“What are you afraid of?”

I had an opportunity last week. Instead of embracing it, though, my first reaction was fear. So I held back.

The Icarus Sessions

A reminder to keep shipping

A reminder to keep shipping

The opportunity was to speak at an event hosted by Seth Godin. He offered the chance to people who’d registered for his upcoming Icarus Session in NY. Since I value his daily blog, his talks, and his philosophy – yes, I even own a Seth Godin action figure – I was thrilled to have at a chance to finally meet him and share my ideas.

A presentation at an Icarus Session is 140 seconds long. You can go shorter, but not a second longer. You can use slides, or handouts, or even better, just bring your enthusiasm. The assignment: Tell the group about your art. What have you created? What frightened you? What matters?

Not a pitch. An act of brave vulnerability.

Holding back

Icarus application

Icarus application

All I had to do was write 100 words in a simple form. Since I’ve written 150,000 words worth of blog posts over the last 3 years (I write an internal corporate blog, too), this should have been easy. Yet the blinking cursor in that text box filled me with dread.

Why would 100 words phase me? Or a 2 1/2 minute talk?

This is just one small example of a recurring problem. The same fear grips me whenever I aim to do something bigger or bolder, whenever I think of doing something I really care about. And each time, I ask myself the same question:

“What are you afraid of?”

My 100 words

That question used to be a taunt. A self-criticism. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that fear is a natural defense mechanism to something new and potentially threatening. So instead of trying to make it go away, I see it as a signal that I’m doing something interesting and important.

A week after he invited people to apply, I finally submitted my 100 words:

I needed a new job, either at the large bank where I worked or somewhere else.

So I started writing. Every week, I’d write about how social tools and practices could make work more effective and more fulfilling.

That was 3 years ago. Those weekly posts led to a role I love (at the same firm), a social platform used by 50,000 people, and the start of a cultural shift.

My art – my calling? – is helping people shape their reputation, control their career, and make work better.

I’ve started with a few thousand people. I want to help millions more.

I may not have a chance to give my 2 1/2 minute talk, but I’ll be damned if I won’t take my shot. I’d rather be Icarus and fail in the attempt than stand safely on the ground, looking up at what might have been.

Is there something you want to do but you’re holding back? What are you afraid of?

“Do you think today is just another day in your life?”

Just another day?

Another day.

How do you start each day?

When I wake up, I almost instinctively reach for my phone. I go through email and my calendar, check social media, and I think about things I need to do or should have done. Usually, I find reasons to be irritated or unhappy before I’m even fully awake.

It’s a terrible way to begin the day. Recently, though, I started practicing a better way.

Everyday miracles

I began thinking things could be different when a friend introduced me to Thich Nhat Hahn’s books. (I listed one of them in last year’s holiday post.)

One passage in particular has stayed with me:

“Life is filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. Our breathing, for example, can be very enjoyable…But many people appreciate the joy of breathing only when they have asthma or a stuffed-up nose. We don’t need to wait until we have asthma to enjoy our breathing.

Awareness of the precious elements of happiness is itself the practice of right mindfulness. Elements like these are within us and all around us. In each second of our lives we can enjoy them…Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, the wonder of our breathing. We don’t have to travel anywhere else to do so. We can be in touch with these things right now.”

I wondered: “What would life be like if I could appreciate everyday miracles like breathing, seeing, and walking?”

The science of being present

The reason I don’t appreciate them, I discovered, is that it’s hard. Our brains are wired to wander, to look for threats and issues, rather than to focus and appreciate everyday things.

To better understand this, Harvard psychologists Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert created trackyourhappiness.org. They collected data from tens of thousands of people in over 80 countries about what they’re doing at specific, randomly selected moments throughout the day, how they’re feeling, and whether they’re thinking about something else at that moment.

