Confessions of a not-so-busy person

I used to be busy. I also disliked what I did and accomplished less than I could have. Then some things changed.

I made three adjustments that made me happier and much more productive. Nothing as radical as a 4-Hour Workweek or Escape from Cubicle Nation. After all, I still have a job and I’m still at the same firm. My adjustments are about choices and small steps that may help you too.

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Cognitive surplus

When I was busy, I remember thinking that I didn’t have any time. Yet I managed to watch 10-20 hours of television each week, usually sports. Other hobbies, like golf or gardening, could take up another 5 hours a week. And my daily commute took up another 12 or so.

I’ve since made different choices. Living in the city has shortened my commute to a 20-minute walk. Cutting cable reduced television altogether and I now have other hobbies I’m passionate about.

I’m not suggesting those choices are inherently good, or even possible, for everyone. It’s just remarkable to me that I had a cognitive surplus and didn’t know it. Even without any changes to my job, I’ve found 20-30 hours a week to sleep better, eat better, exercise, and participate in things I enjoy more.

Saying yes and saying no

When I was busy, I would fill my calendar with meetings and obsessively look at my Blackberry. I would travel a lot. It felt like work and consumed all of my time at the office and often at home.

But was it necessary? Some professions (ER doctors, for example) have no choice but to react to things as they come in. But I was a manager in a large IT department. There was no blood, no life and death. What was I doing?

In retrospect, I was avoiding the real work: learning, improving, innovating, creating. It was easier to be busy than to confront all that I didn’t know. It was less scary to react to things, to go from appointment to appointment and “manage,” than to focus for a prolonged time on trying to make a difference and to care so much about the outcome.

Over time, I learned to craft my job, to shape it so it was more fulfilling and effective. That included saying no where I could, putting less emotional energy into meaningless but required tasks, and carving out blocks of time to attempt work that mattered.

Working out loud

The most important change I made was to change my job entirely. Working out loud made it possible to shape my reputation and build a network that led to new opportunities in the same firm.

Because of the other adjustments I made, I had time to learn and experiment. By making that work visible and framing it as a contribution that might help others (as opposed to promoting myself), I was able to find and connect with other people interested in what I was doing. Over time, that work became more valuable and I was in a role that never existed before.

That pattern continues and there’s largely no longer a boundary between what I do for work and what I do for fulfillment. By one measure, I don’t have a long workday at all. By another measure, I’m constantly working – researching, writing, engaging people, and building something that matters.

On Monday, I’ll speak to 350 people at my firm about something no one asked me to work on. They’ll each be holding a book no one asked me to write. On Friday, that book became available around the world. It’s work that’s good for me and good for the firm.

Working Out Loud on amazon.co.jp

Am I lucky? Absolutely. And by working out loud, I tilted the odds in my favor.

What about you?

I wrote this post because in the Q&A after one of my presentations, someone remarked on how busy I must be. She meant it as a compliment and yet I was worried it was a barrier for her. “I could never do what you do.”

I wanted to let her know I’m not busy. Though her own job, story, ambitions, and trade-offs will all be different from mine, I wanted to let her know that she has more choices and more control than she might have assumed. I wanted her to think about the possibilities. I wanted her to take a step toward making her own luck too.

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.

What you learn when you spend 17 years in the same company

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.35.57 AMLinkedIn recently reminded me that I’ve been working at the same big firm for 17 years.

“Say happy work anniversary!” they said.

So I liked my own announcement, as did 76 other people. Their comments made me reflect on what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and why I’m still working in the same place.

“Congrats! WOW has it really been that long?”

Most of the comments were a simple “Congratulations” and many expressed mild shock at how time flies, or how I survived for so long, or both.

My favorite was this one: “17 years and mostly glorious. Well done!”

Mostly glorious. I remember when I joined in 1998 and it felt like we were building a business. In those early years, I spent months in London in a small apartment in South Kensington, working with smart people and intimidating traders to implement new technology. Then we were off to Frankfurt to do it there. It was thrilling. Against most predictions (including my own), our business thrived. We all did.

I also remember laying people off and barely escaping that process myself. I remember fear and stress. I remember a string of bosses and the worst performance review I ever had.

17 years in a large organization means I’ve seen the best and the worst of people, of teams, and of the firm overall. It means I’ve failed many times, and learned about the vicissitudes of business and life. Much of what I see now at work is comprised of movies I have seen before.

“All the best for the next 17”

Working in a big organization, I’m increasingly conscious that my work there is not obviously ennobling. I’m not saving lives or saving the planet.

What keeps me working there are 3 Cs: craft, connections, and compensation. Large organizations provide unique opportunities for developing valuable skills, to do so with people around the world inside and outside the firm, and to get paid regularly while you’re learning and connecting.

The organization is a platform, one that I get value from while I deliver value of a different kind to the firm and the people in it. Late in my career, I’ve learned to spend much more time on my craft and my connections and less time focusing on the yearly bonus that’s largely out of my control.

The biggest surprise

The biggest surprise to me is that the recent years have been my best by far. Not the best-paid or best-titled but the most important and the most helpful to people. We’ve changed the culture, given people a voice, and enabled them to take greater control of their career and life.

Although almost all of the people I worked with when I started are long gone, and the people and management I work with now have no idea of my contributions in the past, it’s fine. There’s a more important legacy I’d like to leave.

