My big break

If there is a God, then surely he reached down that day, turned me around, and had me go back into that room.

Though it happened 37 years ago, I was reminded of it while listening to a public radio program called My Big Break, a show in which people recount a moment that changed the course of their life and career.

Here’s mine.

1977

I was an eighth-grader in St. Benedict’s Elementary School in the northeast Bronx and it was time to make a decision about high school.

Growing up in The Bronx

Everyone at school lived in the same all-Italian neighborhood. We grew up surrounded by big families, lots of food, and many good people. But we also grew up with racism and violence. Our world was small, defined by an area within a ten-minute walk or so. Living in a neighborhood where everyone looks and lives the same, difference was a threat. Also, when your world is small, small things matter more. Parking in the wrong spot or making eye contact with the wrong person could quickly become an issue of respect and honor.

When it came to high school, everyone went to one of the same few places. I just assumed I would attend the same high school as my brother and sister, Cardinal Spellman, also in the Bronx.

A fateful decision

Regis High SchoolA few teachers told us about other options, schools like Bronx High School of Science or Aviation that required a day off to travel to the school and take a special exam. One afternoon, a dozen kids or so were listening to a teacher describe Regis, an all-boys school in Manhattan. She described their academic program in glowing terms. She said the teachers were Jesuits, something I’d never heard of before, and that it was free. If you could get in, she told us, it was an incredible opportunity. But the odds were against us. Kids from all over the New York City area sat for the grueling 3-hour entrance exam and only a few hundred passed. Then they interviewed you and your parents and cut that number in half, resulting in only 135 kids attending Regis each year.

After her presentation, she asked us who would like to sign up for the exam. My best friend and I looked at each other and decided to leave. Academic achievement was mostly ridiculed growing up. We craved normalcy and acceptance. A school full of smart kids, Jesuits, and rigorous academics seemed decidedly not normal.

We got up, left the room, and were laughing smugly, happy that we were walking back to our smaller, more comfortable world. Halfway down the hall, we slowed down and stopped, as if being pulled back. “It is a day off, though” one of us said. We considered it further. “Okay, we’ll just take the test. We don’t have to go.”

So we turned around, walked back into the room and started a process that led to both of us going to Regis. There, we learned to read works in Latin and Greek. We analyzed religious texts rather than just recite them. We discovered a culture of hard work, critical thinking, and service to others where being intellectually curious and nice was the new normal. My world got much, much bigger.

Making your own luck

A fateful decisionGoing to Regis High School was my big break. I was lucky. But what about other people? What of all those who keep walking down that metaphorical hallway, unaware of the possibilities behind all those doors?

While it can be entertaining listening to people answer “What was your big break?” the question I really want to ask people is “What big break would you like to create?” Then I want to give them the skills and the habits to make that big break happen, to improve their own luck.

Part of that is writing a book to help people build a better network, career, and life. Another is trying to create a way for people to self-organize and help each other. Maybe the first step is simply helping people consider the possibilities beyond their current world.

What big break would you like to create?

The prospect of premature death didn’t make me change so I tried this instead

The Lipitor I no longer need“Take this pill, every day, for the rest of your life,” my doctor said. I sighed at this obvious sign of decline, envisioning the 7-day pillbox that all old people seem to have. “Already?” I asked.

Approaching 40 years old, I was overweight, stressed, and didn’t exercise. My medical history wasn’t great either, my dad having died of a massive heart attack and my mother having suffered from diabetes.

I knew I was killing myself slowly. But the specter of the many changes I needed to make was too overwhelming. I couldn’t face all of it for the sake of some still-distant benefit. So I just kept doing what I was doing.

Yet 10 years later, I’m back to the weight I was in high school, eliminated most of my harmful stresses, and my doctor says I don’t need that pill any more.

Here’s what worked for me. Whatever your goal, I hope it helps you make the changes you want to make.

Food as metaphor

What I thought I wanted was just a habitPart of my problem was ignorance. I simply didn’t know what was in the food I was eating, where it came from, and what it was doing to me.

