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.

 

The HR director I wish I knew

A colleague shared a blog post about “success at work” and I clicked on it, expecting the usual set of prescriptions proposed by people who want work to be better but can’t do much about it.

This post was different, though. It was written by the head of HR at the World Economic Forum.

Paolo Gallo

“I wish I had written that”

His name is Paolo Gallo, and he’s based in Geneva. In his post, he tried to reframe how we view success at work. He had an almost romantic view of what “corporate heroism” truly is, and I kept nodding to myself as I went through this section on how measuring success by corporate title is bad for the individual and the firm:

“1. If we only value those who have reached the top of the hierarchy, then by definition we’re writing off the other 99%. We create a cruel assembly line that produces myriad people who are frustrated and unhappy, who believe – often wrongly – that only those who arrived at the top truly triumphed.

2. By seeing our careers as a race, we enter a state of constant struggle: “us” against everyone else. Think, for example, about incentive systems: I have seen many and – mea culpa – designed some that are focused on individual performance results but never based on sharing, cooperation or a sense of purpose. I believe that stress is not linked solely to the amount of work we have, but rather on the poor quality of the relationships we develop with our colleagues. An organizational climate of “dog eats dog” downgrades our relationships, so they become only transactional, utilitarian, losing any trace of connection between people. This obsession with appearances over substance strips us of our humanity.

3. Ultimately, we all end up taking part in a rat race. We became so self-absorbed and busy trying to win this race that we forget that even by winning it, we will still remain rats. And vulnerable rats: the chronic economic crisis, corporate restructuring or simple events outside of our control can all oust us from our jobs. If corporate success is the only way you define your identity, then that identity will be destroyed with all the emotional and social consequences that result.”

Now what?

What do you do when you read something interesting?

I started by reading more of his work, including other articles he posted on the World Economic Forum website. There’s no way to follow him or provide feedback there, so I looked elsewhere.

First I searched for “Paolo Gallo” on Twitter and didn’t find him. Then I used Google to search for “Paolo Gallo World Economic Forum” and found he had cross-posted his articles to LinkedIn. I clicked the “Follow” button on LinkedIn so I would see his future posts (and he might also see I followed him).

One of his most recent posts included this sentence:

“We have to internalize the idea that “networking” does not work when we engage with people only when we “need” something from them: we need to be constant givers of our time, attention, respect and help.”

It inspired me to leave a comment, and to offer to send him a copy of Working Out Loud. Maybe he won’t reply. Or maybe we’ll wind up collaborating in some way. Regardless of the outcome, in just a few minutes I felt as though I opened a door of some kind, a gateway that might lead to new people and possibilities related to my work.

***

Update: A few hours after I wrote this, Paolo Gallo was kind enough to thank me for the comment and send me a personalized connection request on LinkedIn. 

Update #2: A few hours after my last update, he sent me a really nice note and we arranged to meet in NYC in late April. I’m really looking forward to it. 

Update #3: On April 22nd, I met Paolo at the World Economic Forum office in New York City. He was visiting from Geneva. We sat in a large conference room with an long, impressive-looking table. And what did we talk about? Our kids, and life, and ideas about how the way we all work could be different, more fulfilling.

I didn’t know this when I wrote this post, but the mission of the WEF includes this lovely line capturing something I also believe:

We believe that progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change.

 We walked out of the building together and before we parted he suggested we take a selfie together. Here we are, in midtown Manhattan, with rush-hour traffic as a backdrop. I hope we meet again.

Paolo Gallo and me

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 johnstepper.com and 53 at workingoutloud.com) 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 pebbles 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.

WOL Art

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

What will you do when they lay you off?

“I wasted 18 years of my life,” she said. The HR person had just contacted her, and my friend was clearly shaken. She felt all her years of effort should have added up to something more than a meeting in a conference room with people reading from a script.

This was a few years ago, and her reaction stuck with me. It made me think of what my own reaction would be.

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Photo credit: Dave Hill

Even the mere prospect of being laid off – or “RIF’d” referring to a reduction in force – brings up strong emotions: fear, shame, anger, denial. But what good does any of that do?

Most firms run like machines. They don’t want to lay people off. It’s wasteful and expensive. But they’ll do it to ensure the survival of the machine. It’s the epitome of what we mean when we say “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” For the person being laid off, though, it is intensely personal.

So think for a moment about what you would do when you get that call: “Can you step into the conference room for a minute?” Think of what will you say to your spouse, your friends, and to prosepctive employers. Think of what you will do that day and that week.

Will you only then start to reach out to contacts, or document what you’ve been working on, or update your LinkedIn profile? Will you regret not having invested in relationships that could have helped you now?

Put yourself in that moment and let yourself feel what it would feel like. Now, channel the disappointment and anxiety into constructive steps you can take to build your network, into a practice that will help you feel better and take control of your career.

What will you do when they lay you off?

Why don’t you do that today?