing this. It made me starkly aware of the limitations I place on myself and how that affects others too.

9. Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

It’s taken me a long time to understand that happiness isn’t something that happens to you but something you must actively cultivate.

10. When are the best years of your life?

I think of this post often. As a result of writing it, I know the answer is hidden in all of the other posts I’ve listed above. The best years won’t be when I make the most money or have the best vacation or reach a big milestone. The best years will be when I’m more mindful, more generous, and more connected. This post helped me know that the it’s up to me. The best years of my life could start right now.

I’m still waiting for them to call my name

I think it started when I was four years old. I remember one day, before I could read, flipping through some illustrated encyclopedia because I liked the pictures. My mother lavished praise on me. Then she mentioned the incident to friends and family members.

I was hooked.

From then on, like a trained lab animal, I would tap the “smart kid” bar to get my reward in the form of some kind of praise or recognition. It became a strange form of addiction. Doing the extra credit. Raising my hand faster than the other kids. Beating the adults at Scrabble.

Fast forward to the end of college, an awards ceremony at Columbia University. They were announcing the people graduating with distinction: cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude. “With praise, with great praise, with greatest praise.” My heart raced.

Graduation dayAs they announced the names, I looked at the small booklet they handed to everyone. It listed all of the people graduating, and next to those being recognized there was one or more asterisks. My name didn’t have any. I clearly remember thinking there was some mistake. I had a 3.67 GPA. Surely that was good enough for something!

Fast forward 28 years, and I’m still waiting for them to call my name.

Now I’m at work, trying to do something I care about, and I get upset if they don’t reach down and pat me on the head. All my attempts at self-development and I’m still a four-year-old boy. Worse still, I’m not even sure who “they” are. At this point in my life, whose praise and recognition do I really need?

I look in the mirror and coach myself, something I’m doing more often these days.

It’s time to grow up, Johnny boy. You’re 50.

Stop waiting to be picked.

Focus on the contribution you can make. Focus on shipping and getting better. Focus on helping other people.

Do it for them. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.


Don’t wait for the applause.


A gift from Imabari

An encounter with an old woman in a small Japanese port city taught me a lesson about giving and receiving gifts, and what the word contribution can mean.

I was with my good friend Greg on our annual trip to some of the most wondrous parts of Japan. After several stops in Shikoku, we were heading to the Seto Islands and needed to catch a ferry in Imabari, a place famous for towels of all things. Imabari no taoru would be appreciated by our relatives in Kobe and Tokyo, and we bought some in a small store dedicated to this source of local pride.

Greg purchased our tickets. He’s fluent in Japanese and can navigate the complex timetables and transportation options whereas I’m limited to basic transactions like ordering food. We waited by ourselves near the water.

After a few minutes, an old woman with a cane and several bags approached us and started talking. She was at least 80 years old, perhaps much older. I couldn’t understand her and my first instinct was that she wanted something from us. But Greg explained she was just making small talk. Then she fished inside her purse, pulled out a small wooden carving, and handed it Greg.

The Gift from Imabari

She told us that her husband carved them and she liked to hand them out to people who would be traveling or living abroad. Her husband liked knowing that his small creations were spreading around the world, and she was pleased that I was from New York. So she looked for another one to give to me. After a fruitless search in her large bag (“I always carry more with me,” she said, disappointedly) she unstrapped the one from her mobile phone and handed it to me.

We thanked her but felt compelled to offer her something in return. Greg asked if we could pay for them. She looked at him soberly, “If you give me money, I can’t let you have them.”

We quickly recovered from our blunder and talked a bit more about the carvings before the ferry came. The boat filled with schoolchildren as we made stops at several islands, and I marveled at the gorgeous scenery and at a life where people commuted this way.

A different way to commute

Our destination was a small island called Yuge. As we exited the boat, I saw the old woman, by herself, carrying her bags and her cane and heading up the steep ramp. I ran up to her calling “Sumimasen!”  (“Excuse me!”), and carried her things. At the top of the ramp, we smiled, bowed towards each other, and said goodbye.