As Maya Angelou has said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

One woman who left the firm said congratulated me “for making people’s work lives sunnier.” I liked that. Increasingly, I’m learning to mark my success by the number of people who say “Thank you for making this a better place.” That kind of feedback makes my work fulfilling and inspires me to do and be more.

Maybe working in a big company can be ennobling after all.

A shift in possibilities

This blog, and my life, are about to change.

Six years ago, I was told I had to look for a different job. While dealing with the uncertainty of finding a new role, I started writing at work. It began as therapy at the time but it eventually led to a new career, and it taught me the power of making my work visible.

Three years ago, I started writing this blog. That led to a network of thousands of people, a focus on helping others, a book, and more meaning and fulfillment in my work and life. It taught me the power of relationships.

Last week, workingoutloud.com launched amidst working out loud week, and there was a swell of interest and ideas and interaction. In India, for example, peer support groups (working out loud circles) formed during the week, adding to the ones in the US, UK, Spain, and Australia. I applied to deliver a TEDx talk.

Now what? I’m not sure.

Not all those who wander are lost

I do know that, starting this week, I’ll post articles related to working out loud on the new website. If you subscribe to workingoutloud.com, you’ll get an email every Wednesday morning with stories, techniques, and other resources related to building a better career and life.

That will change this blog. I’ll still write every Saturday morning because it’s too big a part of my life to stop. Having the new site frees me up to write about other things here, to explore, discover, and learn. The topics will be more personal and creative.

Your reading, supporting, and connecting has changed my life and helped me discover a purpose I now describe this way:

“To help people find meaning and fulfillment in their work and life.”

Thank you. That’s a purpose I could never have dreamed of until recently. The last six years have taught me that destiny isn’t something that awaits you, it’s something you create with the help and support of others.

Anyone can shift what’s possible for them. What about you?

What relationships will you build? 

What purpose will you discover? 

What destiny will you create?

How a teacher increases her odds of finding meaning and fulfillment

B02283607Alycia is a 3rd-grade teacher in New York City who increased her chances of finding meaning and fulfillment because of the way she works.

Here’s how she does it, and why it matters to all of us.

Is your job meaningful and fulfilling?

Maybe you view teaching as a noble calling that anyone might find fulfilling. Or perhaps you see it as a difficult, underpaid, and under-appreciated job.

Research shows that people in a wide range of work – from highly-skilled to highly-prescribed jobs – are evenly split in viewing what they do as a job, a career, or a calling. Simply put, the way people relate to their work can’t “be reduced to demographic or occupational differences.” Thus, it must be something else that makes us view similar roles so differently.

So what’s the something else? It’s whether a person is intrinsically motivated to do the work. All the research on why we do what we do seems to point to the same basic truths, summarized succinctly here in this quote from Dan 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.

Your drive – your motivation to do something and how you feel about doing it – is based on whether or not you’re meeting these needs. Alycia works in such a way that she’s more likely to tap into her intrinsic motivators.

How Alycia works differently 

Alycia works out loud. She works in an open, generous, connected way that’s helpful to others and herself.

Part of that is framing what she does as a contribution. Then she makes some of those contributions visible online using a website in her name as a resource for her students and their parents. She also writes for Scholastic, a leading publisher of children’s books along with ten other elementary school teachers. Here are the kinds of contribution she makes.

  1. Research: resources for teachers and parents.
  2. Ideas: suggestions for teaching time, poetry, and a wide range of topics.
  3. Projects: dozens of examples of work she does in the classroom.
  4. Process: how she helps kids prep for standard tests.
  5. Motivations: why she became a teacher and her values.
  6. Challenges: packing up at the end of the year.
  7. Learning: new books and techniques she discovered.
  8. Work of others she admires: projects and ideas from other teachers.
  9. Connections: people and resources she relies on.
  10. Contributions from others: 3rd-graders blogged about their class pet.

Alycia has written over 90 posts for Scholastic, each one complete with photos of actual work in the classroom. These aren’t professional NY Times articles and shouldn’t be compared to them. Alycia’s posts are something  else entirely – personal, helpful and, as a result, lovely in a way that professional articles rarely are. The work on her own site goes back five years, evolving as she tries new things.

What Alycia gets

The main benefit to Alycia isn’t popularity. She isn’t putting in this effort simply to chase views. Instead, with each contribution, she’s learning. Every time she writes about a project or an idea, she thinks deeply about it and gets feedback from others.

In addition to that investment in her craft, she’s deepening relationships with people already in her network and, over time, creating a portfolio of contributions she can reuse over and over again, unlocking other possible connections. When Alycia writes up a project her class, she can send that to other teachers, administrators, parents, and other people she wants in her network. Each time she writes, she has more to offer while making it more likely that other people will discover her work.

Through framing her work as a contribution and making it visible, Alycia has increased her learning, her network, and her access to other opportunities, all in ways she controls. She’s improved how she relates to her current job while increasing her access to other jobs too.

The benefits to you

You don’t need to be a teacher to enjoy these benefits. The research about jobs, careers, and callings showed that nurses, short-order cooks, software engineers, and people in a wide range of other professions can all craft their jobs and tap into their drive.

It’s because intrinsic motivators apply not to certain jobs but to all human beings. We’re wired to learn, to seek control over our environment and life, to be connected.

How would you frame what you do as a contribution? How would you increase your own chances of finding meaning and fulfillment?