John Stepper

What to do when you don’t know what you’re doing

Just ten days after leaving the big company I’ve worked in for twenty years, I’m facing things that I have little or no experience dealing with.

How do I describe and package what I do? What do I offer for free and what do I charge for (and how much)? There are legal, financial, and technical issues to sort out. It can be overwhelming, and makes the well-defined boxes inside big companies a bit more appealing.

Here are five things that have helped me already and might help you if you’re trying something new. They’ve made me feel less anxious and more confident, and so the entire process is more enjoyable.

What am I doing?

Find people who already do it.

You can learn a lot from simple research. When I started charging for presentations at a conference, for example, I looked online to see what others like me have charged. For my new online course, I searched for examples of similar offerings.

I’ll reach out to people who have more experience and ask “What do you think?” That research gives me at least a sense of what’s appropriate.

Talk with trusted confidants.

It takes a friend to give you constructive criticism or spend the time to think through an approach with you. It also takes vulnerability – I don’t know what to do. Will you talk with me about it?

In the past I kept my biggest issues to myself and that was a mistake. Now I’m lucky to have a handful of people I regularly go to for coaching and advice. They’re trusted advisors who care enough about me to to tell me what they think is best, not just what I want to hear. If you don’t already have such a circle of advisors, start cultivating them now. You can begin by approaching someone you respect and asking “Would you help me?”

Fail small, fast, and cheap.

After reading how modern start-ups begin and grow, I’ve tried to adapt those ideas to myself. A big part of that is breaking down something you want to do into small, cheap experiments. That allows you try different things and quickly get feedback that helps you learn and create the next experiment. You start small and iterate.

My weekly blog posts led to a book. Free courses I created led to on-line and custom programs I can charge for. The hundreds of free talks I gave led to speaking engagements and a TEDx talk.

I didn’t create risky plans for the start-up of me. I just tried a series of low-risk, low-cost experiments that allowed me to discover things I enjoy doing that also have a value to others.

Frame it all as a learning goal.

I must have told myself “I’m terrible at this” (and worse) more than ten thousand times. And each time I try to remind myself “I’m just not good at it yet.” That is the essence of a growth mindset, and that simple switch in your head changes the entire process.

When trying something new, of course you don’t know how to do many things. What else would you expect? By framing what you’re doing as a learning goal – not to be good or bad but to become better – your ignorance and mistakes become opportunities for improvement instead of sources of suffering.

Keep shipping.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last decade has been this: persistence and passion trumps all else. When you keep shipping – trying new things, delivering, deepening relationships based on contribution – all your fears, detractors, and mistakes no longer define you. They’re behind you because you’ve kept going, and the passion you show over time attracts others who care as you do.

Have you tried something new and thought “I don’t know what I’m doing”? Don’t give up. It can be a beginning instead of an ending.

 

“And that would be enough”

Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza had just moved from their home on Wall Street in the heart of the city to a quiet section uptown.

They’re mourning the loss of their son, Philip, who was killed in a duel. It was Hamilton who had advised him to shoot in the air and had given him the guns. They’re also mourning the loss of their happy marriage, after Alexander’s affair was made public and humiliated the entire family.

Throughout the play, there is a theme of never being satisfied – of Hamilton writing and creating and striving “like he’s running out of time.” He’s always looking ahead and working on the next thing.

But in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” they’re faced with the unimaginable things that have happened to them. Despite all of Hamilton’s accomplishments and aspirations, the grief and loss they feel are overwhelming, transformative. He begins to see that he had the elements of happiness all along.

If I could spare his life
If I could trade his life for mine
He’d be standing here right now
And you would smile, and that would be enough

I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing

I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost
And you need time

But I’m not afraid
I know who I married
Just let me stay here by your side
That would be enough

It makes me wonder: What would be enough? Can you have dreams and hopes and still be content with what you have?

I think it’s possible, but that it goes against our nature. We have to work every day to be mindful of what’s right in front of us, before we become so used to it that it’s lost and we only realize it when it’s gone.

The story of Oney Judge

If I hadn’t looked up, I never would have known about her.

This past week, I was in Philadelphia and was waiting to meet someone near the Liberty Bell. I noticed a few posters hanging on a wall outside, and something about one caught my eye.

It was about Oney Judge.

Oney Judge

Her story

She was one of George Washington’s slaves, and she had escaped from his home in Philadelphia while he was President. Here’s the quote that was on the poster.

“Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.”

I decided to read more. I learned that Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process to emancipate its slaves. That was in 1780. Part of this “Gradual Abolition Act” was that slaves held in Pennsylvania for more than six months could free themselves.

I learned that Washington purposefully rotated his slaves while he was President in Philadelphia, sending them back to Mount Vernon or to New Jersey for a few days so they would remain enslaved. This violated a 1788 law that had been passed, but Washington continued to do it until 1797 when he returned to Virginia and was no longer President.

Newspaper ads were placed offering a bounty for her kidnapping. “Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home.”  But there were fears such an abduction would cause a riot among abolitionists.

When she was spotted in New Hampshire, the customs officer sent a message to Washington that she would return if the President would free her upon his death. He declined, saying he would not “reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom].” A year later, in 1798, Washington’s nephew met with her and planned to kidnap her himself, but she was alerted and went into hiding.

Read the entire Wikipedia entry if you can. There are much longer accounts too listed in the notes. It brings to life how human beings were treated as pets or objects. The language is chilling.

“At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington’s granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington.”

“Following Judge’s 1796 escape, her younger sister, Delphy, became the wedding present to Martha Washington’s granddaughter.”

What else have I missed?

Simply by looking up from my phone for a minute, I saw something that changed my perspective.

Until then, I had an almost cartoonish image of George Washington. I would think of him stoically crossing the Delaware in that famous painting. Or admitting to chopping down the apple tree as a boy (“I cannot tell a lie.”).

Of course he must have been more complicated than that, his ethics and values not nearly as lofty or even consistent as I had believed. Even just a few minutes of paying attention brought me closer to the truth, and to an appreciation for all the shades of gray in a world increasingly seeking black and white.

What else have I missed?

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