Connecting the dots in your life

Imagine you discover the perfect job description, one that seems written just for you. What would it look like?

Mine might read something like this:

Looking for someone who wants to make work better for individuals, companies, and organizations seeking to make a difference. Must have experience with social networks and behavior change, and must have written a book about these topics. Should enjoy public speaking and interacting with people around the world. Buddhist tendencies a plus.

I’m pretty sure such a job description doesn’t exist. But such a job might.

Evidence I might be right

I was thinking about this in Houston last week. I had just delivered a presentation about making work better for individuals and the firm. During Q&A, there were questions about social networks and about ways to change behavior. A few people holding copies of Working Out Loud asked me to sign them.

Then someone came up to me and asked “Are you a Buddhist?” I was a bit taken aback, and somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t deserve the label. “An aspiring one,” I said, and asked why he thought so. He said, “some of the things in your introduction made me think you might be.”

That’s when it struck me that the different interests in my life could, however improbably, connect to form a coherent career.

Connecting the dots

Discovering your purpose

I had written about this idea before in a post titled “Discovering your purpose”:

A few decades ago, perhaps, we could take a personality test, list our talents, and find a suitable career. Not any more. Today, the world of work has splintered into a infinite set of ever-changing possibilities. So we have to learn to explore and discover our purpose.

Because it’s easier than ever to make things – from blogs to businesses – and to connect with people interested in those things, we’re no longer limited to a small set of job descriptions neatly carved up by Human Resources. Even if you have a traditional job, you can craft it to be more meaningful and tap into more of your interests. All of this makes it more likely you can connect the dots in your life.

My own learning is to avoid relying on luck or, worse, a boss to make those connections. Instead, I’ve found that a better path to discovering your purpose is building relationships and remaining open. That’s what brings you into contact with new possibilities, and lets you see opportunities you may not have even imagined before.

If you want to discover something wonderful, try this

Photo credit: Chris Chan/Creative Commons

When people want something more from work or life, I advocate purposeful discovery instead of the more traditional advice like listing your strengths or following your dream.

Purposeful discovery is a kind of goal-oriented exploration, and it’s one of the 5 elements of working out loud. This week – in Stuttgart, Germany of all places – I found out just where that kind of exploration can lead you.

What is purposeful discovery?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport wrote that “‘Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.” He’s right, and I used his quote in a chapter of Working Out Loud. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter:

One of the major problems with identifying your true calling is that you’re aware of only a tiny fraction of the possibilities, and picking solely from what you already know is grossly limiting…

Fortunately, I found a much better way to guide your decision making that will lead you to more rewarding possibilities. That better way is purposeful discovery, a form of goal-oriented exploration. You start by choosing a goal you care about and then using the different elements of working out loud to build a network of relationships, get feedback, and learn about ways to improve and about other possibilities. The goal orients your activities, and as you get feedback and learn, you adapt your goal accordingly”

Pebbles in a pond

Each contribution you make to your network is like a pebble in a pond, spreading ripples that put you in contact with people and possibilities you may not have known about before.

This post is my 282nd. (229 at and 53 at All that writing and thinking every week enabled me to write a book, which might seem like a logical next step. Getting invited to speak about the book at a conference in Stuttgart this week might also seem like a reasonable consequence.

John Stepper - Author

But each post was also a pebble in a pond. More than three years ago, a woman who works at the largest private company in the world read one of my early posts on working out loud. It was interesting enough that, unbeknownst to me, she kept following my work.

Late last year, when I was on a video call with a group of people in Germany who were interested in learn more about Working Out Loud, she was on that call. We started exchanging emails and ideas, and she started spreading WOL circles – small peer support groups in which you build a network toward an individual goal you care about in 12 weeks.

When I mentioned I would be in Stuttgart in early November, she told me she was based there. An interesting coincidence! We planned a visit to her company where I could learn more about their work in the morning, speak to hundreds of people around the world after lunch about Working Out Loud, and talk about leadership with over a hundred managers in the late afternoon. “That woman in Stuttgart” has become a trusted friend and collaborator, and I’m excited about working with her smart, capable, generous colleagues.

Possibilities + wonders

More pebble and more ripples. Those sessions led to more possibilities the very next day, as my new friend told other companies at the conference about the events and about my work. Companies as different as a manufacturer in Germany, a dairy in Norway, and a satellite company in Luxembourg asked if I could help them.

Sometimes the ripples lead to more connections and more opportunities. Sometimes they lead to beautiful human moments.

For example, at one of the events a woman presented me with custom art they had made based on my work. People in different parts of the world collaborated on it and she framed it for me as a gift. I was speechless.


At a separate event, a person who sat in the front row for two of my talks came up to me afterwards. He had read some of my personal blogs and said, “I know you’re starting to practice meditation and wanted to give you my favorite book on the topic.” He inscribed it “Thank you for coming to my company.”

