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.

What would we do if terrorists were making 27 million Americans deathly ill?

My mother died the way big companies fail, the way people go broke: gradually, then suddenly.

She was diagnosed with diabetes in her 40s. Back then, we had little understanding of the disease or of nutrition. So we didn’t pay much attention to it except for occasionally chiding her to eat better or control her sugar.

Then, in her 70s, she grew increasingly stiffer and struggled to get around. She was short of breath after shorter walks. She moved less and less.

When she broke her hip, her body couldn’t fight her post-surgery infection or heal itself. She had a hole in her leg that never closed. “This isn’t living,” she told me as she looked up from her bed. She died a few weeks later.

Killing us softly

Seeing my mother die that way made me more mindful of the link between what I was eating and what my health would be like in my 60s, 70s, and beyond. The prospect of dying like my mother scared me into paying attention.

So I became increasingly aware of how the things that are making us sick are actively promoted, even celebrated, everywhere. I had grown up singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”  You could argue we didn’t know better back then.

I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke Commercial - 1971

But now? 44 years after the Coke ad I grew up with, we’re still programmed to associate joy with the things that are killing us. And the people who make money from doing so will protect their interests by all means at their disposal.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from an interview with Coca-Cola’s president of sparkling beverages in North America. It was in response to proposed legislation limiting the size of sodas that can be sold. The parallels to tobacco executives denying health claims are both striking and chilling.

Q: But critics call soft drinks “empty” calories.

A: A calorie is a calorie. What our drinks offer is hydration. That’s essential to the human body. We offer great taste and benefits whether it’s an uplift or carbohydrates or energy. We don’t believe in empty calories. We believe in hydration.

Q: Because sugary drinks have been linked with obesity, some suggest soft-drink makers place “warning” labels on cans and bottles.

A: There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity.

Terror at home

Type II diabetes – the kind that’s preventable as opposed to the kind you’re born with – is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States and it’s considered under-reported. One of every 10 adults in the US has diabetes. The Center for Disease Control projects that number to double or triple by 2050. If you have a child born after 2000, there is a 33 percent chance they will develop diabetes. If your child is black, there’s a 50% chance.

All these people are dying gradually, then suddenly.

CampFunstonKS-InfluenzaHospitalNow try the following thought experiment. Imagine we discovered that the diabetes epidemic was the result of a secret terrorist plot. What would our response be? Think of how we respond to other terrorist acts that affect a few hundred or a few thousand people. We wage wars and sacrifice some of our basic rights in the name of protecting ourselves. Imagine what we would do if terrorists were killing so many of us.

But the enemy is here at home, and it’s everywhere. Soda is just one product. There are thousands of others that are making us sick. We’ve grown so used to it that it’s just the way things are.

One thing you can do

My children mock my anger at the “evil major corporations.” Perhaps they’re right to do so. It seems silly to think anyone can change the sugar industry, government policies, advertising, and all the aspects of a system that’s killing us.

But there is one thing every individual can do that can make a difference: be mindful of what you eat and drink.

Consume whatever you want. Just make sure it’s your choice and not the result of corporate programming trying to make money from your misfortune. The more informed you are, the more you know about food and what’s in it and how it affects you, the easier this is. Think for yourself. Is this what I really want? Is this in my best interest or some corporation’s?

Over the holidays, my daughter passed an ad picturing Santa Claus offering her a drink, encouraging her to “open happiness.” She asked why companies would want to sell something that makes people sick. She wanted to make a video to warn other children. She’s 7 years old.

“That’s my girl,” I thought. And it gave me hope.

If you’ve ever felt like an impostor

What mask are you wearing?I had heard of impostor syndrome before, but I never gave it much thought until it came up on three separate occasions within a week.

It’s defined by the Caltech counseling center as:

A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of information that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.

The three stories I encountered that week reminded me of my own struggle with inadequacy at work, and of the techniques that help me deal with it now.

Three impostors

The first incident was when a young women whose work I respect confided she felt like a fraud. It was more than self-doubt, though. It was anguish – and her distress was palpable. I was surprised that someone in their twenties could feel this way.

Then, in my Facebook feed, a friend who had built her own business posted an article on impostor syndrome and said “This is what I struggle with…It’s the worst kind of self-limiting behavior.” I was shocked. This women is smart, articulate, and well-regarded around the world for her work. She’s also funny and engaging. How could she feel like an impostor?

Later, while reading The Art of Asking, I came upon impostor syndrome again as the performer/writer/presenter-of-one-of-the-best-TED-talks-ever Amanda Palmer described her own feelings of being a fake:

“For a long time, I thought I was alone. Psychologists have a term for it: imposter syndrome. But before I knew that phrase existed, I coined my own: The Fraud Police. [They’re] the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying: We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING…

I mentioned The Fraud Police during a commencement speech I recently gave at an arts college, and I asked the adults in the room, including the faculty, to raise their hands if they’d ever had this feeling. I don’t think a single hand stayed down.”

