The road rage chronicles

I’m embarrassed to tell these stories, but I’m sharing them for two reasons.

One is that I’m conscious of the social media effect, a tendency to share an idealized version of one’s self. I’m sure I’m guilty of it, and I would rather be honest and ashamed than inauthentic and admired.

The other reason is to show how changing habits is possible even when they’ve been deeply-rutted over several decades.

Route I-95N

1988: Route I-95N 

After college, I was living in the Bronx and would commute each day to Bell Labs in Middletown, NJ, 55 miles each way. Coming home, I would fight traffic on the NJ Turnpike, then at the bridge, then on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

I remember times when I would scream at the top of my lungs in frustration. Though I had chosen where I worked and where I lived, and though I knew there was always going to be traffic on that route, I could not accept it.

1990s: It’s other people’s fault

Over the ensuing years, it wasn’t just traffic that bothered me, but other people. How dare they try to cut into my lane! I would tailgate the person in front of me to block them. Oh, the slow drivers! I would flash my brights to punish them.

Once, as I was double-parked, a person honked. There was plenty of room to get by! I muttered something I thought was under my breath until the gentleman got out of his car, kicked my door, and threatened to kill me.

2004: Late on the Upper East Side

Circling in upper Manhattan, looking for a space, I’m late for an appointment. I can’t be late. Yes, I should have left earlier, but I can’t be late. I continue circling and miss a spot, and I hit the steering wheel so hard the horn goes off and won’t stop. Now I’m driving on Park Avenue with a blaring horn, humiliated as well as late.

I realized I couldn’t keep acting this way. Something had to change.

2015: The Henry Hudson Parkway

Now, I regularly drive on the Henry Hudson Parkway and still face traffic and bad drivers. But much of my bad behavior is gone. The impulses are still there, but over ten years I’ve gradually managed to react to those same triggers in a different way.

Traffic? I always have TED talks with me and a delay means more learning and entertainment. A rude driver? I imagine they may be rushing to the hospital, or have a frustrating life, and my anger evaporates.

Over time, small changes to my driving environment and to my responses (“If this happens next time, I will do this…”) have added up to me being calmer and safer.

I’m no saint. If the kids are screaming or playing loudly or doing what kids do, I still struggle sometimes not to floor it and scare the hell out of them. But small changes, practiced constantly over time, have made a big difference.

 

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.

The two best moments in my career happened just this month

One moment was during an evening event at the office, and the other was while I was on holiday in Costa Rica. As different as those circumstances were, the moments were connected, and they represented both a culmination and a beginning.

I share them in the spirit of sharing good news with friends. And in the hope that the path I took to those two best moments might help you experience your own.

Overcoming the resistance

John Stepper_CoverWearing a bathing suit and sandals, I capped several years of work by shipping the final manuscript of Working Out Loud to be formatted, the final step before it’s available on Amazon in about a month.

It’s not so much finishing a book that made it a special moment. Millions of people write books each year. It’s overcoming what Steven Pressfield calls “the resistance” and what Seth Godin refers to as “the lizard brain.”

Every day till the moment I hit “submit,” the voices in my head were insistent:

It’s not ready.

It’s not good enough.

You’re not good enough.

I couldn’t turn the voices off. They are, I know, just trying to protect me from disappointment and rejection. I also know that the long-term consequences of not making the effort are much more harmful.

The things that helped me ship are framing the work as a contribution and the feedback from people who have read and applied the ideas in the book. Offering my work as a gift means I can be free of expectations – number of copies sold, good reviews – as my only goal is to help people. The feedback lets me know at least some people will appreciate my contribution. If others don’t like it, I’ll take solace in knowing “you can be a delicious ripe peach and there will still be people in the world that hate peaches.”

Bringing my whole self to work

Presenting "Working Out Loud"The other moment was earlier this month was when I spoke to a large group at my firm about Working Out Loud circles and half of them formed circles as a result.

Though I had written and spoken about my work before, this event wasn’t sponsored by me but rather by an official employee network in the firm. It was promoted via email and on screens in the elevators and in the lobby.

It was as if I finally connected all the time spent researching and writing and coaching with what I actually do for a living. After all, no one had ever asked me to write a book or give talks or try to form a movement that empowered people. I just did. Somehow, having that work recognized and promoted by the institution helped connect the different kinds of work I do and made me feel whole.

As a result, my presentation that evening was the best talk I ever gave. I think it was because I delivered my authentic self, and put all of me into the talk.

When will your best moments be?

When I ask people “When are the best years of your life?” some people are clear that their best moments happened long ago.

It makes me sad they’re so certain about their future and that it holds so little promise for them.

Whatever your age or job or experience, I want more people to know that the best moments of your life are just the best moments so far. By equipping people with some new skills and habits, and some simple switches in their mindset, I want to help them discover and gain access to more possibilities.

I want to help them experience more best moments.

“I just want a little human contact”

Early yesterday morning, I had a long wait before my flight and so I went for breakfast by myself, sitting at the bar, listening to the people around me.

There it struck me how being in an airport can be a lot like working in a big organization or perhaps living in a big city. They’re all places that can be crowded and lonely at the same time. Connected and disconnected.

I sat down, looked around to order, and I was greeted by this:

photo (1)

Progress

There was an iPad in front of every seat at the bar and two on every table. You were supposed to use it to browse the menu and order food and drinks from there. The food would come in covered trays on a trolley, wheeled in from the business next door.

I overheard two women across the bar complaining about the system. It was clear they had just met, but they bonded over their reaction to ordering breakfast. “I hate it!” said one, half-joking. The other laughed and agreed: “I just want a little human contact!” A young man next to me – he wore a uniform and called me sir – quietly remarked to no one in particular as he ordered: “You could do all of this without ever talking to anybody.”

The irony

Maybe this particular technology makes sense on some level. At a crowded bar, perhaps, you could punch in your drink order instead of having to catch the eye of a busy bartender. You could pay without having to call for the check.

But most people wound up needing some kind of help anyway. They didn’t understand the system or had a question about the menu. They wanted a refill of their coffee.

Technology can help people connect or it can keep people apart, and all this particular technology made the place feel inhumane. Yet even in such a dystopian restaurant, I found you could choose to experience something very different.

The gift

A few hours later, I was ready for lunch and decided to go back to the same place. I sat down and browsed the menu on the iPad. When I heard the woman at the next table complain about the service, I started a conversation.

And in the next 30 minutes, I got to know Ron and Angie and Dave and Diane, two couples who were traveling together. One couple was from Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, and the other had a farm where they grew barley, canola, and sometimes lentils.

We talked about their trip (they flew to Orlando and drove to the Florida Keys). About their kids and grandkids. We talked about life in Saskatchewan and how, despite the cold, they loved the four seasons there and wouldn’t consider moving. We talked a lot about food and farming. Ron taught me a bit about combines and I asked him about GMO crops (he thought they were a commercial necessity but Angie could see we sometimes take it too far).

They were such lovely people. When we shook hands and said goodbye, we saw each other, as Ben Zander would say, with shining eyes.

For most of my life, I had it backwards. I waited for people to be interesting and then I care. Now I realize it’s the other way around. When you care first, when you try to really see people, that’s when you discover how interesting they truly are.