They found that people reported thinking about other things 47% of the time. (That percentage varies considerably whether you’re showering, commuting, or making love.) Most of those times, people’s minds tend to wander to unpleasant things and they’re considerably less happy compared to when their minds don’t wander. Even when they’re thinking about pleasant things, they’re still less happy.

The title of their talk summarizes their findings: “Want to be happier? Stay in the moment.”

Real people. Real stories.

Still, despite the inspiration and the science, being present was proving too difficult for me and I was thinking I’d never improve. Then, in one week, I listened to two people whose stories made me redouble my efforts.

I listened to Janine Shepherd, a cross-country skier, describe her recovery from a horrific, paralyzing accident. And she described a moment that reminded me of the quote in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book:

“After 6 months [in the spinal ward], it was time to go home. I remember Dad pushing me outside in my wheelchair, wrapped in a plaster body cast, and feeling the sun on my face for the first time. I soaked it up and I thought how could I have ever taken this for granted?”

Later that same week, I listened to Richard Mangino, who lost both his hands and forearms in 2002 and recently underwent one of the first hand/forearm transplant operations. Asked how it felt to have hands again, he said:

“Touching somebody is like electricity going through my hands…it’s just wonderful, just when you touch everybody and they touch you back and they hold your hand.”

The interviewer wanted to know “What’s the next mountain to climb?” and Richard’s response was striking:

“I don’t really feel like I have a mountain to climb…What I want is what I have now…Today is the future. Right now.”

A new morning ritual

I may never become truly mindful. But I can take a step. And I’m starting with my morning ritual.

Instead of waiting for asthma or an accident and looking back at the miracles I’ve missed, I’m trying to gradually train myself to experience every day miracles. Instead of reaching for the phone, I take a deep breath, I smile, and I think of this beautiful passage I heard recently. It includes a wish – something I want for myself and for everyone I know. And thinking about it is a beautiful way to start the day.

“Do you think today is just another day in your life?

It’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you today. It’s given to you. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now. And the only appropriate response is gratefulness.

If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is. If you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life and the very last day then you will have spent this day very well.

…I wish you that you would open your heart to all these blessings and let them flow through you that everyone who you will meet on this day will be blessed by you. Just by your eyes, by your smile, by your touch. Just by your presence. Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you.

Then it will really be a good day.”

Working out loud: leveraging other networks

Working out loudRecently, I’ve been talking to dozens of people about career insurance – how working out loud can help them shape their reputation and control their career. In almost every conversation, people were unsure of how to build a purposeful network.

Where do you start? How do you find the right people? What’s the best way to get to know them?

In each case, though, it turned out they already had access to several existing networks. They just weren’t leveraging them.

Here are the 5 examples we discussed that can help you amplify your contribution, build relationships, and discover more possibilities.

Leading with generosity

As Keith Ferrazzi says, “the currency of networking isn’t greed, it’s generosity.” And so the best way to build relationships is to lead with generosity – to think of how you can contribute to the network and thus gain access and gradually build trust.

That starts with listening. Before you can contribute to any individual or network, you want to listen first and develop a sense of what they might value. Once you have that, there’s a wide spectrum of ways to contribute:

  • Showing appreciation by Like-ing, commenting on, or re-posting the work of key individuals.
  • Asking questions. (This includes asking for help – being vulnerable and letting others help you is a type of gift.)
  • Sharing your network by introducing people you know .
  • Sharing content others might value – what you’re reading, what you’re working on, lessons you’ve learned.

These are all elements of working out loud – narrating your work and making it observable.

Where’s the best place to make these contributions? Trying to build meaningful, relevant connections on the large public networks is difficult and takes a long time. Ideally, you could tap into existing networks of people that are relevant to you.

5 examples of leveraging other networks 

When I used these 5 examples in my career insurance discussions, each person came up with their own specific networks they could leverage right away.

Internal employee networks: Some people used a social collaboration platform at work. There, they could access role-based communities or even start one for their own role. In a large company, that’s an extraordinarily convenient way to connects with hundreds of people who do what you do.

