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

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?

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?

photo (11)

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

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.