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.

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.

The list Santa never made

The list Santa never made“After all this time,” my friend said, “I think I finally understand what you mean by ‘contribution.’”

Then she told me a story. She had thought of something that would be useful for an important person in her network. She worked hard on it, sent a nice note, and felt certain this would help deepen the relationship.

Then she got no response.

How would you feel? What would you do next?

An annual ritual in my house

My mother was a generous woman. We didn’t have much money, but she always managed to have something for people. It might be cookies or bread she baked. Or cologne or soap from the burgeoning inventory of Avon products she sold.

She also sent out Christmas cards each year with a personal note. She kept  list, and next to each person’s name, she checked off who sent her cards in return. If there wasn’t a check next to your name, you wouldn’t get a card next year.

A simple self-test

Perhaps you would agree with my mom’s score-keeping strategy. Or maybe you think it’s childish to withhold such a small gift for lack of a response. So consider this everyday situation:

What do you think when you open a door for someone and they don’t say “thank you”?

Would you open that door for the same person again?

When you smile at the universe

My friend was irritated. She told me how she fumed for a few days, thinking of various personality flaws that might explain the person’s lack of gratitude and, even worse, lack of acknowledgement.

But a gift with strings attached isn’t a gift. It’s bait, trying to lure the person to do something. It’s something many of us get wrong and so in our working out loud circles we practice what to do when we don’t get a response, whether you’re offering help or asking for it:

“We assume the best of people – they’re simply busy or have some other legitimate reason – and we focus on what else we can do to be helpful. That mindset ensures your requests don’t feel like burdens and makes it much more likely people will respond favorably in the future.”

With this approach, your contributions feel like an invitation, not an imposition.

After our talk, my friend simply let it go. She stopped making up stories, she mentally untied the strings from her gift, and she felt better about what she had done and about the person she had done it for.

The next day she got a response. A thoughtful, lovely, generous note.

Sometimes, when you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back.

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?

The first week of the rest of your life

Monday, November 17th, marks the beginning of the 2nd annual working out loud week.  It’s meant as an opportunity for people to “take the chance to practice working out loud” and encourage their organizations to embrace it too. Some people will use this week to experiment with new tools or try to share their work in new ways.

Some people, though, might use this week to change their lives. Here’s how.

3 questions to ask this week

Art by @kazumikoyama of 8works Consulting

Art by Kazumi Koyama of 8works Consulting

The first week of a working out loud circle starts with members asking themselves three questions:

What am I trying to accomplish?

Who can help me?

What can I contribute to these people to deepen our relationships?

They answer these questions in their very first hour together. Then they practice over an additional 11 weeks, refining their relationship lists, gradually making more meaningful contributions, and deepening their relationships with individuals in their growing network.

You too can start answering those three questions, and work towards a better career and life, this week.

1. Pick a simple goal

The first exercise we do in a circle is writing down something you would like to accomplish in 12 weeks. In my first circle, one person was thinking about becoming a financial advisor and wanted to explore that. A woman who was passionate about dangerous toxins in products wanted to raise awareness and suggest alternatives. Another member had started an online fashion consulting business she wanted to grow and one cared about educational issues.

In our circles, the best goals tend to be about learning and exploring. They’re things individuals genuinely care about, are reasonably specific, and are something you could make progress towards in 12 weeks.

Here’s a list of common goals:

  • Learn more about something you care about
  • Find a job in a new company or location
  • Get more recognition at your current job
  • Explore possibilities in a new field
  • Find people with the same interests
  • Get better at what you do

There’s no pressure to get this exactly right. It’s the skills and habits you’re developing in the circle that matter more that this one particular goal.

2. Identify people who can help you

Then we each build our first relationship list, people who can help us with our goal. You start by thinking of people who are already doing what you aspire to do. If you want to explore genealogy or jobs in New Zealand, for example, then you’ll want to know people who are already genealogists or are working in New Zealand. Sometimes you’ll know their name (Sue is the head of New Zealand, Inc) and sometimes just their role (the person who runs a particular genealogy conference).

The list will change over the next 11 weeks. Simply by thinking of people who might help you in some way, you’ll begin generating more ideas. Whatever your goal is, here’s what you might start looking for:

  • People writing about it in blogs, articles, and books
  • Online communities related to it
  • Businesses you admire that are doing it
  • Conferences related to it
  • Organizations that support it

Play Internet detective, conducting searches related to your goal. When the circle members do this for even a few minutes they quickly start discovering people, companies, and ideas they weren’t aware of before. They search, find a lead, follow that with some more searches, and then “Aha! They look interesting!” Over time, your circle members will be another source of ideas and connections.

3. Make your first simple contributions

You could do the first two steps in 20 minutes, though we take some more time in our circles to exchange ideas. Then, before we end our first meeting, we talk about contributions. Dale Carnegie summarized why this topic is so important to building relationships in How to Win Friends and Influence People:

The world is full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking.

So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others

has an enormous advantage. He has little competition.

The initial contributions you make are easy, almost trivial. You start by searching the Internet for the online presence of each of the people on your list.

Look for a Twitter account, a blog, or other online content they’ve produced. If they have a Twitter account, follow them. If you see a website in a person’s Twitter or LinkedIn profile, go to that website, start reading, and hit a Like button if you like any of it. If you want to keep receiving updates, look for a Follow button or the ability to subscribe by email. There’s no need to worry about what to say or write. For now, all you’re looking for is an unobtrusive way to move the relationship from they have no idea who I am to they’ve seen my name.

During the rest of your 11 weeks together, you’ll learn about making more significant contributions, ones that take more effort but have more value both to you and the people in your network. You’ll practice generosity with more people in a wider variety of contexts and you’ll discover other gifts you have to offer.

Congratulations

The changes we want in our careers and our lives can seem so daunting that we don’t even know where to begin. For me, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I began even thinking about alternatives and that was only because I was forced to.

But you could start this week with three simple steps that take less than an hour. Practicing those steps – What am I trying to accomplish? Who can help me? What can I contribute to these people to deepen our relationships? - creates a powerful mindset. Over time, you develop an open, generous, connected approach to work and life. And that mindset increases your chances of finding meaning and fulfillment in whatever you do.

Take the first step and your mind will mobilize all its forces to your aid.

But the first essential is that you begin.

– Robert Collier