John Stepper

If Atticus Finch were alive…

What makes someone a hero? Where do you find such people, and what is it that gives them the courage to do things others won’t?

This past month, I came across two stories that may provide some answers.

“They’re trying to cover this stuff up.”

You may not think of heroes as middle-aged and wearing suits, but Ron Bilott is a hero. His story in a recent NY Times article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” is both chilling and inspiring.

For much of his early career, Ron Bilott was an environmental lawyer, the kind who made partner defending large chemical companies. Not exactly the kind of lawyer everyone looks up to. But one day he got a call from a cattle farmer in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Ron had spent time as a boy. Also in Parkersburg is DuPont Chemical, which owns a site there 35 times the size of the Pentagon. The farmer said he had evidence that animals were sick and dying from something in the water and that Dupont was trying to cover it up. When the farmer mentioned knowing Ron’s grandmother, Ron decided to meet him.

That was in 1998, and though it was “inconceivable” to others that his firm could take such a case, he decided to do it because it was ‘‘the right thing to do.”

Then he did what great lawyers can do. He went through stack after stack after stack of documentation – from DuPont, from scientists, from government offices – searching for evidence. And he uncovered that Dupont dumped over 14 million pounds of a chemical called PFOA – a chemical it knew could cause birth defects – and let that chemical seep into the ground and into the drinking water used by 100,000 people and all the local farms.

“It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’

Then the fight began. Read the NY Times article if you can. It’s riveting, and it captures the hero’s journey, complete with setbacks and victories over a long, long time. Just collecting and analyzing health data from local residents took seven years, but in 2011 scientists found a ‘‘probable link’’ between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.

Today, Ron Bilott is currently prosecuting the second of 3,535 person injury cases, fighting for people who got sick just from drinking their local water. Seventeen years after that phone call from a cattle farmer, he continues to fight.

‘‘It was a great opportunity to use my background for people who really needed it.’’

“Her ovarian cancer could have been prevented.”

A few weeks later, I watched Tania Simoncelli’s TED talk. Tania was a science adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and worked closely with Chris Hansen, a lawyer who had been there for 30 years.

She was investigating issues at the intersection of science and civil liberties and wanted the ACLU to engage “in a much bigger way, in a way that could really make a difference.” It was 2005. When she mentioned gene patents to Chris, he was incredulous.

“You’re telling me that the US government has been issuing patents on part of the human body? That can’t be right.”

Not only was she right, but it had been going on for over two decades. Whole companies were based on owning these patents, which enabled them to charge high fees, for example, for certain tests. This was turning out to be bad for patients.

“That means that you can’t give your gene to your doctor and ask him or her to look at it, say, to see if it has any mutations, without permission of the patent holder. It also means that the patent holder has the right to stop anyone from using that gene in research or clinical testing. Allowing patent holders, often private companies, to lock up stretches of the human genome was harming patients.”

It took years of research into genes and patents, and a lot of creative thinking, just to develop an effective strategy. They filed their case in 2009, and the fight began.

There were ups and downs over the following years. In an appeal that they lost, one judge even said “I don’t want to shake up the biotech industry.” They eventually took their case to the Supreme Court.

Against all odds, they won. They eliminated “a significant barrier to biomedical discovery and innovation.” Patients who would have otherwise died because of undetected diseases would now have access to the tests that they need.

“We took a big risk in taking this case. Part of what gave us the courage to take that risk was knowing that we were doing the right thing.”

The courage of your convictions

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the lawyer who’s defending Tom Robinson, a man wrongfully accused of rape. He takes an unpopular position, risking his career and his personal safety. He knows he’s unlikely to win, but he does it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.

At one point in the book, he has his son spend time with a woman fighting her addiction to pain medicines, and he explains why he did it.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

I used to think of Atticus Finch as representing some unattainable ideal. But now I think that you or I could be Atticus Finch, like Ron or Tania or Chris.

The words “courage” and “heroic” aren’t reserved for characters in books or for famous people. They could apply to anyone doing something they believe in, persisting even if they know they may not succeed. “Hero” isn’t a label, it’s a choice.

Atticus Finch

“You don’t do yoga with your face.”

Sometimes, you can get so carried away with striving to attain something that you forget the very reason you’re doing it in the first place. Yoga class provides me with one obvious example, and this week I experienced a very different example, one that’s even more embarrassing and held an important lesson for me.

Yoga wisdom

When I’m in yoga class each Friday, some of us will invariably struggle to maintain a pose or to stretch in some way that our bodies aren’t familiar with. It’s at those times that my teacher, looking down at us on our mats, will say “You don’t do yoga with your face.” Then she’ll gently remind us to breathe.

Every single time this happens I’ll realize just how much I was furrowing my brows and clenching my jaw and, yes, holding my breath.

My teacher isn’t mocking us. She’s helping us to come back to the present moment. To focus less on the the striving and the struggle and the desire to achieve a good pose – and to just be in touch with our body our breath and discover our own personal practice.

