The Appreciation Test

I thought this one would be easy, but I was wrong. Try it for yourself.

Imagine someone just paid you a compliment on something you did, perhaps a presentation at work or something else that evoked a “Nice job!”

What would you do?

  1. Wonder if the person was being sarcastic.
  2. Reject it. “Oh it was nothing.”
  3. Smile awkwardly.
  4. Graciously accept the compliment.

You might think the answer is obvious. But it has taken me decades to get to a comfortable answer, and that’s only after working  through all of the possible responses.

The M&Ms Incident

I was about 5 years old when this happened, maybe younger. It was such a trivial incident and yet it stuck with me.

My mother, older siblings, and I visited a neighbor up the block. Her home seemed so neat and orderly. To my mind they were rich, though it was just a one-bedroom home in the Bronx. The woman had M&Ms in a glass bowl, something extraordinary for me because a) in my house the M&Ms would be devoured immediately, and b) we would inevitably break the glass bowl.

She held the bowl out to me. “Would you like some?” My mother gave me a look and shook her head. Afterwards, she explained (or this is how I remember it), that even if people offered something, I wasn’t supposed to take it. My young mind interpreted it as somehow impolite to accept what was offered. Perhaps the person didn’t really mean it, or I didn’t deserve it, or both.

Of course, it’s nice to receive compliments. And yet, for most of my life, each compliment is like that bowl of M&Ms being offered to me. I look at it awkwardly, wondering whether I’m allowed to accept it.

The Appreciation Test

“You look nice today!”

I much prefer to give compliments than to receive them. “You look nice today!” “What a great outfit!” I thought offering such genuine praise was an unambiguously nice thing to do. One day, though, a woman I knew responded with, “So I don’t look so nice on the other days?”

I never expected that. I guess she focused on the word “today” more than “nice” and interpreted it as a kind of insult. It taught me two lessons: to be more thoughtful of how I offer a compliment, and to realize that other people, like me, may not be comfortable when they get one.

I still offer positive feedback to people, but I try and practice empathy before I do it. How would I receive this if I were them? It makes me more mindful of what I say and how I say it.

How accepting a gift can be a contribution

Last week, I gave a talk at a conference and there were well over a thousand people in the audience. As I walked off stage, I wasn’t sure how it went. I had a sense of how well I did or didn’t do, but now how it was received. Then, some people came up and congratulated me, and over the course of the day different people would come up to me and say something nice about my presentation.

I thought about this appreciation test. My instinct was to respond with disbelief or some other form of rejection. “Really?” “Oh, it wasn’t my best effort.”

This time, though, I practiced just accepting it. Sometimes it was as simple as “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Sometimes we would start a conversation and exchange contact information, or even get to know each other a bit.

If a person had gone through the trouble of walking up to me to say something nice, then the least I could do in return would be to graciously accept it. Now, instead of responding with my usual self-defenses, I practice reciprocating with my attention, appreciation, and vulnerability. As the write Stephen Donaldson has said, “In accepting the gift, you honor the giver.”

How I’ll topple a domino that’s 21 feet tall

It’s only been three weeks since my last day working in a big company,  yet my to-do list is already overwhelming. No matter how busy I am, the list only seems to grow.

A simple change change in perspective helped turn stress and panic into focus and progress.

The ONE Thing

A friend recommended a book call The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Just 13 pages in, it grabbed my attention with a metaphor about dominoes, citing a physics journal article that described “how a single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger.”

A domino that’s 2 inches tall can topple one that’s 3 inches tall, which can topple one that’s 4 1/2 inches, and so on. The 13th domino would be over 21 feet tall, and the 23rd domino would be as tall as the Empire State Building.

“Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life…Highly successful people know this. So every day, they line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it till it falls.”

So I started to think, “What’s my next domino?”

What's your ONE thing?

The best staff meeting ever

That question was in my head when I was in last week’s staff meeting. I used to dread such meetings, but now I look forward to them. The “staff meeting” is just my wife and I talking over coffee every Sunday morning, reviewing clients and products, progress and challenges.

As I was going through the list of things I was working on and planned to do, she stopped me and said: “Don’t worry about all of that.” She explained how the work I was doing for one particular customer was the main priority that would lead to more clients and revenue. “Just get this one thing right.”

My wife didn’t need to read a book to see the benefits of extreme prioritization. We agreed on the ONE thing, and that simplified everything. It’s not that the other tasks disappeared, but that each day I know what I have to focus on above all else. That clarity enables me to realize a much higher return on my time and effort.

