John Stepper

Why Socrates thought writing was a bad idea

I hadn’t expected Socrates to appear in a book titled, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. But there he was, on page 25. 

The author, Nancy Baym, was quoting one of his famous dialogs in The Phaedrus, from about 370 BC. He was telling a story about the invention of writing, and I was surprised at how one of the leading thinkers in history could have such an opinion:

“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates wasn’t wrong. (The way we use our capacity for memory has changed fundamentally from the days we recited 12,000-line poems by heart.) But he also couldn’t foresee the wide range of benefits that came from a different form of communication.

It turns out that’s how we generally react to almost all new forms of communications, whether it’s the printing press, telegraph, telephones, television, email, texting, and now the Internet in general. When I introduced an enterprise social networks at work, many colleagues in our global, 100,000-person company longed for the day when “people would just talk to each other.”

“Throughout the history of electronic communications, some have celebrated the ability to form new relationships across time and space, but others have seen it…as offering pale substitutes for authentic connection.”

I’m no wiser than Socrates. I recently caught myself proclaiming, for example, that “Snapchat is ridiculous!” without ever having tried it or endeavoring to learn why so many people find it useful. I’m horrified at how my children use their phones. “It’s addictive!” “It’s ruining their attention span!” “It’s rude!”

Is that true? Maybe. But it’s also true that the constant interactions they have with each other and with their friends have created a feeling of genuine closeness and familiarity I can’t deny.

The lesson for me applies to life in general: Be open to possibilities. Approach new things with more curiosity and less judgment.

I think it’s time for another session with my favorite social media adviser, the one who helped me get started on Instagram. She’s turning 12 next week. 


The stories all around you

I must have walked by this gated section of the park over a thousand times. It’s at the bottom of Manhattan, right near Castle Clinton. You can see the World Trade Center from there, and the Hudson River. You’ll pass tourists lining up to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, and street vendors and performance artists vying for their attention.

The entrance to the park is marked only by an open gate and a worn path. This time, I walked inside.


Once you cross the threshold, it immediately feels different. Quieter, if that’s even possible. Cloistered might be a better word.

I was alone. The first thing I noticed was a small vegetable garden, with eggplants and peppers and basil all lined up in neat rows. I later learned it’s for school children to learn about food and farming.

A few more steps brought me into a sparse, open space. Amid craggy trees, there was what seemed to be a maze outlined by stones in the ground, filled with clover in between. There were a few empty wooden benches. Near one of them was a marker, badly weathered and barely legible, commemorating a gift from the Mayor of Jerusalem to the Mayor of New York City in the 1970s.

I walked around the edge of the maze, and something on the ground caught my eye. A small engraved stone. It looked as if it had just been placed there, at the base of a small tree that also looked freshly planted.

My heart sank as I read what was there. A story told in five words, a birthdate, and two tiny footprints. “139 magical days we shared.” I felt a sense of the parents’ love, joy, and anguish. The weight of their loss, and of a lifetime of remembering.


I wanted to know more. Why was it here? Who were these people? What happened to the child? I felt like I was intruding on someone else’s very personal tragedy, but I took a photograph anyway. I wanted to remember.

I walked slowly past the small farm and out of the park. Back among the tourists and the hum of the city, I wondered how many other stories I had passed by that day, waiting for the moment when I would be open to seeing them.

The golden ticket you’ve been holding all along

When Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory came out in 1971, I was seven years old. Even then, one scene struck me as particularly strange and uplifting.

Grandpa Joe has been bedridden for twenty years, along with his wife and another old couple. He wants the best for his grandson, Charlie, but doesn’t feel there’s much he can do. Still, he offers Charlie his tobacco money so the boy can buy some chocolate and have a chance to escape, to dream, if only for a moment.

Grandpa Joe’s outlook on life is clear in the song he sings.

“I never thought my life could be

Anything but catastrophe

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing”

But when Charlie unwraps the chocolate and there’s a glimmer of gold inside, everything changes. Grandpa Joe undergoes a transformation, getting up and dancing around the room. “I haven’t done this for twenty years!”

“But suddenly I begin to see

A bit of good luck for me

‘Cause I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden twinkle in my eye

‘Cause I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden chance to make my way

And with a golden ticket, it’s a golden day”


Here’s the thing. The ticket didn’t change his age or health or circumstances. What changed was his perspective, something he could have changed any time.

It’s hard to do. When upsetting things happen to me, my tendency is to react. I’ll curse my luck or myself, and my reactions color other areas of my life, including my relationships.

But I’m discovering I have more control than I thought. More and more, when something happens, I remember to take deep breaths, allow my initial feelings to take their course, and then reflect on what to do. I try to think about the many golden tickets I’m holding, the many reasons for joy. Sometimes I even think of Grandpa Joe and I sing the song (loudly). It takes practice, but when I remember to do these things, my perspective changes, and I feel happier.

Next time you think, “I never had a chance to shine, Never a happy song to sing,” try and reflect on the golden tickets you’re holding. Choose to dance around the bed.

Getting better at public speaking

“You should go see Kelly,” my friend advised me. He knew I was starting to do more public speaking, and that Kelly could improve my performance. As with most good advice, I knew it was right, and discarded it almost immediately. Until yesterday.

