My role model for a better career and life

He grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, studied history at the University of Georgia, and took his first job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2006. A few years later, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he was laid off.

Without much money and with few prospects of getting another financial job at the time, he decided to try something different.

His name is Brandon Stanton, and what he did next is an example of how I’d like to approach work and life.

Brandon Stanton

A goal of getting better at something

Before he lost his job, he had purchased a nice camera and enjoyed taking photos while walking around Chicago, so he decided his goal would be to practice his hobby as he traveled around the United States. Like many thousands of people interested in photography, Brandon’s first idea was to create a photo blog based on his travels in different cities:

My first stop was New Orleans, then Pittsburgh, then Philadelphia. Each time I arrived in a new city, I’d get lost in the streets and photograph everything that looked interesting, taking nearly a thousand photographs every day. After each day of shooting, I’d select thirty or forty of my favorite photographs and post them on Facebook. I named the albums after my first impression of each city. Pittsburgh was Yellow Steel Bridges. Philadelphia was Bricks and Flags. I had no big ambitions at the time. All I had was some vague, naive idea of making a living by selling prints of my best photos. In the meantime, I was just posting them for my family and friends to enjoy.

He had other ideas too, including plotting ten thousand street portraits on an interactive map to create a photographic census of the city. But it was only through actually doing the work, posting it publicly on Facebook, and getting feedback that he started to try other things. Along with the usual city scenes, he started taking candid street portraits. When those portraits received a favorable response, he started asking his subjects questions and including snippets of the interview with each photo.

By the time he arrived in New York in August 2010, almost all of his photographs were of people. He created a new album on Facebook and then another one. He decided to call these albums “Humans of New York.” He never intended to stay in New York, but by the end of the summer, after a short trip to Chicago to collect his things, he moved back to New York for good.

Purposeful discovery

Brandon’s goal kept evolving. Without any formal training in photography, he gradually kept learning to take better photos while also learning how to approach people. (“At first, the rejections sting,” he said.) By early 2012, what started as simple online photo albums had attracted thirty thousand likes. By April of that year, it was sixty thousand, and other people started to copy his work, creating Humans of Copenhagen, Humans of Tel Aviv, and more. Such groups helped to further spread the word about Brandon and his work. By the fall of 2013, the number of Facebook fans had skyrocketed to over a million people.

Brandon was still shooting photos, but now other things became possible, including the launch of a book, an “inspiring collection of photographs and stories capturing the spirit of a city,” that became a number-one New York Times bestseller. He was named to Time magazine’s “30 Under 30,” attracting yet more attention and opening up more possibilities. Brandon reflected on how he was able to change his life in a way that was not possible before:

Humans of New York is an amazing story, and it’s a story that could not have happened ten years ago. Without social media, I’d probably just be a quirky amateur photographer with a hard drive full of photos. I’d be cold-calling respected publications, begging for a feature. I may have even quit by now. Instead, I’ve discovered a daily audience of nearly a million people. Or should I say they discovered me.

Doing well and doing good

With the success he was experiencing, Brandon’s goal shifted again. He was starting to make money and decided early on to give some of it away, to try to do more with his photos than he had considered possible before. He described it in an online interview in 2013:

I don’t want to “cash out” or “monetize” HONY [Humans of New York]. I like to say it publicly because I want my audience to keep me on mission. HONY print sales have raised nearly $500,000 for charity in the past six months. I want to further monetize the site for nonprofit ventures. I honestly want to “give” HONY to New York in some way.

Brandon recently turned thirty-one. His Facebook page has more than thirteen million followers, and there are millions of followers on other platforms too. His third book is coming out later this year. In the summer of 2014, he went on a fifty-day world tour of twelve countries sponsored by the United Nations that included Iran, Iraq, Ukraine, Kenya, and South Sudan. Why go to these places? “The work has a very humanizing effect in places that are misunderstood or feared.” His purpose had shifted yet again, and his fans noticed it, as expressed in a comment on a photo of four women in Iraq: “You are changing the world one interview at a time. I am very grateful.”

A path to a good life

I am unlike Brandon in many ways. I’m much older, have five kids, and work in a large global corporation. But I can follow a similar path to discovering meaning and fulfillment.

Brandon made his work visible, and the feedback on it helped him get better while also helping him develop his network. He was generous with his work, posting it freely, and also generous with the eventual proceeds from that work. Importantly, he used his initial goal as a step toward exploring a range of possibilities that might be more meaningful and fulfilling. As a result of that exploration, in just over three years, he fundamentally changed his career and life—from out-of-work bond trader to beloved photographer, author, and philanthropist.

That’s the kind of path I aspire to take. We’ll see where it goes.

“I will listen”

My brother killed himself when he was 26.

It was almost thirty years ago. He had recently graduated with top honors and an MBA from Fordham University, was enrolled in a training program at a large firm, and his latest project had him living in beautiful Tampa, Florida.

Then, one morning, he started his car, ran a hose from the exhaust, and slowly went to sleep forever. The police tracked down who he was and called my family in New York later than night.

I almost never tell this story. But at work I heard about a campaign called #IWILLLISTEN sponsored by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It made me understand that talking about it could help others.