But the bigger problem was the set of habits I had developed. That bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel was like an old, familiar friend I’d see every day. So too was the hamburger with fries, the Chinese food takeout, the slumping on the couch watching TV after a long commute from a stressful job.

Although I knew it wasn’t good, it was what I knew. It also seemed to be what everyone around me was doing. Only now do I understand how much our habits and our environment shape so many aspects of our lives.

Change at work

Verbal persuasion isn't enoughIn my job, I’ve spent years showing people how their way of working was bad for them and for the firm. The pointless meetings. The armies of people processing emails. The ludicrous HR policies and systems. This is the fast food clogging the arteries of corporations.

I pointed out better ways, gave them examples, and they still didn’t change! “What’s wrong with these people?” I would think to myself. But nothing was wrong. I had only to look at my own behavior to see how difficult change is. After all, if verbal persuasion was enough then people wouldn’t buy so many packs of cigarettes with “Smoking kills” pasted on them.

The only thing that worked

There was no single thing that made the most difference for me. It was a combination of things that I learned and applied gradually over time. A few months ago, I found that much of the wisdom and research I discovered in a decade of reading self-help books was distilled into a simple, practical list in Coach Yourself. This short list summarizes the basic approach towards changing anything in your life.

  • Take small steps towards your goals
  • Set some realistic, achievable goals
  • Structure your life to help you attain your goals
  • Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe
  • Look at the areas where you’re successful
  • Reward yourself for your successes
  • Focus on your achievements
  • Enlist the support of friends
  • Chart your progress
  • Picture the way you’d like life to be

Where my previous attempts at change failed, it was because I attempted too big a change too quickly, overreacted to my failures, lacked peer support, or missed some other element on this simple list.

The next small step

As I wrote this I reflected on what I did and ate yesterday. My day started with meditation. Then I walked to work, ate a wide range of scrumptious vegetarian meals, had a cold-pressed green juice for a snack. I even went to yoga with my wife, something I hope will be my newest habit.

10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine such a set of changes. But each small change empowered me to do a little more. This process led to a new career, writing a book, and creating a  “guided mastery” coaching program that helps people change their own work and life.

Of course, what’s right for me may be wildly different than what’s right for you. The path you take will also be different. But for most of us the change begins with a small, simple step.

What will yours be?

 

The worst management training I ever had – and the best

Traditional management trainingHow do people learn to be good managers? For most of my working life, I’ve received terrible advice about management. All of it came from bosses who felt that becoming an effective leader necessarily meant sacrificing part of your humanity.

But one comment 19 years ago made me start looking at things differently. Since then, I’ve had some of the best management training possible.

The 3 worst pieces of advice

After a few years in my first job, I was inquiring about a promotion. My supervisor at the time said that while he appreciated my friendly, sociable nature, supervisors needed to be “more serious.” So I tried to change how I appeared.

In a later job when I was managing a large group, my boss cautioned me in a feedback session that I was “of the people.” The clear implication was that senior management was above “them” and I should choose which side I was on. I chose to be on management’s side.

In a similar vein, I was told not to get too close to people who reported to me. That would prevent me from making the tough decisions that senior people must make. I resolved to be tougher.

Looking back, a lot of management advice seemed to focus on putting people in their place – to let them know who’s boss. Doing so made it easier for me to rate people I barely knew or to lay off people. But being inauthentic and impersonal made me miserable and made my teams less than they might have been.

A different kind of management training program

Hudson Akihiro Stepper19 years ago, when I had my first child, a mentor told me that raising kids is the best way to learn about management. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. But I reflected on those words this week as my youngest child turned 4 years old. For me, raising children has taught me more about management than any corporate program or any advice from the boss.

I’ve learned about motivation, how applying the carrot and stick only works for the short-term and undermines the relationship in the long-term.

I’ve seen how my crude attempts attempts at controlling someone’s behavior only leads to detachment and cynicism.

I’ve learned that trying to fit people into my own concept of what they should be leads only to frustration and a squandering of potential.