Even a short bus ride to the conference could be a special moment. During the trip, I happened to sit next to someone from London whose work I’ve long admired. We talked openly about what was working well in our careers and what was missing. Within an hour, we met with my friend from Stuttgart and hatched a plan to work together on something I had long wanted to do but didn’t know how to make progress on.

All from a blog post three years earlier.

When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back. It doesn’t require a grand plan, and it’s more than hoping for serendipity. It’s purposeful discovery. You offer contributions – your work, your attention, your vulnerability – to deepen relationships and they bring you into contact with possibilities, joy, and fulfillment you may never have anticipated or imagined.

Photo credit: Chris Chan/Creative Commons

Photo credit: Chris Chan/Creative Commons

Lessons from self-publishing a book

John Stepper_Cover

There’s something special about holding a physical book in your hands. The feeling is even more special when it’s your book. It gives the ideas more weight somehow (no pun intended, honest). The contents weren’t just written, they were published.

Well, now it’s easier than ever for you to publish your own work, whether it’s the next great novel or just stories from your life for your kids to read.

Earlier this year, I self-published Working Out Loud. By sharing what I learned in the process, I hope to encourage you to publish too.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

The trade-offs

The benefits of using a traditional publisher are that you get more services: editing, design, marketing. But those things come with a cost. Because the publisher is providing those services, you tend to have little or no control over them. They’ll cost you in terms of reduced royalties too. (Though it’s the rare author who makes money from publishing a book no matter how they do it.)

Also, the value of their services, particularly marketing, has decreased over time. Because publishing margins have gone down, and because the expectations for most authors are low, a publisher won’t spend much on marketing your book beyond offering it in their catalog to wholesalers. As for the other services, it’s easier than ever to find good copyeditors and designers.

Perhaps the biggest cost is a mental one: you have to be picked. You’ll spend time and emotional energy searching for validation which will be hard to come by, and the vast majority of aspiring authors will never get past the gatekeepers.

Resources to help you self-publish

The best book I’ve found on self-publishing was self-published by a popular and acclaimed author, Guy Kawasaki. Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur is the single best reference guide on the process and the different options. Reading this book can save you a lot of time and help you avoid some grave mistakes.

Author Publisher Entrepreneur

Your First 1000 Copies will help you think about reaching an audience for your book. Without the traditional marketing and distribution channels of a publisher, you’ll need to do something yourself. This book helps you understand what that is and how to do it.

Your First 1000 Copies

Pleasant and unpleasant surprises

While self-publishing necessarily means you’ll be doing work that a publisher would have done otherwise, some context might be helpful. In terms of hours spent, my rough estimate is that 98% of publishing my book was writing and 2% was publishing. So while publishing is important, those percentages make it clear where you should focus most of your time and energy.

I chose Createspace because it’s owned by Amazon and provides a complete set of services. The editing service was excellent, and they easily customized the cover design I had done elsewhere. They created the Kindle version automatically without any work on my part.

My biggest mistake was related to the interior design of the book. I naively assumed I would just submit a Word document and they would “format it.” But the first proof copy came back with issues ranging from header sizing to spacing to capitalization mistakes. It took me three more months of scrupulously checking every line – and ordering more proof copies and paying more fees – till it looked the way I wanted. I could have avoided that by setting up headers more carefully in Word and providing more detailed instructions for formatting from the beginning.

Createspace has some limitations. They don’t print hardcovers, so if you want one you’ll have to use another service (and distribute it yourself). They also don’t offer the same discounts to bookstores as other publishers (20% instead of 40-50%). If you want a bookstore to carry your book, you’ll have to sell it to them yourself.

All things considered, I will use Createspace again for my next book. (Note the self-affirmation in that last sentence!) The Createspace staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and the entire process cost well under $2,500. On June 10th, after years of working on it, my book was available on Amazon sites around the world as a paperback and ebook.

I remember the thrill of opening up the Amazon app on my phone, searching for “working out loud,” and seeing my book there. Just like all the others.

Choose yourself

Each of us has our own story and our own ideas. Now, more than ever, it’s up to you to decide whether they are worth sharing, whether what you say might help or entertain or inspire someone else.

You don’t have to wait to be picked. You can choose yourself.

The world needs more good stories and good ideas. Why not yours?

Arbitrary power

Arbitrary power at work

Around the year 1721, Ben Franklin was indentured to his older brother in a printing business. Though Franklin was to be a printer himself later in life, he hated working for his brother who often beat him and gave him only tedious work. A footnote in his autobiography caught my attention:

“I fancy his harsh & tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro’ my whole life.”

“Arbitrary power,” I thought. That’s what’s been motivating me too.


I also had an older brother with a volatile temper, and as I was growing up in the Bronx, I noticed that the people with power were the ones who were violent or threatened violence. They were uneducated bullies, and I hated that they were the ones in control of things.