My brother, me, and my sister

My brother, me, and my sister

 

Why did he do it?

“He had so much going for him,” everyone would say. “Why would he do such a thing?” The truth was I didn’t know why he did it. How can you really understand what would drive someone to take their own life? Over time, though, I developed a pat answer that would keep the conversation short. “He was always angry,” I would say. “He just had trouble being happy.” As if those answers could sum up a life.

It’s true he seemed like an unhappy child. I remember his temper and being afraid of his outbursts. But he was also funny, smart, handsome, and athletic. He was the kid who built the only igloo in our Bronx neighborhood, complete with a light and comfortably fitting 6 of us. He was the kid who flooded our backyard to turn it into an ice skating rink. The kid who used a blanket as a sail and had us whooshing across Pelham Bay when it froze over until the police came and told us to get the hell back on shore.

As the younger brother, I strove to get even the slightest praise from him. He was a profound influence on me and had so much potential.

“What a waste,” we all said.

A silent killer

Growing up, we thought of mental illness almost like an infectious disease. You stayed away from people who might have it. Worse than any flu, you were ashamed to be linked to it in any way. So we didn’t talk about it or talk about people who might be suffering from it.

There were whispers that one of my aunts or uncles might have suffered from depression. Perhaps my mother struggled with it. I don’t know. I just know my brother was suffering inside and found it easier to snuff out his life than to talk about his struggles or ask for help.

What can you do?

This was a difficult post to write. Just typing the words, almost 30 years after the event, makes me emotional and makes it clear I still haven’t fully processed what happened. But this post isn’t about me or about my brother. It’s about what all of us can do to help others who are suffering silently.

Silence about mental illness is an epidemic, as described in this NY Times article about the “I will listen” campaign:

”Only 61 percent of Americans think it appropriate to tell family members about a mental illness diagnosis…Just 43 percent approve of telling friends about a diagnosis, and just 13 percent of telling co-workers.”

That silence can kill. So please go to iwilllisten.org and learn more more about how to have a conversation about mental illness. Each time you talk openly about it, you can lessen the shame someone may feel. Each time, you can make it easier for someone to share their suffering or ask for help.

Please let your friends and family know: “I will listen.”

What happened to my brain after 30 days without alcohol

WineI used to think of small sacrifices as trivial or worse. After all, what could possibly be the point of giving up chocolate or wine or Facebook for some period of time?

Then I met someone who introduced me to Stoic philosophy, and I tried giving up alcohol for 30 days. That experiment turned out to be more meaningful than I could have imagined.

Stoics

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, I learned that Stoics weren’t the emotionless, dry philosophers I had imagined. For example, Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest  emperors of Rome, was a Stoic. I learned they also shared quite a bit of philosophy with Buddhists. They embraced the impermanence of life and sought to be mindful and grateful for what life had to offer. Part of this was practicing self-denial.

“What Stoics discover[ed] is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. They will, as a result, be thoroughly in control of themselves. This self-control makes it far more likely that they will attain the goals of their philosophy of life, and that in turn dramatically increases their chances of living a good life.”

What didn’t happen in 30 days

When I mentioned to someone that I wasn’t drinking, the typical reaction was one of surprise. “Why not? Are you sick?” After I meekly explained the experiment I was trying, they’d ask “Do you feel any different?”

My answer was usually a simple “No.” I didn’t lose weight or lose my desire for a nice glass of red wine. Perhaps I ate more dessert.

The reason I tried this experiment with alcohol was that my drinking had become unthinking. I didn’t feel it was excessive. Perhaps a glass or two of wine 4-5 times a week, sometimes more. But it was a habit, and I was uncomfortable with that.

Perhaps I could change it.

The things that changed

30 days without alcoholDuring this time I was also reading The Brain That Changes Itself, a review of the science of neuroplasticity – how our brains are capable of being rewired in ways we thought were impossible just a few decades ago.

By giving up alcohol for 30 days, I was actively rewiring my relationship with alcohol. I was more mindful about drinking. More precisely, I became aware of the environmental cues that made me drink and so I was more conscious – literally, by engaging my prefrontal cortex – of when and why I wanted a drink.

Also, when I had a glass of wine on the 31st day, I was more grateful for the smell, taste, and after-effects of a glass of wine.

The wisdom of the Stoics can now be found in more modern scientific works like The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control and The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Work, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

It isn’t the particular sacrifice that’s important. It’s the act of exercising your willpower. I’m looking forward to my next 30-day experiment.

The road rage chronicles

I’m embarrassed to tell these stories, but I’m sharing them for two reasons.

One is that I’m conscious of the social media effect, a tendency to share an idealized version of one’s self. I’m sure I’m guilty of it, and I would rather be honest and ashamed than inauthentic and admired.

The other reason is to show how changing habits is possible even when they’ve been deeply-rutted over several decades.

Route I-95N

1988: Route I-95N 

After college, I was living in the Bronx and would commute each day to Bell Labs in Middletown, NJ, 55 miles each way. Coming home, I would fight traffic on the NJ Turnpike, then at the bridge, then on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

I remember times when I would scream at the top of my lungs in frustration. Though I had chosen where I worked and where I lived, and though I knew there was always going to be traffic on that route, I could not accept it.