A very different example

This week I was working with a group of 24 people in 6 countries as we all try to spread the practice of Working Out Loud, something I’ve been working on for several years. It’s a simple practice that helps you access more possibilities while feeling better about your everyday.

Part of that practice is making your work visible as that can amplify who you are and what you do. One short exercise is updating your LinkedIn profile. It’s a small step that helps you voice – to the world as well as to yourself – what you’re doing or aspiring to do.

I included that exercise in the book and in peer support guides. I’ve used those guides many times as I’ve participated in Working Out Loud circles. And yet…7 months after I published the book, I hadn’t add “Author” as a job on my profile.

It was only this past Wednesday that I did it, resulting in a flurry of congratulations for something I had done quite some time ago. Why had I waited so long? And what made me finally do it?

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 8.38.22 AM

The power of practice

My friend, Moyra Mackie, is a coach and consultant, and she commented that “public declarations can be scary.” That identified the main resistance I think I felt. Adding “Author” took only a minute, but I felt I was publicly changing my identity, and that was enough to stop me from doing something I knew I should do.

What finally made me do it? There was no one thing. It was the practice over time that wore down my resistance. All the peer support meetings, the blog posts, the presentations, the feedback from people. The cumulative effective effect of the practice empowered me to act.

The lesson

This small example made me realize how important the practice is. As much as the ideas and techniques are helpful, it’s practicing them that helps you empathize with the people you’re trying to help. It’s practicing them that makes possible your own personal discovery.

Pema Chödrön wrote about this in Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears:

“Working on ourselves and becoming more conscious about our own minds and emotions may be the only way for us to find solutions that address the welfare of all beings.”

So this past week, as a group of us talked about techniques and activities and measures to spread the simple practice of working out loud, I was reminded of the importance of our own individual practice. As much as we want to help people and change organizations and even make the world a better place, we can only do that if we start changing ourselves first.

Before we teach, we must practice being in touch with our own sense of empathy and generosity, deepening our own relationships; discovering our own possibilities while feeling better about our own everyday. Then and only then are we are capable of helping others experience all that we’ve come to know.

“If I panic, it’s over.”

Have you ever felt like you’re drowning? I mean the kind of drowning where you’re sinking under the weight of your aspirations and all that you have to do to realize them.

Perhaps you’ve had a glimpse of what your future could be like, but as tantalizing as that glimpse is, it’s so far out of reach that you can’t imagine you’ll ever get there. Perhaps you can list 100 reasons why you’ll never make it, and 100 mistakes you’ve made, and 100 other people who are better, luckier, and more deserving than you.

Some of the best advice I’ve heard is, fittingly, from a free diver who sinks to depths of over 400 feet with nothing but his own breath, and then has to make it back to the surface.

From the depths

The diver’s name is Guillaume Néry, and he describes what he goes through as he sinks. Forty meters. Fifty meters. Eighty meters. The deeper he goes, the darker it gets and the greater the suffocating compression of his lungs. At 123 meters, the pressure is 13 times greater than on the surface.

Then, after already being underwater for so long, with nitrogen dissolving in his blood causing confusion, with it being twice as hard to ascend than to sink, he must return.

“A flurry of thoughts goes spinning through your head…around 60, 70 meters, you start to feel the need to breathe. And with everything else that’s going on, you can very easily lose your ground and start to panic. When that happens, you think, “Where’s the surface? I want to go up. I want to breathe now.” You should not do that. Never look up to the surface — not with your eyes, or your mind. You should never picture yourself up there. You have to stay in the present. I look at the rope right in front of me, leading me back to the surface. And I focus on that, on the present moment. Because if I think about the surface, I panic. And if I panic, it’s over.”

Free diving

When you want to do something big

Of course he planned and trained, and he emphasized that, though alone for most of the dive,“without all the people around me, the adventure into the deep would be impossible. A journey into the deep is above all a group effort.”

But there often comes a time when the goal seems so big or out of reach, that you naturally become afraid. Those are the moments when your brain, in an effort to protect you, makes you think of giving up rather than fail.

It’s at those times when, like a diver at 60 meters underwater, the thinking doesn’t help you. Instead, to reach your goal you have to calmly focus on the present moment, let go of the fear and the innate need for control, and keep moving. Inch by inch, meter by meter.

“That dive is a journey to the very limits of human possibility, a journey into the unknown. But it’s also, and above all, an inner journey, where a number of things happen, physiologically as well as mentally.”

The Joy of Being Bald

“Bald.” Even I can’t say the word without smirking. If you use it to describe someone – That bald guy over there – it sounds like an insult, or a joke.

So when, in my first year of college, I noticed more hair than usual on the brush and in the sink, it made me deeply unhappy. It made me feel that way for a long time.

The man in the mirror

I fought the change. Different medicines to try and fix it. Different styles to hide it. Always that tension. Every time I looked in the mirror. Every time I showered or noticed someone else’s hair. Any reference to me losing my hair would drive me into an angry spiral.

This simple physical change, something quite common, made me unhappy in varying degrees every day throughout the day.

I would never have thought to write about it until I recently read Triggers, a book about changing behaviors by the well-regarded consultant Marshall Goldsmith.

