John Stepper

The ambulance at the old age home

When the ambulance comesThe home is just up the street from me. I can see it from my apartment window. Every other week or so, I notice the flashing lights of an ambulance as it pulls up and double-parks outside. The sirens are almost never turned on. It’s as if there’s no reason to hurry.

I think about the person being attended to. The phone calls to family, producing ripples of grief. Or, much worse, a silent dispatch replete with processes and paperwork.

I wonder what the people inside are thinking, as they’re gathered in the dining hall, slowly eating the food prepared for them. Are they reflecting on their own life, committing to make more of the little time they have left? Or is the incident another bitter reminder of a life largely un-lived? Perhaps they’re silently relieved it’s not their turn, and after a respectable silence they continue where they left off.

Each time it happens, I think about my own end. I know it sounds macabre, but for all of us it’s a matter of when, not if.

Will I “go gentle into that good night” or “rage, rage against the dying of the light?”

What will you do, when the ambulance comes for you?

Why “Half-full or half-empty?” is the wrong question

It’s such a common metaphor for our outlook on things. “Are you a glass half-full person?”

But that’s too simple and too static, because work and life are fluid and ever-changing. So here’s a better question to ask the next time you examine your glass:

“Is it evaporating or are you filling it up?”

half full glass of water or half empty PSC0512_FYI

More than just your outlook

Of course, there is a genetic predisposition to how we view the world. In The How of Happiness, Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky says our biology accounts for about half of our happiness. Our environment, surprisingly, accounts for only a tenth.

The other 40% is up for grabs.

That means that even those who win the Genetic Happiness Lottery and the Life Circumstances Lottery can still be quite miserable if they don’t do anything with the 40% that’s within their control.

Said another way, if you passively observe the slings and arrows hurled at you and those around you, you can find plenty to be unhappy about, and the water in your glass will slowly evaporate.

The power of a drop

The way to overcome this passive process is by actively adding to your glass, perhaps with just a drop each day. It might be as simple as pausing to appreciate a moment. Practicing a small act of generosity. Making a connection with someone new, or deepening your connection with a friend.

“Life is a verb,” as Patti Digh wrote, and so is happiness. That might seem obvious, but it took me almost fifty years to realize it.

A few years ago, as part of my own happiness project, I started using a simple guide that has made me more mindful of small things. A bit more of this, a bit less of that.

I’ve maintained such a guide since then, and over the years I’ve discovered the power of the progress principle. Small steps unlock other small steps that, over time, can lead to a remarkable shift in how you think and act.

Each drop changes you in some small positive way. Over time, you can make it rain.

Make it rain

Preparing for your TED talk

Before you think “I’m not giving a TED talk,” you should know that there are 47 TEDx events happening today alone, and over 50,000 talks to date.

You should also know that the same lessons for creating a good TED talk can help you prepare for a wide range of big moments in your life.

Here are five things I learned from my TEDx experience that might help you.

"Working Out Loud: The making of a movement"

Learn the basics.

Public speaking is a skill like any other, meaning that you can readily get better at it. You can get better much more quickly by understanding what others have learned before you.

The book Resonate will help you craft a more engaging story that’s more likely to, well, resonate with your audience. Presentation Zen will make your slides better than 99% of most presentations. Talk Like TED will summarize the lessons of what makes for a good talk and provide and analyze excellent examples.

Then read what speakers write about their experiences, and watch as much as you can to refine your own taste of what you like and don’t like.

Doing this research helped me. Next time, I’ll do even more.

Make the audience the hero.

The initial drafts of my talk were too much about me and my own story. While some of that is necessary for context, the key is focusing on how you can help the audience. Though my talk was about “Working Out Loud: The making of a movement,” it would be more engaging and useful if it helped the audience with their own movements.

As Nancy Duarte says in Resonate, be more like Yoda than Luke Skywalker. Enable heroes instead of trying to be one.

Get live feedback earlier.

I waited too long to practice in front of a live audience. Although I solicited feedback on the script two months before the talk and went through many iterations, I waited until just 36 hours before the event to rehearse in front of friends. Not good.

I fell into a trap of thinking I had to memorize it first. But by then, I had become too attached to the material and had little time left for major changes. That made everything more stressful than it needed to be.

Keep working on it till it’s authentic.

I’ve always confused spontaneity with authenticity, figuring that practice would somehow make my talk feel artificial, literally “scripted.” Now it’s clear that was just an excuse to avoid work I found uncomfortable.