I was in the 8th grade when I saw that bullies come in other forms too. I still remember my math teacher from that year. She was, to my 13-year-old self, the meanest person I had ever met. The kind of person who wore a permanent scowl and was contemptuous of the people in her charge.

One day, for example, when a lovely hearing-impaired student didn’t respond quickly enough, the teacher yelled: “Is your hearing aid on?!”  She made it clear she was in control and could humiliate any of us.

Once it was my turn. Thinking she had caught me talking and not paying attention, she berated me in front of the class, made me stand up, and asked me the answer to a question. I usually backed down in the face of such aggression, but I managed to give the correct response, much to her chagrin.

I was shaken, and remember crying in the hallway until another, kinder teacher came by to console me.

“Why,” I thought, “is this woman teaching?”


Since then, I’ve seen arbitrary power in the form of bosses at work across the many different jobs I’ve had. Most were administrators more than managers or leaders. Some simply didn’t know what to do or know how to relate to people. A few were downright mean-spirited and dysfunctional.

In these cases, too, I bitterly asked myself, “Why are these people in a position of authority over me?”

Arbitrary power at work

“More power to you”

Over time, though, I’ve learned that the universe isn’t fair, at least not in the short-term. There will continue to be bullies, mean teachers, and bad bosses. I’ve also learned that, now knowing each of their individual stories, I needn’t judge them. My anger and resentment wasn’t helping anyone, certainly not me.

What you can do instead is take some control for yourself both by controlling your reactions and by expanding your network. It’s a big world, with more smart, creative, wonderful people and more opportunities for you to make a difference than you could possibly know. You can discover those people, access those opportunities, and shape your life.

As I write this I’m reminded of a phrase my mother would use if you did something good through your own effort: “More power to you.”

I didn’t think about it then, but now I understand that you can interpret that literally. Instead of being a victim of arbitrary power, you can take control yourself. For each of the bullies and bad bosses in your life, you can channel that negative energy into deepening relationships with people who make life better somehow.

When you do that, “more power to you.”

When work doesn’t feel like work

For years, I’ve heard platitudes about people who love what they do. How it doesn’t feel like work. How they would pay to do it.

“How annoying,” I would think to myself.

During most of my career, we used the expression “combat pay” to capture our feeling that we earned our money because we were so often stressed and unhappy. I figured a job wasn’t meant to be fun or enjoyable, and that’s why they paid you. That’s why they call it work. 

This week, though, I saw for myself how – and why – work could feel like something else entirely.

Whistling while I work

Channeling my inner Snow White

I was on a plane heading for holiday in Japan with plenty of options for passing the time: books, movies, sleep. But instead I worked on presenter notes for slides. Even more unusual is that the notes weren’t for me, but for people I’ve never met.

It took me several hours, and as I was working on it I felt happy.

A few days later, my wife and kids were visiting friends and I was on my own for the day. I could have taken a train and visited any of a number of spots in Japan that I love.

Instead, I worked in various Kobe cafes for 6 hours, updating peer support guides. This was harder than working on presenter notes as it involved more thought and creativity, as well as uncertainty about whether the outcome would be worth it. It wasn’t fun. Yet at the end of the day, after making good progress on the guides, I felt fulfilled. Later today, I’ll be on high-speed train and I’m looking forward to working on them again.

It’s remarkable even to me. Why am I happy to spend precious holiday time doing these things?

5 reasons 

Some of the reasons will be clear to anyone who has studied motivation or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

As I was working on the notes and the guides, I was tapping into these intrinsic motivators and more:

Autonomy: I was self-directed, without a boss, process, or system controlling me.

Mastery: I was actively researching and learning while trying to improve my work.

Purpose: I knew why I was doing my work – to help other people access a better career and life – and that higher purpose ennobles even mundane work.

Connectedness: Though I was working by myself, I was interacting before and afterwards with people around the world who were giving me feedback and expressing thanks.

Compassion: At first I labelled this generosity, but it feels like more than that. We may or not be wired for generosity beyond our inner social circle, but there’s plenty of evidence that compassion, or living with an other-centric viewpoint, is a key ingredient in the recipe for happiness and fulfillment.

The $$$ question

My sense is that anyone who has donated their time to a good cause can relate to my experience this week.

A question for me is how money would change things. More precisely, if there was an extrinsic motivator involved – Every WOL circle pays $10! The client is demanding it on Monday! – would it rob me of my feelings of fulfillment? Would it feel like work again?

It seems obvious that the answer is yes. But perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps you could give away most of the work and figure out ways to monetize a portion of it. Then you might be able to retain most of the feeling of joy and fulfillment, of flow, knowing that the paid portion makes all the rest possible.

What do you think? Have you seen people do this well? Are there role models to emulate?

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