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 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 john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. 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 most difficult push-up ever

The most difficult push-up isn’t doing it one-handed or with weights on your back or anything like that.

For me, at least, the most difficult push-up is the first one. And understanding that first push-up is teaching me an important lesson about developing and maintaining a habit.

Let me explain.


I always thought doing push-ups was a great exercise conceptually. They don’t take much time, and they can help you look and feel a bit better. Once in a great while, in a phase of exercise exuberance (“This time. I’m going to get really fit!”), I would do a few. But I never kept it up.

So after working on a wide range of other habits from eating to writing to learning piano, I figured I would attempt doing push-ups again. I even put them on my progress chart. (That’s where I track all sorts of behaviors – things I want to do more or less of – so I’m more mindful of them.)

But push-ups? I went over 100 days without a single one. Every day I would look at that progress chart and stare at a row of blank space, day after day, week after week, month after month. Every day I would think, “I really should do push-ups.”

So what was the problem? I discovered the answer when I came across this Life Pro Tip on reddit.com:


The advice is a variation of what I tell other people all the time: “Shrink the change.” (I even use an exercise metaphor – “touch the treadmill.”) I just needed to take my own advice.

The idea is that, when you’re facing resistance related to a particular goal, you shrink that goal until you take the fear out of it and actually do it. Then let the power of the progress principle start to work for you.

When I used to think of push-ups, I would conjure up all sorts of negative thoughts: the discomfort of the last and most difficult one, perhaps, or how I wasn’t in as good a physical condition as I would like.

The Life Pro Tip helped me shrink the change and bypass those thoughts. “Just 15! I could do that!”

The next day, I picked a specific time (right before shaving) and, without thinking too much about it, I got on the floor and did something I hadn’t been able to do for many months. That first day, I was able to do 20 push-ups. I was pleasantly surprised, and I took great pleasure in ticking the box on my progress chart.

Yesterday, I did 43 push-ups. But I still think of 15 as my goal. Because the first one is still the hardest for me. If and when the habit becomes more deeply-ingrained, I won’t have to think about it so much, and I may set a different target.

What about you? What goal have you been resisting? How could you shrink the change so you could “do your first push-up” and start making progress towards something you care about?

“The homeless problem”

I live in New York City, and “the homeless problem” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in my life. When I was growing up, you could pass the homeless practically anywhere throughout your day. As the city experienced a kind of renaissance, it seemed they almost disappeared. Now it’s a problem again.

When you think about “the homeless problem,” what comes to mind?

A short experiment

Here’s a thought exercise to make it a bit more real. Imagine you’re walking in a beautiful park in your neighborhood early one morning. The sun is out. The grass is bright green and freshly cut. There are neatly landscaped areas full of flowers. You’re happy just to be walking in such a nice place.

Then you notice someone sleeping on the lawn. You’ve seen that person before, in the same brown sweatshirt and pants. You notice another person you’ve seen before too, laying their head on overstuffed bags. You realize they’re homeless, and they’ve slept overnight in the park.

What are you feeling? What are your next thoughts?


My walk in the park

This is more than a mental exercise for me. It’s something I do almost every morning as I take a walk around Battery Park City.

My own, almost instinctive reaction is irritation, as if their presence and unfortunate circumstances are ruining my view. (“They shouldn’t be here. They should be in a shelter or something.”) Though the park is public, these particular people are somehow infringing on my space.

Other feelings include disgust (“She wears those same clothes every day!”) and powerlessness (“I wish there was a better system.”) and even shame (“I’ve never done anything to help.”)

Every day that I walk by the park and feel those feelings, I am disappointed in myself.

When the homeless problem comes up in conversation with friends, the most common reaction is to blame our mayor. Certainly, we see more homeless people on the streets than we did under the previous mayor. One of us may say something about how “the shelters should be better.” But the truth is I have no idea about the state of the shelters. Nor do I know about this mayor’s policies or how they might affect those who are homeless.

In fact, it usually doesn’t feel like we’re talking about people at all. It’s more like the sanitation department’s budget has been cut and we’re upset the streets aren’t as clean as they used to be. We’re looking for someone to blame.

A starting point

Recently, I read something that might help me change my habits and give me a way out of my daily discomfort and disappointment.

In Taking the Leap, Pema Chödrön writes about how our desire to avoid certain feelings can lead us to shut down, and how in shielding ourselves we lose the chance to be open to new possibilities, to grow. One of the examples she used was particularly familiar.

“There are panhandlers that we rush by because their predicament makes us uncomfortable…

Our usual process is…an internal conversation about how another person is the source of our discomfort…all because we don’t want to go near the unpleasantness of what we’re feeling. This is a very ancient habit. It’s allows our natural warmth to be so obscured that people like you and me who have the capacity for empathy and understanding that we can harm each other. When we hate those who activate our fears or insecurities, those who bring up unwanted feelings, and see them as the sole cause of our discomfort, then we dehumanize them, belittle them, and abuse them.”

That’s how a person I’m walking by isn’t a person, but a problem.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty, she writes that a place to start is to practice developing compassion. Not to feel sorry for someone, but simply at first to pause. To recognize their suffering. To let yourself feel what you’re feeling and be open to what they might be feeling. To acknowledge just how easily your positions might have been reversed. Compassion is “a relationship between equals…Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

You start by being mindful of your almost instinctive urge to shut down.

“Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing, allow a gap, and leave room for change to happen…It can become daily practice to humanize the people that we pass on the street.”

I don’t know what I can do to solve “the problem” or to make a difference. But I know I can change my thinking, that I can relate to these people as people. Maybe that’s what makes the next step possible. Maybe that changes everything.