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.

 

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.

At approximately 4:03pm on Saturday, April 9th

I’m asking for a rather strange favor. My friend and coach, Eve, would call my request a bit “woo-woo.” That’s our way to describe mystical things we can’t explain but we think just might work.

Mystical - and maybe it works

This Saturday afternoon, I’ll be on stage at a TEDx event in New Jersey, delivering the most important presentation of my life.

I’ve been increasingly anxious about it for months. Though I’ve given many talks, this one is more like an 8-minute movie than a regular presentation. I’m acutely aware that every mistake I make will be amplified on video.

So here’s my woo-woo request. If you’re reading this before 4 o’clock this Saturday, would you think a positive thought for me? Perhaps send me a mental message encouraging me to act like myself instead of The Presenter. Or wish that the audience receives my talk as a gift and not an imposition. That instead of being nervous and tense, I project humility, openness, and happiness.

I’ll be sure to provide a detailed update next week. In the meantime, please #BringTheWoo.

Thank you!

The HR director I wish I knew

A colleague shared a blog post about “success at work” and I clicked on it, expecting the usual set of prescriptions proposed by people who want work to be better but can’t do much about it.

This post was different, though. It was written by the head of HR at the World Economic Forum.

Paolo Gallo

“I wish I had written that”

His name is Paolo Gallo, and he’s based in Geneva. In his post, he tried to reframe how we view success at work. He had an almost romantic view of what “corporate heroism” truly is, and I kept nodding to myself as I went through this section on how measuring success by corporate title is bad for the individual and the firm:

“1. If we only value those who have reached the top of the hierarchy, then by definition we’re writing off the other 99%. We create a cruel assembly line that produces myriad people who are frustrated and unhappy, who believe – often wrongly – that only those who arrived at the top truly triumphed.

2. By seeing our careers as a race, we enter a state of constant struggle: “us” against everyone else. Think, for example, about incentive systems: I have seen many and – mea culpa – designed some that are focused on individual performance results but never based on sharing, cooperation or a sense of purpose. I believe that stress is not linked solely to the amount of work we have, but rather on the poor quality of the relationships we develop with our colleagues. An organizational climate of “dog eats dog” downgrades our relationships, so they become only transactional, utilitarian, losing any trace of connection between people. This obsession with appearances over substance strips us of our humanity.

3. Ultimately, we all end up taking part in a rat race. We became so self-absorbed and busy trying to win this race that we forget that even by winning it, we will still remain rats. And vulnerable rats: the chronic economic crisis, corporate restructuring or simple events outside of our control can all oust us from our jobs. If corporate success is the only way you define your identity, then that identity will be destroyed with all the emotional and social consequences that result.”

Now what?

What do you do when you read something interesting?

I started by reading more of his work, including other articles he posted on the World Economic Forum website. There’s no way to follow him or provide feedback there, so I looked elsewhere.

First I searched for “Paolo Gallo” on Twitter and didn’t find him. Then I used Google to search for “Paolo Gallo World Economic Forum” and found he had cross-posted his articles to LinkedIn. I clicked the “Follow” button on LinkedIn so I would see his future posts (and he might also see I followed him).

One of his most recent posts included this sentence:

“We have to internalize the idea that “networking” does not work when we engage with people only when we “need” something from them: we need to be constant givers of our time, attention, respect and help.”

It inspired me to leave a comment, and to offer to send him a copy of Working Out Loud. Maybe he won’t reply. Or maybe we’ll wind up collaborating in some way. Regardless of the outcome, in just a few minutes I felt as though I opened a door of some kind, a gateway that might lead to new people and possibilities related to my work.

***

Update: A few hours after I wrote this, Paolo Gallo was kind enough to thank me for the comment and send me a personalized connection request on LinkedIn. 

Update #2: A few hours after my last update, he sent me a really nice note and we arranged to meet in NYC in late April. I’m really looking forward to it. 

Update #3: On April 22nd, I met Paolo at the World Economic Forum office in New York City. He was visiting from Geneva. We sat in a large conference room with an long, impressive-looking table. And what did we talk about? Our kids, and life, and ideas about how the way we all work could be different, more fulfilling.

I didn’t know this when I wrote this post, but the mission of the WEF includes this lovely line capturing something I also believe:

We believe that progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change.

 We walked out of the building together and before we parted he suggested we take a selfie together. Here we are, in midtown Manhattan, with rush-hour traffic as a backdrop. I hope we meet again.

Paolo Gallo and me

“You don’t do yoga with your face.”

Sometimes, you can get so carried away with striving to attain something that you forget the very reason you’re doing it in the first place. Yoga class provides me with one obvious example, and this week I experienced a very different example, one that’s even more embarrassing and held an important lesson for me.

Yoga wisdom

When I’m in yoga class each Friday, some of us will invariably struggle to maintain a pose or to stretch in some way that our bodies aren’t familiar with. It’s at those times that my teacher, looking down at us on our mats, will say “You don’t do yoga with your face.” Then she’ll gently remind us to breathe.

Every single time this happens I’ll realize just how much I was furrowing my brows and clenching my jaw and, yes, holding my breath.

My teacher isn’t mocking us. She’s helping us to come back to the present moment. To focus less on the the striving and the struggle and the desire to achieve a good pose – and to just be in touch with our body our breath and discover our own personal practice.

A very different example

This week I was working with a group of 24 people in 6 countries as we all try to spread the practice of Working Out Loud, something I’ve been working on for several years. It’s a simple practice that helps you access more possibilities while feeling better about your everyday.

Part of that practice is making your work visible as that can amplify who you are and what you do. One short exercise is updating your LinkedIn profile. It’s a small step that helps you voice – to the world as well as to yourself – what you’re doing or aspiring to do.

I included that exercise in the book and in peer support guides. I’ve used those guides many times as I’ve participated in Working Out Loud circles. And yet…7 months after I published the book, I hadn’t add “Author” as a job on my profile.

It was only this past Wednesday that I did it, resulting in a flurry of congratulations for something I had done quite some time ago. Why had I waited so long? And what made me finally do it?

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 8.38.22 AM

The power of practice

My friend, Moyra Mackie, is a coach and consultant, and she commented that “public declarations can be scary.” That identified the main resistance I think I felt. Adding “Author” took only a minute, but I felt I was publicly changing my identity, and that was enough to stop me from doing something I knew I should do.

What finally made me do it? There was no one thing. It was the practice over time that wore down my resistance. All the peer support meetings, the blog posts, the presentations, the feedback from people. The cumulative effective effect of the practice empowered me to act.

The lesson

This small example made me realize how important the practice is. As much as the ideas and techniques are helpful, it’s practicing them that helps you empathize with the people you’re trying to help. It’s practicing them that makes possible your own personal discovery.

Pema Chödrön wrote about this in Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears:

“Working on ourselves and becoming more conscious about our own minds and emotions may be the only way for us to find solutions that address the welfare of all beings.”

So this past week, as a group of us talked about techniques and activities and measures to spread the simple practice of working out loud, I was reminded of the importance of our own individual practice. As much as we want to help people and change organizations and even make the world a better place, we can only do that if we start changing ourselves first.

Before we teach, we must practice being in touch with our own sense of empathy and generosity, deepening our own relationships; discovering our own possibilities while feeling better about our own everyday. Then and only then are we are capable of helping others experience all that we’ve come to know.