Professional associations: Meeting people with similar jobs or interests at other companies is also easy. One person interested in small start-ups talked about ways to contribute to the NY Tech Meetup. For another, it was a LinkedIn group for communications professionals that also held in-person meetings in London. For another it was a network of commercial real estate professionals.

Industry groups: For the people I spoke with in financial services (and this is true for most industries), there are numerous networks formed to bring firms together around specific topics – from IT infrastructure to operations to social media marketing.

Vendors: This is perhaps the most common set of networks. Everyone I talked with used a product or service related to their job. And the salespeople of those vendors are eager to introduce customers to other customers or to prospects. In some cases, the vendor also hosted an online customer community making it even easier to contribute.

Key individuals: Finally, getting to know influencers in your field is a way to connect to people with similar interests. For the person in learning and development, for example, he’d want to know people like Harold Jarche, Nick Milton, and Kevin Jones.  By reading their work and appreciating it in public, he’d discover other experts and have a platform for connecting with them.

All of these groups are eager to have people contribute. The individuals want interaction with their audience. The vendors want to connect customers. The internal communities, industry groups, and professional associations are desperate for authentic stories from their members.

How to begin

One of the best reactions I heard was “This is something I can do right now!”

But they probably won’t. Because they’re already busy. Because they’re afraid to make a mistake or unsure of their writing or speaking skills. Because they’re simply not used to working this way.

For these people I offer some very simple advice: Schedule time in your calendar for working out loud. Start with simple contributions. Keep shipping.

Over time, you’ll develop the skills you need to be effective and the habits you need to do it regularly.

Building a movement at work (and the biggest mistake I made trying to build one)

This year, I’ve been trying to make work better at my firm by building a large collaboration movement. Part of that has been getting people to know about and use a new social platform.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes but the biggest one wasted effort, slowed adoption, and could have killed the project entirely. Gradually, I learned the principles of building a movement from Gladwell, viral YouTube videos, and spontaneous dancers at a music festival.

The Law of the Few

Malcolm Gladwell described one of these principles in “The Tipping Point” more than 10 years ago:

“The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”

Simply put, whether you’re spreading information or trying to get more people to adopt your product or service, it’s a waste of precious resources to try and focus on everyone. Instead, focus on connectors, mavens, and salesmen – “people in a community who know large numbers of people”, “people we rely upon to connect us with new information”, and “persuaders”.

Tastemakers combined with a participating community

The power of Tastemakers

The power of Tastemakers

Data from YouTube now provides some of the clearest examples of the importance of reaching key people. Every minute, another 48 hours of video uploaded to YouTube. Why do some go viral? Just as Gladwell tried to answer what made Hush Puppies shoes popular, Kevin Allocca, the YouTube trends manager, answered what makes particular videos popular.

In his funny and insightful TED talk, he analyzed the viewing history of famous videos like “Double Rainbow” (35 million views) and “Friday” (45 million views). These are videos by unknown people whose work had gone unnoticed. The viral movement only started when they got recognized by key people he called “Tastemakers”.

“Tastemakers introduce us to new and interesting things and bring them to a larger audience.”

Once you have attention, a second principle to building a movement is to include the audience in some way. The social nature of YouTube, for example, inspires part of the audience to use the content in new ways. “We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.” The Friday video, for example, has inspired over 10,000 parodies. That’s over 10,000 people who took the original idea, created something new, and expanded the movement by sharing their own contribution.

Enabling and encouraging an audience to shape the movement helps amplify it.

The power of the 2nd dancer

All the keys to building a movement

All the keys to building a movement

These principles for building a movement came to life at a music festival in 2009 that Derek Sivers wrote about and later described in his TED talk.

During the festival, people are just laying on blankets, listening to music, until one guy gets up and starts to dance. Someone starts recording a video on their phone, capturing this stranger’s goofy, public dance. But they wind up capturing something more interesting.

