John Stepper

My favorite book launch party lasted three years

Cake by "Baking Outside The Box"

Cake by “Baking Outside The Box”

There’s a familiar pattern to most book launches. The book signings, the radio shows, the racing for people’s attention in the first 30 days after publication, before the world moves on to one of the other 2 million books published every year.

It’s all good. It’s just not me.

So when I read about a different kind of book launch, I thought “Maybe I could do this instead.”

Humble beginnings

In the preface to Eckhart Tolle’s first book, The Power of Now, he tells the story of how it launched. The book was published by Namaste Publishing, a start-up imprint in Vancouver, and they printed 3,000 copies. There was no marketing budget or much attention at all, so Tolle hand-delivered books to local Vancouver bookstores. He said he found this “enormously satisfying, knowing that every book I handed over had the potential of changing someone’s life.”

His other distribution channels included friends placing copies in spiritual bookstores in other cities along the west coast of the US and Canada. Some copies even made it to a shop London. During the first year, “the book found its readers almost exclusively through word of mouth.”

Word spreads

The original blurbs in the front of the book are evidence of these humble beginnings. Instead of celebrities or noted spiritualists, the quotes are from the bookstore managers who first got the book.

The Power of Now was introduced to me by a customer. I read only one page and agreed that it rang true. It is a jewel of clarity and insight. The book has become a word-of-mouth bestseller here at East West.” – Norman Snitkin, comanager, East West Bookshop, Seattle

 

“I have no hesitation in recommending Eckhart Tolle’s wonderful book. Everyone who has picked up a copy has ended up taking it home. The Power of Now sells on its own merit and by word of mouth.” – Stephen Gawtry, Manager, Watkins Books Ltd., London

Over the first two years, the book got favorable reviews in some small magazines and was picked up by a larger publisher. By that time, one reviewer called it “an underground best-seller.”

A year later, actress Meg Ryan mentioned the book to Oprah in an interview. That led to an article in one of the early editions of Oprah magazine, then more mentions and ultimately interviews. After three years, the book was translated in multiple languages and was on its way to becoming a NY Times bestseller. After eight years, Tolle wrote another book and the two books have sold a combined total of over eight million copies in North America alone. A series of webinars with Oprah in 2008 attracted more than 35 million viewers.

My talk with Oprah

While I enjoyed Tolle’s books and the rags-to-riches nature of the story, what I liked most was how he originally published his book to help other people. He had no hope of making much money with it, yet he did it anyway. And word spread.

That’s my approach with Working Out Loud. It’s meant as a gift. If people find it useful, they’ll tell a friend or pick it for their book club. Some will form a working out loud circle and put the ideas into practice. Maybe a few thousand people might buy a copy in the first year. Maybe word will spread. Maybe not.

Once in a while though, I think of what happened to The Power of Now and imagine if something similar happened to Working Out Loud. What if more people find my gift useful? It might take years but what if millions of people wind up building a better career and life? And since the royalties go to education causes around the world, what kinds of positive impact could we make with that money?

My talk with Oprah wouldn’t be about me at all. When I allow myself to daydream about it, I imagine our conversation would be like this interview with Pharrell Williams. In the middle of it, Oprah shows a video of how other people leveraged Pharrell’s work to make themselves and others happier.

As they both cry, she says, “It’s being used for something that’s greater than yourself.”

The beginning of a movement

There’s a video that shows, in 3 minutes, how movements are often built. Maybe you’ve seen it.

The beginning of a movementDuring the Sasquatch Music festival in 2009 festival, people are just laying on blankets, listening to music, until one guy gets up and starts to dance. He’s lanky and not a particularly good dancer. It’s awkward to watch. Then, a second dancer joins him. Then a third.

What happens next is incredible to me even though I’ve watched the video dozens of times.

This week, I felt like that awkward guy who’s been doing a goofy dance for a while. I can almost feel what’s about to happen next.

Different people, different dances

The dance I’m doing is writing a book called Working Out Loud and enabling people to form their own peer support circles. The idea is to help people, through actual practice, learn how to build a network of relationships that can help them with any goal, including discovering more meaning and fulfillment in work and life.

I’ve been doing this dance for about three years. Sometimes, I’m sure it’s been painful to watch. Just this week though, something changed.