How hard it is to change

In the first pages of the book, Marshall writes about what it was like becoming bald at a young age.

“Since high school I had been a follicly challenged man, but back then I was loath to admit it. Each morning, I would spend several minutes in front of the bathroom mirror carefully arranging the wispy blond strands of hair still remaining on the top of my head. I’d smooth the hairs forward from back to front, then curve them to a point in the middle of my forehead, forming a pattern that looked vaguely like a laurel wreath. Then I’d walk out into the world with my ridiculous comb-over, convinced I looked normal like everyone else.”

He used his personal story as an example of how hard it is to change. Why do people keep doing what they do, even if doing it it makes them unhappy?

“I had spent years fretting and fussing with my hair. That’s a long time to continue doing something that, on the spectrum of human folly, fell somewhere between vain and idiotic. And yet I persisted in this foolish behavior for so many years because (a) I couldn’t admit that I was bald, and (b) under the sway of inertia, it felt easier to continue doing my familiar routine than to execute the change. The one advantage I had was (c) I knew how to execute the change.”

Then there was a mistake at the barbershop. Despite explicit instructions, the barber had cut more than he was supposed to. At that moment, Marshall Goldsmith decided to accept what had been staring him in the face for so long, and he had the rest of his hair cut short.

“Liberating”

It has taken me decades, but now I no longer think about being bald. No hiding it. No shame. It’s a part of me, and I’ve grown to like it.

Marshall Goldsmith, 65 years old when he wrote his story, reflected on the importance of his change in perspective.

“It wasn’t a complicated decisions and it didn’t take great effort to accomplish…But in many ways, it is still the most liberating change I’ve made as an adult. It made me happy…”

It’s such a trivial example, I know. People deal with so many more meaningful things. Yet I’m struck by how something so small could affect me for so long. How simply loving what is allowed me to be happier and focus my energy on things I could control, like eating well and exercising, like the quality of the work that I do. It’s “liberating,” as Marshal Goldsmith wrote.

Sometimes freedom is just a switch in your head.

The Joy of Being Bald

Where you can find life-changing magic

You could be forgiven for thinking that life-changing magic would be hard to come by. Or that it’s prohibitively expensive or reserved for particularly spiritual people.

So when I first saw a book on “the life-changing magic of tidying up,” I scoffed out loud (SOL). Then I saw it again. And again. And again. At my favorite bookstore, the small book (“practically a booklet,” I sniffed) proudly bore the label “3 million copies sold.”

As an author of a book that has sold <ahem> somewhat fewer copies, I was curious about what could make it so popular. As a nipponophile, I was intrigued that it was written by a Japanese woman, Marie Kondo, and translated into English.

So I bought it, and a few weeks later, the magic happened.

The Christmas Day Purge

I read the book straight through, sitting on a plane heading to Mexico on our family vacation. I handed it straight to my wife, saying “We should do this.” She read it and – this sounds strange even to me – we couldn’t wait to get home and clear things from our apartment.

We came back on Christmas Eve, and before we opened up any presents, there were bags of things to give away. The author insists that before you start cleaning up you start discarding things using a simple guideline:

“Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. if it doesn’t, dispose of it.”

Within a week, we had 15 bags of things to give away or recycle. We donated hundreds of books. I even finally got rid of those cans of leftover paint I had been saving “in case I need to touch up a wall.” They had been sitting there, unopened, for 5 years.

Tidting up

It was liberating and empowering. I felt something I can only describe as joy.

But there was no special formula in the book. The magic wasn’t her insight to “Tidy in the right order.” or admonitions  (in bold) like “Do not even think of putting things away until you have finished discarding first.”

It’s was something else. And for people who have read the book, the benefits go far beyond a tidier home.

“After your course, I launched my own business doing something I had dreamed of doing ever since I was a child.”

“I finally succeeded in losing ten pounds.”

“My husband and I are getting along much better.”

Our need for permission

While on vacation, I was reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (who also wrote Eat, Pray, Love – 12 million copies sold, but who’s counting?)

In a section titled “Permission,” she told the story of a woman who came up to her at a book-signing.

Eat, Pray, Love changed my life. You inspired me to leave my abusive marriage and set myself free. It was all because of that one moment in your book – that moment when you describe putting a restraining order on your ex-husband because you’d had enough of his violence and you weren’t going to tolerate it anymore.”

Great! Except Elizabeth Gilbert said nothing like that happened in Eat, Pray, Love or in her own life or in anything she had written. The woman had invented it.

“It may have been easier for her, somehow, to believe that her burst of resolve and strength had come from me and not from herself.”

Where you can find life-changing magic

It should be clear by now that the magic you’re seeking probably isn’t in a book (or a movie or blog or course or box). It’s in you. Those other things just give you permission to see what’s already there.

Right now, at this very moment, there is life-changing magic bottled up inside you, waiting for you to let it out and experience it.

By all means, read a book. Form a peer support group. Tape a sign on your bathroom mirror. Do whatever you need to do to give yourself permission.

Let the magic out.