It’s true that I could live another 100 years and still not be the kind of parent or leader I’d like to be. But I can be better. I know now that a manager’s job, like a parent’s job, is intensely personal. The best thing I can do is to genuinely care about the individual and provide an environment that helps them be the best they can be.

Accelerated intimacy at work (without a call from HR)

Even during some of the worst times in my life, I’ve responded to How are you? with Everything’s great!  I thought by showing people that I didn’t need help, that I was always happy, I could somehow make them like me more.

It’s a mistake I still make. Now though, I know it actually distances people. I’ve seen how the lack of intimacy leads to shallow relationships, to bonds that are easily broken.

Thankfully, I’m gradually learning some ways to get closer to people – and let them get closer to me – at work and in the rest of my life.

A strange & beautiful business dinner

A strange & beautiful dinnerAfter walking down a long, twisting corridor, through a wine cellar and then an undersized entryway, I stepped into a gorgeous, candlelit private dining room where there was one long table and 16 lavish place settings. Most of the people arriving had never met before, so you can imagine the small talk before dinner. What do you do? Do you live in the city? Such a lovely room.

Like most business dinners, I anticipated leaving with a full stomach but emotionally empty.

At this one event, though, the host wanted us to remember the evening and to genuinely get to know each other. So after a brief introduction about the purpose of the evening, he asked us to talk with our neighbors about something we were struggling with. Then he went first.

He told us how he had recently adopted a teenaged son who was having emotional issues. There had been a problem at the house. Police had to come. He shared how he loved his son but was unsure whether they should continue to live together.

The room was dead silent. No one talked or checked email. We were all focused on our host and his story – and we cared. Then the host again asked us to share our own current struggles with the people sitting next to us. We formed groups of three and started talking about things we’d have never considered sharing just a few minutes earlier.

I’ll never forget that dinner.

Making it safe

The host of that party gave us permission to be vulnerable. He made it okay for us to share a weakness or a struggle. He encouraged us to offer help if we could or at least our full attention if we couldn’t.

That made all the difference. Instead of my usual Everything’s great! I could be myself. Instead of trying to size up the people around me so they fit in neat little boxes, I saw them as real human beings.

Intimacy at work

When Dale Carnegie wrote about how to make people like you, he didn’t say Tell them everything is great! or Talk about the same trivial things everyone else talks about. Instead, two of his principles were Become genuinely interested in other people and Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.

You needn’t respond to each greeting in the elevator with probing questions  or a list of your challenges. But even a slight shift from professional to personal can make work more meaningful and fulfilling.

On an individual level, for example, I try to show that I care more about the person than the role they play. For me, that means I replace What do you do?  with

What are you excited about?

What would you love to learn?

What could you use help with?

I’ll offer up my own short example so they feel they have permission to share. When I let them know I’m genuinely interested in them, the almost universal reaction is surprise. That’s often followed by an intensely personal conversation that forges a connection between us.

In our Working Out Loud Circles, a kind of purposeful peer support group for careers, one of the first things we do is to share an intimate story about ourselves and our goals. In the initial meeting of a new circle  just this week, I learned things about friends and strangers in our group that made me care more. That bond will increase our desire to help each other and collaborate throughout the next 11 weeks we’ll be working together.

Even on a corporate level, we’ve encouraged intimacy using our enterprise social network. Though the majority of contributions are directly related to work, I’ve shared my own failures and personal challenges so others know they can, too. People from around the world have shared poignant stories about work and family that – amidst all the inhuman trappings of a modern global corporation – help people care about each other. Their stories help us realize we’re not just cogs in a machine but human beings connected by the work we do and potentially much more.

It took me a long time but I’ve learned that greater intimacy, while not always comfortable or safe, makes work and life better.

How to not suck at receiving feedback

Self-worth in a dishwasherI usually suck at receiving feedback. Even a constructive suggestion from my wife about loading the dishwasher feels like a personal attack, as if my very self-worth is tied to whether the dishes should face in or out.