Author and bloggerUnbeknownst to me, an organization with 130,000 members made this wonderful video about how they work out loud. They even cited me as “author and blogger,” the first time I was described that way.

Then, the first circle formed that didn’t include me or someone I coached. A woman I didn’t know but had read the blog simply decided she wanted to invest in herself.

A division at work held a career development event where I spoke about how people could take more control of their career and lives. People signed up for five more circles.

NHS Working Out LoudI was notified by some wonderful people in Australia that they’ll be forming circles in Sydney and Melbourne, the first circles comprised solely of people from other firms.

Then, via Twitter, I saw how some smart, creative people at the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK are proposing to form circles there, too.

 

What happens at the end of the video

Watch the video now if you can. See how that second and third dancer made it feel like a group, something others could more readily be a part of. That’s how I felt last week.

After that, 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 it. There are hundreds of people, dancing and screaming, and it’s become a movement. You can’t even see the first dancer any more.

That’s exactly the kind of movement I’m hoping for. If I was trying to make money or become famous, then I would spoil it by being selfish or too self-conscious. Instead, I’m just trying to spread an idea that helps people access possibilities for meaning and fulfillment.

Here’s to dancing like nobody’s watching.

The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

I remember my smug dismissal of the advice when my friend first mentioned it. She said she saw it on Oprah.

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.”

It seemed ridiculous. But I kept thinking about it in the following weeks and months. I started to see how much time I spent worrying instead of doing, and how that was a major source of unhappiness for me. I also started to see how to change that.

Who says such things?

The advice came from Eckhart Tolle, whose acclaims include being listed as “the most spiritually influential person in the world.” It came up in response to a question from a viewer during Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Here’s a two-minute video clip.

My friend’s pithy recounting of his advice wasn’t an exact quote, but she captured the essence of it.

“It is true that you need to take action. It is not true that you have to worry to take action….You don’t need worry. You need action.”

New age wisdom isn’t so new

Once I was attuned to the idea of replacing worrying with action, I saw that the idea wasn’t new. Leaders throughout the ages have all given advice similar to Pay the bills.

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning. 

– Winston Churchill

 

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

 - Marcus Aurelius

 

If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.  

– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, also wrote about helping people live richer, fuller lives. This is from his Scrapbook:

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

In writing this post today, I learned Dale Carnegie also wrote another popular book: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

How I use this advice all the time

Just this week, when an issue arose at work, I worried. When I was feeling overwhelmed with things to do to finish the book, I worried. When the cough I’ve had for 5 weeks wasn’t going away, I worried. Each time, I told myself:

Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.

I knew that I didn’t need worry. I needed action. So I organized a response to the issue at work and focused on it all week. I mapped out all the remaining book tasks and asked for help for those things I didn’t know how to do. I went to see my doctor.

I was happier. And I’ll be sure to listen to my friend’s advice more often.

Working out loud when you don’t want to be visible

Are you visible?When I talk about working out loud, some people will give voice to an objection I suspect is quite common:

“Thanks, but I just don’t want to be visible.”

They’re surprised when I tell them they can still work in a way that’s open, generous, and connected – and realize many of the benefits resulting from that – without ever posting a blog or tweet.

Here’s how.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Making your work visible is just one of the five elements of working out loud. The others – relationships, generosity, a focus on getting better, and purpose – can often be more important depending on your goal.

A few months ago, I wrote about how my 9 year daughter approaches problems. She doesn’t post anything online related to what she’s doing, but she expects that others have done so already. So her first step in achieving a goal – solving a Rubik’s cube, perfecting her golf swing, improving at cello – is to look online for information that can help her. Then she’ll make note of who published that content and look for other things they contributed.

In that process, she’s building a network and getting better without ever posting anything herself. Then, in person, she exchanges information with classmates and teachers interested in her goal so she can improve even more, discovering things she hadn’t found herself. If my daughter did post things online, if she was more visible, she would further increase her chances of finding useful people and knowledge. But she gets plenty of benefits even without doing so.

