How an undisciplined person was able to blog for 200 weeks in a row

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

That undisciplined person is me.

I’m someone whose list of things to do is scrawled on scraps of paper. I put off things I don’t enjoy doing, like taxes and even the smallest of administrative tasks. Occasionally <ahem> I’ll eat and drink too much.

Despite my lack of discipline in some areas, though, I’ve managed to write a blog post every week for 200 weeks. By sharing how I did it, maybe I can help others who want to write more too.

The beginning

It was about six years ago when I first started writing. Looking for some kind of creative outlet as I was changing roles at work, I began using a low-tech blogging platform that was available inside the company, and the early posts were therapeutic. I wrote about things I was interested in, and with each post I felt like I was developing a useful skill.

I wrote only half a dozen times that year, but one post about trying to use Gmail at work attracted over a thousand comments. I was amazed at how a simple essay on a social platform could make it possible to connect people and build a movement. Something clicked. I saw that by making my ideas and work visible, I could shape my reputation and get access to opportunities I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

I started to take writing more seriously. My friend Eric, an author and journalist, helped me by editing my work and offering support. I gradually started writing more, enjoying the feedback, and after 18 months or so I was posting something every week inside my firm.

The struggle

Writing did not come naturally. I would procrastinate. I would stare at a blank screen not knowing what to write. I would hate my early attempts at a post as I kept failing to make a concise point.

I was mindful too that I was often spoiling Saturday mornings with my brooding over a laptop, testing my wife’s patience. And for what?

I thought of stopping, but I remember reading Seth Godin’s daily blogs at the time, and they provided me with much-needed encouragement. Here’s one of them:

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe? …

If you think there’s a chance you can make a dent, GO. Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

And another:

“Are you making a dent in the universe?

Hint: lots of random pokes in many different spots are unlikely to leave much of an impact. And hiding out is surely not going to work at all.”

I always thought I could make a dent, but I was increasingly aware that time was running out. I became more purposeful. At a low point in my career, I saw what it was like not to have many options, and I saw writing as a way to take some control over my learning and access to possibilities. I refused to give up.

In June 2011, after writing for a few years at work, I was going to give a talk at a conference and I wanted people there to be able to find my work online. So I bought a domain name, picked a WordPress theme, and anguished over my first public post.

I think only 16 people read it, and despite all that writing at work, I still hadn’t found my voice – what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. But that is now 200 weeks ago. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I became. Over time, a gradually growing audience would tell me how they came to expect my posts every Saturday morning. Not wanting to let them down motivated me to ship each week.

Making it a habit

As the weeks went on, I gradually got smarter. I kept a list of topics so I wouldn’t ever panic in front of a blank screen. I started drafting posts earlier in the week so my subconscious could work on the post for a few days. And I stuck to a schedule. Everything I had read about authors I admired said they treated writing like a job. You sit down and write, and you meet your deadline no matter what.

After perhaps 100 public posts the writing started to get easier or, more precisely, I didn’t worry about it as much. The regimen relieved me of much of the stress. The difficulty of writing a good first draft is now familiar and my anxiety quickly turns into recognition. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, “it’s just part of the process.” I also know that each post is another small step towards getting better.

While I still don’t recognize myself as a disciplined person, I have become a disciplined writer, posting twice a week now and having just finished a book. Writing is now something I enjoy doing, and I can see applying that process, that discipline, to other parts of my life.

I’m looking forward to it.

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?

A career talk that everyone should hear (and that anyone could deliver)

WOL Careers - Slide 1People at all stages of their careers have been asking the same basic questions for decades:

“How do I get promoted?”

“How do I find jobs that are available?

“How do I manage my career?”

To help answer those questions, there are plenty of career development talks at work, networking events, and HR courses which give people advice and examples. These can be helpful and sometimes inspiring. They just don’t equip people to make any meaningful change in how they manage their careers.

Now, we have something better.