Yet in writing Working Out Loud, dozens of people are giving me feedback and I like it. Somehow I’ve learned to be grateful for the criticisms of my wife, my friends, and people I’ve only met via this blog. As a result, the book is already much, much better.

Three things helped me, and whether your goal is cleaner dishes or a better life, I hope they can help you too.

Frame the goal as a learning goal

Several years ago, Keith Ferrazzi first introduced me to the idea of framing things as learning goals. If I wanted to be a better public speaker, for example, he taught me not to ask “How was I?”after a talk but “What’s one thing I could do better?” That empowered the other person to give me constructive help instead of just simple encouragement.

Seth Godin wrote that “Applause is great. We all need more of it. But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback.” Besides, I’d much rather learn about weaknesses in the book now than read about them in Amazon reviews after I’ve published it.

Here’s some feedback that made me wince at first but made the book better. Sometimes, the reviewer is describing a section or my editorial style:

“you started to lose me”

“It felt that there were a lot of commas!”

“the exercise becomes a bit cheesy to me”

“intro wordy and a bit ‘la di da’”

Then there were more general comments:

“The one aspect I didn’t really enjoy”

“While I was reading it, I didn’t get much sense of the overall reason for the content”

“Well, you asked me to be blunt…”

But the most negative comments were on the graphics I used. In the 82 pages draft, there were only two graphics and they were both universally hated.

“Surely, it’s just a placeholder”

“The pentagon of 5 elements…needs improvement because it is not interesting-looking or memorable”

Appreciate it as a gift

All of these particular comments were useful. The visuals did stink. I did use too many commas. The confusing parts were confusing.

But Ferrazzi also taught me that I didn’t have to take on every bit of feedback. After all, of the 25 pages of comments I received, there were sometimes conflicting suggestions or points I simply didn’t agree with.

Feedback is a gift. You accept it graciously and if it isn’t right for you after due consideration, you put it aside. Viewing it this way also helped me to take the criticism and myself less seriously. In The Art of Possibility, the conductor Ben Zander reinforced this when he described reacting to mistakes not with irritation but with “How fascinating!”

Choosing amateurish graphics doesn’t make me a bad author or even a bad selector of graphics. It just highlights an opportunity to improve in yet another area. “How fascinating!”

Accentuate the positive

It seems we’re all wired to look out for threats and overlook the good things. In a page full of positive comments, I’d immediately focus on the one criticism.

Being mindful of that tendency, I would purposefully read the positive feedback again and again. Besides bolstering my confidence, it helped me put the negative comments in perspective.

“I love this book.”

“I love the way you write.”

“LOVE LOVE LOVE a home run”

“The stories of people thru out, embedded in the chapters, are great.”

“Like your blogs, this draft is captivating and I didn’t want to put it aside.”

“Eff YEAH!  So, so, SO exciting seeing it all come together REALLY REALLY REALLY awesome”

“I also selfishly wonder if there is a version for 11 – 13 years old which I can use with my daughter. I am serious!”

The results

A friend of mine is an author and when he heard how much feedback I was getting he mused to himself “What would you do with all of that?”

I thought “What would I have done without all of it?!” My early drafts were pathetic, like high school book reports full of quotes to show the teacher how much research I’ve done. Without the generosity of the reviewers, I may never have gotten beyond that stage.

In addition to making the book better, asking for and getting feedback has done something else, something surprising and even more important. It’s transformed the solitary experience of writing into a global communion, full of good feelings and intellectual exchanges. The book doesn’t feel like mine alone any more but like the collaboration of a small tribe. Now I’m about to send out another draft to another round of reviewers and I’m asking for other help: marketing, graphics, self-publishing, copyediting. I’m not good at any of these things but with the help and generosity of others, I can get better.

When it comes to getting feedback about something you care about, Seth Godin summed it up nicely just two days ago:

“Good advice is priceless. Not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Not imaginary, but practical. Not based on fear, but on possibility. Not designed to make you feel better, designed to make you better.

Seek it out and embrace the true friends that care enough to risk sharing it.”