The next time you’re overwhelmed by your to-do list, whether it’s for your work, family, or health, think of how you’ll answer if someone asks you: “What’s your ONE thing?”

Then do all you can to topple that next domino.

***

p.s. In looking into this different kind of domino effect, I came across this demonstration video by a physics professor. He started with a domino only 5 millimeters high.

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.

 

“And that would be enough”

Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza had just moved from their home on Wall Street in the heart of the city to a quiet section uptown.

They’re mourning the loss of their son, Philip, who was killed in a duel. It was Hamilton who had advised him to shoot in the air and had given him the guns. They’re also mourning the loss of their happy marriage, after Alexander’s affair was made public and humiliated the entire family.

Throughout the play, there is a theme of never being satisfied – of Hamilton writing and creating and striving “like he’s running out of time.” He’s always looking ahead and working on the next thing.

But in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” they’re faced with the unimaginable things that have happened to them. Despite all of Hamilton’s accomplishments and aspirations, the grief and loss they feel are overwhelming, transformative. He begins to see that he had the elements of happiness all along.

If I could spare his life
If I could trade his life for mine
He’d be standing here right now
And you would smile, and that would be enough

I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing

I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost
And you need time

But I’m not afraid
I know who I married
Just let me stay here by your side
That would be enough

It makes me wonder: What would be enough? Can you have dreams and hopes and still be content with what you have?

I think it’s possible, but that it goes against our nature. We have to work every day to be mindful of what’s right in front of us, before we become so used to it that it’s lost and we only realize it when it’s gone.

Preparing for your TED talk

Before you think “I’m not giving a TED talk,” you should know that there are 47 TEDx events happening today alone, and over 50,000 talks to date.

You should also know that the same lessons for creating a good TED talk can help you prepare for a wide range of big moments in your life.

Here are five things I learned from my TEDx experience that might help you.

"Working Out Loud: The making of a movement"

Learn the basics.

Public speaking is a skill like any other, meaning that you can readily get better at it. You can get better much more quickly by understanding what others have learned before you.

The book Resonate will help you craft a more engaging story that’s more likely to, well, resonate with your audience. Presentation Zen will make your slides better than 99% of most presentations. Talk Like TED will summarize the lessons of what makes for a good talk and provide and analyze excellent examples.

Then read what speakers write about their experiences, and watch as much as you can to refine your own taste of what you like and don’t like.

Doing this research helped me. Next time, I’ll do even more.

Make the audience the hero.

The initial drafts of my talk were too much about me and my own story. While some of that is necessary for context, the key is focusing on how you can help the audience. Though my talk was about “Working Out Loud: The making of a movement,” it would be more engaging and useful if it helped the audience with their own movements.

As Nancy Duarte says in Resonate, be more like Yoda than Luke Skywalker. Enable heroes instead of trying to be one.

Get live feedback earlier.

I waited too long to practice in front of a live audience. Although I solicited feedback on the script two months before the talk and went through many iterations, I waited until just 36 hours before the event to rehearse in front of friends. Not good.

I fell into a trap of thinking I had to memorize it first. But by then, I had become too attached to the material and had little time left for major changes. That made everything more stressful than it needed to be.

Keep working on it till it’s authentic.

I’ve always confused spontaneity with authenticity, figuring that practice would somehow make my talk feel artificial, literally “scripted.” Now it’s clear that was just an excuse to avoid work I found uncomfortable.

The truth is that it’s hard to be yourself when you’re struggling to recall what to say, particularly on camera. There is no substitute for putting in the time to memorize your material – to know it so well that it’s a part of you and you can offer it naturally.

Make it fun.

Perhaps this seems obvious. After all, it would be hard for the audience to enjoy my talk if I seem anxious and miserable on stage.

Yet, I almost failed on this point entirely. In my rehearsal just before the event, I was practically somber. I was so focused on not losing my place that I lost myself. My small audience had to tell me to “Put more of you into the talk.”

I tried making the talk a bit lighter, and even got a laugh on my second slide, but I have a long way to go before I can relate to this kind of audience like I relate to people in my other talks and in my every day.

Your second TED talk

Yes, the process was uncomfortable (and worse) at times, but going through it unlocked learning and possibilities, including the chance that I’ll be better next time – and less anxious.

Whether you’re about to deliver a TED talk or make a video or give a performance in your own living room, treating it as a learning experience is liberating. It might even be fun.