The truth is that it’s hard to be yourself when you’re struggling to recall what to say, particularly on camera. There is no substitute for putting in the time to memorize your material – to know it so well that it’s a part of you and you can offer it naturally.

Make it fun.

Perhaps this seems obvious. After all, it would be hard for the audience to enjoy my talk if I seem anxious and miserable on stage.

Yet, I almost failed on this point entirely. In my rehearsal just before the event, I was practically somber. I was so focused on not losing my place that I lost myself. My small audience had to tell me to “Put more of you into the talk.”

I tried making the talk a bit lighter, and even got a laugh on my second slide, but I have a long way to go before I can relate to this kind of audience like I relate to people in my other talks and in my every day.

Your second TED talk

Yes, the process was uncomfortable (and worse) at times, but going through it unlocked learning and possibilities, including the chance that I’ll be better next time – and less anxious.

Whether you’re about to deliver a TED talk or make a video or give a performance in your own living room, treating it as a learning experience is liberating. It might even be fun.

At approximately 4:03pm on Saturday, April 9th

I’m asking for a rather strange favor. My friend and coach, Eve, would call my request a bit “woo-woo.” That’s our way to describe mystical things we can’t explain but we think just might work.

Mystical - and maybe it works

This Saturday afternoon, I’ll be on stage at a TEDx event in New Jersey, delivering the most important presentation of my life.

I’ve been increasingly anxious about it for months. Though I’ve given many talks, this one is more like an 8-minute movie than a regular presentation. I’m acutely aware that every mistake I make will be amplified on video.

So here’s my woo-woo request. If you’re reading this before 4 o’clock this Saturday, would you think a positive thought for me? Perhaps send me a mental message encouraging me to act like myself instead of The Presenter. Or wish that the audience receives my talk as a gift and not an imposition. That instead of being nervous and tense, I project humility, openness, and happiness.

I’ll be sure to provide a detailed update next week. In the meantime, please #BringTheWoo.

Thank you!

Freedom’s just another word for …

How would you finish that sentence? Perhaps, like the late Janis Joplin, you’d say it’s “just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Or if you were me, about a year ago, you’d quote Nina Simone and say freedom is “No fear!”

But now I think freedom is something else entirely.

© Robert Gober

Prison Window – © Robert Gober

What freedom isn’t

The source of much of my personal development lately is Pema Chödrön. This time, it’s from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

“The cause of our suffering is…our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom.”

In short, freedom isn’t denying that we have fears and desires and hopes. That would be denying our very humanity. Freedom is allowing yourself to feel all those things and then let them go.

The only way out is through

I spent a long time trying to shut out fear or distracting myself from it. After 51 years of that not working, I’m ready for a new strategy.

Pema Chödrön provides one. She cites the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she says that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. It’s our reaction to it; the story line in our heads.

“An emotion like anger [or fear] that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.”

Instead of fighting it, work with it. “The only way out is through,” she said, and she suggests this simple exercise:

“Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience  of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the situation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?”

By the time you’ve worked with the emotion in this way, the ninety seconds have passed and you feel and think differently. No drama or rekindling. You acknowledge what is and move on. No big deal.

A personal example

She advises starting with something not too terrifying, so I started with an email.

I’ve been working on something important to me and was waiting on feedback. When I woke up, I was already anticipating a message related to the project and could feel a low-level anxiety. When I saw the email, I quickly scanned it, fixated on some less-than-glowing comments, and experienced a mild panic.

Instead of denial or distraction – telling myself  “it doesn’t matter” or distracting myself with another task – I remembered the exercise.

I acknowledged the fear I was feeling. I noticed my heart pounding and the knot in my stomach. I let myself feel it without thinking. I took a few deep, slow breaths. After a minute or two, I calmed down, reread the note, and got to work.

No big deal.

What’s on the other side

That may seem like a trivial example, but I found it striking that my body and brain couldn’t tell the difference between an email and being attacked by a bear. The  immediate reaction is the same heart-pounding desire to flee.

In the book, she quotes a poem that describes what you’ll discover when you can stop struggling against uncertainty.

This world – absolutely pure.

As is. Behind the fear,

Vulnerability. Behind that,

Sadness, then compassion

And behind that the vast sky.

What does freedom mean to you? If you don’t feel free already, try the 90-second exercise. Freedom might be closer than you think.