“Kelly” is Kelly Kimball, a director, writer, acting coach (and more) who founded the Kimball Studio over 20 years ago. Now that I get paid to present at conferences and corporate events, it was time to see her.

I was a glossophobic

Like most people, I was afraid of speaking in public. The technical term, “glossophobia,” is from the Greek words for tongue and fear. I presented at work, of course, but my talks were like everyone else’s, dull recitations laden with bullet points from the standard Powerpoint templates.

The thought of speaking at a public event filled me with dread. I had to do it once or twice when I wrote my first book in 1993, and I remember feeling grossly unprepared. That feeling compounded my anxiety, and I avoided public speaking altogether.

“Necessity is the mother of re-invention”

After almost getting laid off in 2008, I knew I had to do something to take control of my career, and began working on my skills, including public speaking. My preferred way to learn is by reading, so I dove in. Here are a few of the books that made a difference.

I began watching every TED talk so I could learn from a wide range of presentation styles. And I gave talk after talk after talk over the last eight years. After an event, I would often ask someone, “I’m trying to become a better speaker. What’s one thing I could do better?” Framing it that way assured them I would accept their constructive feedback as a gift.

Gradually, I got better. I grew to love speaking in front of an audience, whether it’s ten people, a hundred, or the 1,300 at a recent event. Now, I enjoy the preparation and find the connection with the audience exhilarating.

But I was still missing an obvious way to improve: watching myself.

When anxiety overwhelms common sense

I never recorded myself or watched the videos made at an event. It seems silly even to me that I could enjoy speaking in front of 1,000 people but would be afraid to watch my own performance. In preparing this post, I searched for information about this fear and found a discussion on a Social Anxiety Support site, where members explained why they were terrified to watch themselves on video:

“It’ll just confirm exactly what I think of myself…It’ll just confirm the worst.”

When I was preparing my own TEDx talk, my friend again advised me to see Kelly. We both knew that she could look at a few minutes of me speaking and make me better. But my anxiety once again overwhelmed my common sense.

Since then, I’ve started my own company and have a growing number of paid speaking engagements, including several this November. Public speaking is no longer a hobby or “nice-to-have” for me. It has become one of the ways I make a living, and I owe it to my clients and to myself to keep improving. So I asked Kelly if I could see her.

A master of the craft

We met at her studio. There was a group of actors doing a reading in another room. We sat in front of a small stage.

Beforehand, I had sent her a link to the TEDx talk and to a recent interview, and gave her a recording of a talk at a corporate event. She had analyzed each of them and began by listing what I was doing well. She noticed small things I wasn’t even aware of myself.

When she talked about things to work on, she demonstrated the behavior, why an alternative might be better, and how I might practice it. Things like how and where I walked across the stage. Where I focused my gaze. Facial tics. Synchronizing my movement and my words. How to use my breath at key points. Then she asked me – nightmare of nightmares – to step on stage and deliver a section of my talk. By this time though, I was so eager for her opinions that I hopped on stage and performed – and listened.

She made the improvements so simple and accessible, and delivered her advice with such humor, grace, and charm, that I was enrapt. We spent an hour together, and I compiled a long list of notes.

“Kelly is a genius,” I told my friend. She unlocked more of my potential, made me eager to do the work needed to improve, and inspired me to get better at other new skills, like on-air interviews and recording myself speaking to the camera.

Getting better requires an acknowledgement that you need help combined with the  willingness to be vulnerable so you can accept it. I struggled with vulnerability – “confirming the worst” – but my desire for improvement finally trumped my fears.

As we left the studio, I noticed a sign in Kelly’s office, a reminder to “constantly challenge yourself.” I think I’ll hang one in my room too so, next time, I won’t wait so long to take a step.


Note: If you would like to contact me about speaking or conducting a workshop at your organization, just send me email at The practice I describe and implement, Working Out Loud, helps organizations be more open and collaborative. It helps you be more effective while you access more possibilities and feel better each day. 

I greatly appreciate each and every request.


The best non-fiction book I read this year

I didn’t like the title or the cover. Heading into chapter two, I was still unsure if I had made a good choice.

But since it was mentioned in another excellent book, I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.

It’s Mindsight, by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, and it’s one of those rare books that can truly teach you how to change your life.


A powerful combination

The author is a psychiatrist who has written several books about the brain. In Mindsight, he weaves together neurobiology with psychotherapy to help us understand the physical underpinnings of our behavior. Here’s his definition:

“Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them…”

It sounds a lot like mindfulness taught by Buddhists and others for thousands of years. But what the author does beautifully is relate those concepts to the underlying mechanisms in the brain. His personal stories and those of his patients, sometimes funny and sometimes heart-wrenching, reveal how the lack of mindsight can harm us. Then, importantly, he shows how we can “focus the mind to change the brain,” and alter how we relate to the world and people in it.

“By developing the ability to focus our attention on our internal world, we can resculpt our neural pathways, stimulating the growth of areas of the brain that are crucial to mental health.”

There are many good books on mindfulness and psychotherapy and on the recently-discovered plasticity of the brain. Mindsight ties the ideas together in such a way that you can apply them to your own life.

I hope you enjoy it – and find it as useful – as much as I did.