When I was a fraud

The degree to which people feel like an impostor varies wildly. You may feel like a fake at times, or discount your success by attributing it to luck or other forces. It’s certainly common.

My worst experience of feeling like a fraud came after I had been working on trading floors for several years. I was in a well-paid management position that I clung to despite feeling I had no “right” to such a job.

Trading floors are not the ideal environment for displaying vulnerability. So I put on an act to others and to myself that I was in control even though I wasn’t. To compound my stress, I was angry for feeling anxious rather than lucky. Not only was I an impostor, I was an ungrateful one.

Three simple switches

The reasons for these feelings can vary, and so do the techniques for dealing with them. Each technique is a simple switch in your head, a new way of thinking.

Sometimes the feeling is due to your own self-defeating thoughts. You’re in a prison you’ve built yourself. In these cases, the Caltech counseling center recommends training yourself to identify those thoughts and deliberately distinguishing between feelings and facts.

Sometimes you use each of your mistakes or someone else’s negative reaction to validate your fraudulence. You can change that by developing a growth mindset, framing setbacks as a natural part of the learning process.

Sometimes you’re trying to do something you don’t like doing or aren’t yet as skilled as you want or need to be. In those cases, I think of advice from Eckhart Tolle when he said, in effect: “Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.” Use the energy you would have put into fruitless worrying to invest in your craft and in your connections

I still experience different degrees of feeling like a fraud. But after years of practicing these techniques, I’m more aware of my feelings and why I’m having them. I’m gradually getting better at replacing anxiety and automatic, negative thoughts with new mental habits. The techniques are simple. It’s the practice over time that makes the difference.

If you’ve ever felt like an impostor, you’re not alone. Talking with others will provide emotional support and relief. You’re also not trapped. Training yourself to think differently and channeling your energy into positive actions can change your life. 

I wish someone had told me this secret to being smart 

A smart kidIn my elementary school, each grade was split into three groups based on ability – essentially smart, medium, and dumb. I was happy when my teachers and parents labeled me smart.

Looking back, I wish they hadn’t.

How did they know?

Certainly, hearing someone tell me I was smart was better than hearing I was stupid. But one problem with this system is that those labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. The kids in the stupid class think they’re stupid and tend not to try hard. Their teachers also tend not to try as hard.

Salman Khan, who’s on a mission to change education which Khan Academy, described how these labels for kids are only relevant when applied to certain subjects at certain times.

There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said “these are the gifted kids,” “these are the slow kids” … But when you let every student work at their own pace – and we see it over and over and over again – you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted. 

So the labels are often wrong, but they can lead to a mindset that shapes your life.

Fixed and growth mindsets

In the 1990s, researchers Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University worked with fifth-graders to understand the effects of different kinds of praise on motivation. After an easy set of problems, some students were praised for their ability (”You must be really smart!”) and some were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard!”). After a second set of problems, though, all the students were told they hadn’t scored  well.

The researchers aimed to measure whether the different kinds of praise would affect how the children dealt with challenges. Would their performance vary on the third set? Given a choice, would they choose easier problems? Would they view themselves differently?

The results showed a dramatic difference in performance. After receiving a poor score, children praised for being smart did 25% worse on the next set of problems. Children praised for working hard performed 25% better. Even more fascinating were the other differences they found. The children praised for intelligence equated their performance with their ability. So they did all they could to maximize their performance relative to other children. They chose easier problems, asked about the performance of others, and even “misrepresented” their scores more than the other children. They described intelligence as a fixed trait.

Children praised for their effort, however, equated their performance with how hard they worked. So they did all they could to maximize their learning. They chose problems that were harder. They were more interested in strategies for solving the problems than in the scores of others. They believed intelligence was something they could improve.

The secret

For me, the advantages of being labelled smart faded as soon as I got my big break and entered a high school where everyone was labeled as smart. Though I worked harder than ever, I optimized on the grades, not on the learning. I’d cram for the test and would even write the occasional formula on the palm of my hand. In college, I dropped courses that were too difficult. Like the fifth-graders in Carol Dweck’s research, I was desperately trying to validate my label and the story I’d been telling myself. And I limited my possibilities as a result.

It was only decades later that I realized the secret to being smart – and to accomplishment in almost any field – is having a growth mindset. It’s more effective and fulfilling to focus on getting better over being good. Instead of relying on some inborn gift, you rely on effort and feedback. You view setbacks as learning opportunities. You persist.

Next week, I’ll write about a school that creates a growth mindset in children, and produces the smartest kids in the world as a result. We’ve known for a long time there’s a better way to identify and develop talented people. And organizations of all kinds have a lot to learn from such a school.