Now, I carry that little wooden carving wherever I go. It reminds me of the gifts available to me every day, and that I can experience connections and other beautiful moments if only I’m open to accepting them.


I like to think we gave her a different kind of gift, our own small contribution. I imagine her coming home, relating a story about the two foreigners she met at the Imabari ferry, and telling her husband that two of his creations would be going on a journey soon.


Every Thursday at work, I take a few minutes and think of someone I would like to thank publicly. Then I write a short post on our enterprise social network and tag it with #thankyouthursday. Over time, more people at work are offering thanks that way too.

It’s not an original idea. There’s a and a Facebook group and, of course, the fourth Thursday of every November in the US.

My hope is that this post will help you implement your own version of #thankyouthursday at your company or with your friends and family.

Solving the recognition paradox

Inside large organizations, there’s a recognition paradox. Everyone says there should be more recognition of people and their good work, but few people do anything about it. Instead of thanking and recognizing each other, we limit ourselves to Recognition Programs created by Human Resources.

But in an era of self-publishing, it’s easier than ever to change this.

In a recent session on twitter, people who work with social networks inside companies came together online and one topic was about the simple contributions people can make. That reminded me of #thankyouthursday.

thankyouthursday tweet

Steal Like An Artist

About 18 months ago, I wrote about another idea I hoped would spread. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist, I adapted a kind of discussion on Reddit called Ask Me Anything for use inside our firm.

Since then, over 80 executives have participated in open online discussions where anyone at the company can ask them anything. Those discussions are often rich and authentic, with dozens of questions and thousands of people looking on.

Better still, many other firms now use the same technique. They too stole like artists, further adapting Ask Me Anythings to suit their particular organizations. Now I hope the same thing happens with #thankyouthursday.

Creating your own culture of gratitude

Every week, reading all the different notes makes me feel better about where I work and feel more connected to the people there. The small investment I make thanking someone is repaid 100-fold.

To get this feeling yourself, you don’t need to wait for anyone to give you permission or create a program. Just start by scheduling a few minutes every Thursday. Then say thank you in a way that’s convenient and authentic for you. Here are simple instructions from

“Every Thursday, take an intentional moment to acknowledge those who you are thankful for. Send an email, post a note on Facebook, send them a message on Twitter, give them a call, stop by their desk… etc.

Simply take the time to thank those who have impacted you in big or small ways.”

Say thank you. Whether you do this with friends and family or at work, you’ll be creating your own culture of gratitude that’s good for everyone.

thankyouthursday tag

A shift in possibilities

This blog, and my life, are about to change.

Six years ago, I was told I had to look for a different job. While dealing with the uncertainty of finding a new role, I started writing at work. It began as therapy at the time but it eventually led to a new career, and it taught me the power of making my work visible.

Three years ago, I started writing this blog. That led to a network of thousands of people, a focus on helping others, a book, and more meaning and fulfillment in my work and life. It taught me the power of relationships.

Last week, launched amidst working out loud week, and there was a swell of interest and ideas and interaction. In India, for example, peer support groups (working out loud circles) formed during the week, adding to the ones in the US, UK, Spain, and Australia. I applied to deliver a TEDx talk.

Now what? I’m not sure.

Not all those who wander are lost

I do know that, starting this week, I’ll post articles related to working out loud on the new website. If you subscribe to, you’ll get an email every Wednesday morning with stories, techniques, and other resources related to building a better career and life.

That will change this blog. I’ll still write every Saturday morning because it’s too big a part of my life to stop. Having the new site frees me up to write about other things here, to explore, discover, and learn. The topics will be more personal and creative.

Your reading, supporting, and connecting has changed my life and helped me discover a purpose I now describe this way:

“To help people find meaning and fulfillment in their work and life.”

Thank you. That’s a purpose I could never have dreamed of until recently. The last six years have taught me that destiny isn’t something that awaits you, it’s something you create with the help and support of others.

Anyone can shift what’s possible for them. What about you?

What relationships will you build? 

What purpose will you discover? 

What destiny will you create?