For a while, the first dancer is alone, oblivious to the crowd. It’s awkward to watch. Then, a second dancer joins him. Still awkward but a bit less so. Then, a third and fourth person start dancing. Now it’s a group, something you can join. (“We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.”) More and more people join, each doing their own dance, each attracting yet more people. By the end of the 3-minute video, people are racing from all directions to become part of the group. Hundreds of people are now dancing and screaming.

It’s a movement.

Applying this at work

My mistake at work was in trying to appeal to broad audiences from the start and treating it like my project alone. Instead of appealing to all executives, I should have focused on a few early adopters. Instead of trying to entice all the content providers, I should have focused on a few influential ones. Instead of diffuse evangelism, I should have put my scarce resources into making a few tastemakers passionate about what we were doing and empowering them to shape it.

Lesson learned.

If you’re trying to build an audience and start a movement – whether it’s a YouTube video or a dance group or a new social collaboration platform – don’t start with everyone. Start by focusing on the tastemakers, doing whatever you can to interest them in your offering. Then encourage a broader community to participate and make it their own so they can help you expand the movement.

Working out loud & the rise of the introverts

Introvert unleashed!

Introvert unleashed!

The idea of working out loud – using social platforms to make your work observable and to narrate your work in progress – is becoming more popular. Yet even some who see the value of working out loud will say it’s not right for them.

“I don’t like to toot my own horn.”

“I’m more comfortable quietly doing a good job.”

“It’s fine for extraverts, but what about everybody else?”

Well, working out loud is good for introverts, too – maybe especially so. Here’s why.

The power of introverts

Over 3 million people have viewed Susan Cain’s TED Talk on “The power of introverts.”

In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But…introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated.

And in her book, “Quiet”, she makes a convincing argument that the “rise of the Extrovert Ideal” undervalues a whole class of people who think and work in a more subdued way.

At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled “quiet,” it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society–from van Gogh’s sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer.

At work, we can’t afford to exclude or undervalue one-third of our staff. Working out loud can be a more comfortable way for introverts to contribute and for others to recognize and build on those contributions.

A safe place

For much of the 20th century, getting attention at work meant you had to speak up. Whether it was in a meeting of a few people or a few hundred, you had to find ways to make your views known. To do that, you had to sound smart in public and be more social or more aggressive. You had to be the “Extrovert Ideal” described in Susan Cain’s book.

But working out loud emphasizes on-line contributions, typically using social collaboration platforms. Introverts who work out loud talk about using a collaboration platform as an advantage for them.

“It’s easier to participate in on-line platforms than in live situations.”

“I’m more confident online than I am in real life.”

“It doesn’t take the same type of emotional energy to connect with people.”

A friend of mine, who describes herself as a “confirmed introvert”, went even further:

“It’s a HUGE help. Without a tool like this, no one would know who I am or what I work on. I’d be hidden at my desk because I’m not outgoing enough to get out there and do things the typical extrovert way. It gives me safe and controlled environment to present myself and my work.”

It’s not about you

If online platforms are more comfortable environments for introverts, there is still discomfort around the best content to contribute. Many people don’t like the idea of self-promotion, so talking about themselves and their achievements doesn’t feel right.

And that’s a good thing.

Because working out loud is about your work, not about you. It’s about framing what you’re doing as a gift, something that might help others. What are you working on? Who are you working with? What are you learning? What are you finding interesting? What help do you need? You’re looking to answer those questions in ways others might find useful.

Think of it as “leading with generosity.” When your contributions are a sincere effort to help, rather than to get attention, you don’t need self-promotion. Others will talk about you and your work on your behalf.

The rise of the introverts

Susan Cain is right. We need the introverts. We need to value people more for their ideas than for how smart they sound in public. More for their contributions than for their social skills.

And that’s becoming easier. At work, the current generation of tools and practices make it possible for everyone to work out loud, giving everyone – introverts and extroverts alike – the power to shape their reputation and control their career.