1990s: It’s other people’s fault

Over the ensuing years, it wasn’t just traffic that bothered me, but other people. How dare they try to cut into my lane! I would tailgate the person in front of me to block them. Oh, the slow drivers! I would flash my brights to punish them.

Once, as I was double-parked, a person honked. There was plenty of room to get by! I muttered something I thought was under my breath until the gentleman got out of his car, kicked my door, and threatened to kill me.

2004: Late on the Upper East Side

Circling in upper Manhattan, looking for a space, I’m late for an appointment. I can’t be late. Yes, I should have left earlier, but I can’t be late. I continue circling and miss a spot, and I hit the steering wheel so hard the horn goes off and won’t stop. Now I’m driving on Park Avenue with a blaring horn, humiliated as well as late.

I realized I couldn’t keep acting this way. Something had to change.

2015: The Henry Hudson Parkway

Now, I regularly drive on the Henry Hudson Parkway and still face traffic and bad drivers. But much of my bad behavior is gone. The impulses are still there, but over ten years I’ve gradually managed to react to those same triggers in a different way.

Traffic? I always have TED talks with me and a delay means more learning and entertainment. A rude driver? I imagine they may be rushing to the hospital, or have a frustrating life, and my anger evaporates.

Over time, small changes to my driving environment and to my responses (“If this happens next time, I will do this…”) have added up to me being calmer and safer.

I’m no saint. If the kids are screaming or playing loudly or doing what kids do, I still struggle sometimes not to floor it and scare the hell out of them. But small changes, practiced constantly over time, have made a big difference.

 

How an undisciplined person was able to blog for 200 weeks in a row

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

That undisciplined person is me.

I’m someone whose list of things to do is scrawled on scraps of paper. I put off things I don’t enjoy doing, like taxes and even the smallest of administrative tasks. Occasionally <ahem> I’ll eat and drink too much.

Despite my lack of discipline in some areas, though, I’ve managed to write a blog post every week for 200 weeks. By sharing how I did it, maybe I can help others who want to write more too.

The beginning

It was about six years ago when I first started writing. Looking for some kind of creative outlet as I was changing roles at work, I began using a low-tech blogging platform that was available inside the company, and the early posts were therapeutic. I wrote about things I was interested in, and with each post I felt like I was developing a useful skill.

I wrote only half a dozen times that year, but one post about trying to use Gmail at work attracted over a thousand comments. I was amazed at how a simple essay on a social platform could make it possible to connect people and build a movement. Something clicked. I saw that by making my ideas and work visible, I could shape my reputation and get access to opportunities I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

I started to take writing more seriously. My friend Eric, an author and journalist, helped me by editing my work and offering support. I gradually started writing more, enjoying the feedback, and after 18 months or so I was posting something every week inside my firm.

The struggle

Writing did not come naturally. I would procrastinate. I would stare at a blank screen not knowing what to write. I would hate my early attempts at a post as I kept failing to make a concise point.

I was mindful too that I was often spoiling Saturday mornings with my brooding over a laptop, testing my wife’s patience. And for what?

I thought of stopping, but I remember reading Seth Godin’s daily blogs at the time, and they provided me with much-needed encouragement. Here’s one of them:

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe? …

If you think there’s a chance you can make a dent, GO. Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

And another:

“Are you making a dent in the universe?

Hint: lots of random pokes in many different spots are unlikely to leave much of an impact. And hiding out is surely not going to work at all.”

I always thought I could make a dent, but I was increasingly aware that time was running out. I became more purposeful. At a low point in my career, I saw what it was like not to have many options, and I saw writing as a way to take some control over my learning and access to possibilities. I refused to give up.

In June 2011, after writing for a few years at work, I was going to give a talk at a conference and I wanted people there to be able to find my work online. So I bought a domain name, picked a WordPress theme, and anguished over my first public post.

I think only 16 people read it, and despite all that writing at work, I still hadn’t found my voice – what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. But that is now 200 weeks ago. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I became. Over time, a gradually growing audience would tell me how they came to expect my posts every Saturday morning. Not wanting to let them down motivated me to ship each week.

Making it a habit

As the weeks went on, I gradually got smarter. I kept a list of topics so I wouldn’t ever panic in front of a blank screen. I started drafting posts earlier in the week so my subconscious could work on the post for a few days. And I stuck to a schedule. Everything I had read about authors I admired said they treated writing like a job. You sit down and write, and you meet your deadline no matter what.

After perhaps 100 public posts the writing started to get easier or, more precisely, I didn’t worry about it as much. The regimen relieved me of much of the stress. The difficulty of writing a good first draft is now familiar and my anxiety quickly turns into recognition. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, “it’s just part of the process.” I also know that each post is another small step towards getting better.

While I still don’t recognize myself as a disciplined person, I have become a disciplined writer, posting twice a week now and having just finished a book. Writing is now something I enjoy doing, and I can see applying that process, that discipline, to other parts of my life.

I’m looking forward to it.