A different kind of career event

Last month, I was asked to give a talk on personal branding so I could answer some of those career questions for a particular organization. Instead, I offered to talk about working out loud and help people form working out loud circles. We put together a 60-minute, interactive session for over 80 people which ended with Q&A and a call for volunteers to join circles.

25% of the audience volunteered.

The reason so many people joined wasn’t because of me or my slides, it was because they were hungry for something they could do to invest in themselves. Although most had never heard of working out loud, the ideas seemed like common sense and the circles gave them a way to apply that common sense towards a personal goal they cared about. A few weeks later, five circles formed and started meeting.

Results you can replicate

Speaking at this event gave me an idea. I had seen how, even if you want to work out loud, convincing friends who’ve never heard of it to form a circle could be hard. So a career event is a natural trigger to taking some positive action. With dozens of people all attending at the same time, hearing the same information, and with a convenient sign-up sheet at the end, it was simple.

So what if we made it easy for anyone to have such an event?

Towards that end, here are a set of slides and commentary you can make your own. The next time you hear about a career or networking event at your firm, maybe you can offer to give this talk instead. Maybe your organization can go beyond offering advice and examples to  truly empowering people, helping them to take control of their careers and their lives.

Slides and commentary you can make your own

My own style for slides is to use large photos and minimal text wherever I can. It means the slides are readable in almost any environment but it also means they don’t stand on their own. So I’ve included images here along with the main points I make. I’ve also included the actual slides as .key and .ppt files and as a PDF.

Feel free to use them in any way you like to help people form working out loud circles. This is just one way to accelerate a positive movement. I welcome and appreciate all questions, suggestions for improvements, and comments about what worked and didn’t work.

WOL Careers - Slide 1

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Career planning has changed

  • Career planning has changed from just 5 years ago.
  • For decades, it was a lottery. Who recruited on your campus? Which company picked you? Who was your boss?
  • Now, you have more control than ever.

Three stories

  • Three quick stories of how people find work that’s meaningful & fulfilling.
  • I’ve written about Jordi Munoz and Joyce Sullivan before. The third is Anne-Marie Imafidon who is a friend, colleague,  founder of the Stemettes, and who merits her own chapter in Working Out Loud. Yes, that’s her with the Queen. You might substitute someone in your own organization as an example.
  • The thing they have in common is they all work out loud.

Working Out Loud – 5 elements

You can do better than a lottery

  • A lot rides on which company you join, which part you fall into, and which boss you get assigned.
  • You can increase the odds of landing in a good spot.
  • A bigger, diverse network with deeper relationship provides you access to a wider range of possibilities.

A short exercise

  • Ask people to take out their smartphones and Google themselves.
  • Who are they? Do they have to rely on a broker to help them describe themselves? Or a 2-page resume? From the animated conversations, people found this both funny and embarrassing.

We all need help

  • Many of us don’t even do the simple things we all know we should do, like photos on a profile.
  • It’s not that we’re bad at it, we ‘re just not good at it yet. We need help.

Making change easier

  • Research on changing habits shows how we can make change easier and sustainable.
  • It includes chunking the change into small, fear-free steps and getting feedback along the way. (Albert Bandura called it guided mastery and cured snakes phobias in an hour this way.)
  • It also includes getting help from friends while practicing, practicing, practicing.

WOL Circles

  • Explain how circles work generally and ground rules for inside the firm, especially how they are confidential, with no need to have a certain rating or corporate title.
  • Available resources include the book, circle guides, and a range of material coming to workingoutloud.com. I provide drafts of the material to all circle members.

Call to action

  • Point them to the sign-up sheet or whiteboard and open for Q&A.

I used Apple’s Keynote to create the slides and also exported them here as a PDF and a Powerpoint file.

Working Out Loud – Career Planning Presentation.key

Working Out Loud – Career Planning Presentation (PDF)

Working Out Loud – Career Planning Presentation.ppt