Celebrating the “Invisibles”

InvisiblesThere’s an entire book written on Invisibles. (HT to Omar Reece for pointing this out.) It makes the point that people in certain jobs such as anesthesiology and structural engineering are invisible when they do their jobs perfectly and “they’re fine with remaining anonymous.” Here’s an excerpt from the book’s website:

“What has been lost amid the noise of self-promotion today is that not everyone can, or should, or even wants to be in the spotlight. This inspiring and illuminating book shows that recognition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and invisibility can be viewed as a mark of honor and a source of a truly rich life.”

The book makes an important point that “hidden professionals can reap deep fulfillment by relishing the challenges their work presents.” You’t needn’t seek recognition to like your job.

How even a private person can work out loud

Yet while it’s natural that everyone won’t seek the spotlight, being anonymous and invisible is an unhealthy extreme. There is another alternative.

When you work out loud, your goal isn’t to promote yourself or to be visible to as many people as possible. It’s to be visible to the right people so you can become more effective and discover other possibilities.

The anesthesiologists and structural engineers don’t need to be popular or engage a big audience. But I certainly hope they’re not anonymous. I hope they work out loud at least as much as 9 year olds do, seeking to become better at what they do and actively looking for other experts in their field to learn from them.

A woman in one of our early working out loud circles considered herself a “lurker.” She didn’t want to be visible. Yet after a few weeks she said, “thinking about people and networks and just simple possibilities in a different way is already making me more open at and about work.”

She may still limit her use of the Internet to just looking for information. She may limit her exchange of ideas to in-person talks over coffee. But now she’ll be “open at and about work.” She’s realized that private and open needn’t be opposites, and that mental shift alone will greatly increase her chances of reaching her goals.

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai LamaA month ago, I saw an extraordinary post about a way to change your air travel experience, and it included a line I kept thinking about:

“Arrive early and move through the airport like the Dalai Lama. You are in no rush. All obstacles are taken in stride, patiently, with a smile.”

That image stuck with me. Imagine, no striving or manufactured complications. No irritation at the foibles of others, at the inhumane systems, or at the unpredictable nature of things. You could still travel far but you could be, well, cool about it.

I began thinking: That’s what I want my life to be like! 

3 quotes in my office that are all from the same book

As the universe would have it, around that time I’d just finished reading a book a dear friend had given me for my birthday called Cathedral of the Wild. It’s written by Boyd Varty and it’s about the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. The reserve is about the size of Switzerland and the Varty family has gradually returned it to its natural state over the last 40 years.

The book is a memoir filled with stories of the people and animals at Londolozi. But it’s also about Boyd’s internal struggles and personal growth, and those are the lines from the book I remembered. When I’d finished reading, I did something I never do: I printed out three quotes and taped them to my office desk.

“Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome.”

 

“It’s only got the power I give it.”

 

“Tsama hansie. Put down all you have been carrying.”

Operating instructions for a right life

In many ways, Lonodolozi was idyllic, a restored garden of Eden. But a years-long investor lawsuit related to one of the family’s ambitious projects made it feel like like their work and dreams were unraveling. Worse, the close-knit family started to come apart too.

The first quote was from a spiritual master in an Indian ashram where Boyd went seeking advice. The second was from his father speaking in reaction to the many calls from lawyers. The last was what the local Shangaan people would tell Boyd when he was a boy when he was tired after a long day.

They could be dismissed as just quotes, and even Boyd remembers snarling about the pithy wisdom from the ashram master. “I could have gotten that from a fortune cookie.” But by the end of the book, at the ripe old age of 29, Boyd sees the wisdom underlying these quotes as “the only operating instructions we will ever need for a right life.”

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

Years ago I would have dismissed ideas like these as New Age fluff, but that was simply the result of ignorance and a closed mind. Now, I take comfort in life’s operating instructions every day.

When I’m trying to do good work and people, management systems, or bad luck deal me a setback, I think Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome. All I can do is to persevere doing what I think is right.

When a person acts in a way that makes me angry or upset, I think It’s only got the power I give it. Mostly, my reactions to the barbs of everyday life are bigger problems than the barbs themselves. I need to recognize an issue without making it bigger than it is.

When I’m finished working, I think Put down all you have been carrying. There are times to focus on what needs to be done and there are times to tsama hansie - to restore, recharge, and just enjoy the moment.

Life, like airports, can be nasty and brutish. Or you can choose how you approach things and utterly change the experience.