What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

A (literally) breathtaking moment in Yakushima, JapanFor most of my career, I’ve been afraid. As I approach 50, though, that fear is being replaced by something else. Not quite confidence and certainly not peace. It’s more a sense of fuck-it-I-need-to-do-something-that-matters-now.

Here are 3 stories about fears I’ve had at work and how I learned to deal with them.

Afraid of speaking up

In the first investment bank I worked in, the head of our division was a fearsome character, the kind of guy you’ve seen in movies about Wall Street. One day, after he had just given a talk to all the officers in his division, he asked for questions. Ten seconds passed. Twenty.  A minute. When it was clear no one was going to raise their hand, he lit into the audience with an expletive-filled tirade questioning our right to be in the firm. Ouch.

That was 17 years ago. But from that day on, at every meeting and event I attended, I always made sure to have something to contribute. Not to promote myself, but because I learned to be more afraid of the consequences of not speaking up at all. 

Afraid of my boss

It seems obvious that you should do what the boss expects. And for most of my career, that’s what I did. It was my own version of the Tiara Syndrome that Sheryl Sandberg referenced in Lean In: you keep doing your job well expecting someone will notice and recognize you for it.

It’s a trap. Over time, I saw people doing exactly what they were told only to have the boss hire a leader precisely because they wanted someone who’d do things differently. Or, even more common, bosses keep changing. Each time management changes, so do the objectives and the expectations. And, each time, the people who do only what the boss wants become un-moored, unsure of themselves until a new boss tells them what to do.

After a string of such changes, I finally learned to focus less on the boss and more on work that mattered. And, to provide career insurance, I made my work visible and built a network of people who also cared about that work so I had options if and when I needed them.

Afraid of myself

For much of my career I worked on technology for traders, spending much of my time on trading floors. I still twitch when I go near one. The demands of the traders combined with the stress of anything going wrong at any given moment made for an unpleasant day. There are worse jobs, certainly. It’s just that this kind of job was particularly unsuitable for me. 

I felt trapped. I remember thinking: “I can’t do this for 15 more years. Nobody does this for that long.” But I was too afraid to look in the mirror and ask “What do you want to do? If this doesn’t make you happy, what will?” 

So I just kept at it, stuck in a prison I’d built myself, until somebody else made a decision for me and forced a career change. Once confronted with the need to do something different, I felt liberated. And I learned to think more deeply and more often about what would make work fulfilling for me as well as for others.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

There’s a lovely story about fear in The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander. A student of Zander’s from Spain was applying to be an associate principal cellist in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. The first time he played the piece for Zander, it was “of an absolutely professional standard.” But though he played all the notes correctly, Zander thought he “lacked flair and the characteristics of true leadership.” 

They worked and worked until they experienced a breakthrough. And before the student  traveled for the audition, Zander said “Remember, Marius, play it the second way!”

Marius didn’t get the job. “What happened?” asked Zander and Marius confided, “I played it the first way.” So Zander tried to console his young student.

“But you haven’t heard the whole story,” he said. “I was so peesed off, I said ‘Fock it, I’m going to Madrid to play for the principal cellist in the orchestra there!’ – and I won it, at twice the salary of the other job.”

In amazement, Zander again asked “What happened?” Marius laughed: “I played it the second way!” And so BTFI – Beyond The Fuck It – became part of the folklore of Zander’s classes.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to take a big leap to experience BTFI. You just need to take a step. For me, I started to write more. I started looking for people and projects I cared about. I played more offense and less defense. 

If I’m not afraid, I’ll write Working Out Loud to help people change how they work, building better networks, careers, and lives. I’ll build a movement so people can help each other in small groups and we can, collectively, scale that change. And in the process, I’ll raise money for public education so kids will have the basic tools they’ll need to work out loud when they get older.

I’m not sure how big my dent in the universe will be. Can I really change how big companies work? Can I improve the working lives of millions of people? I’m going to find out. Because, now, my biggest fear is a tombstone that says “He was too afraid to try.”

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Unlocking potential in your organization

Dr. Seuss on labeling

Dr Seuss’ Sneeches learned the hard way

What do you expect from other people? From yourself?

It’s performance review season at many organizations, the time when we hand out labels related to each individual’s performance as well as their potential, reserving the best labels for a small fraction of the workforce.

This systemic labeling of people is a cancer on modern organizations.

We’ve known for almost 50 years that the processes for arriving at these labels are riddled with biases. Worse, the labels related to potential are simply wrong and unnecessarily limiting, actively reducing the potential in the organization.

Now, maybe, we might finally be able to change things.

Labels: Pygmalion & Golem

In 1968, researchers demonstrated a fundamental truth we’re still not applying effectively at work or at home: people tend to live up to expectations.

The Pygmalion effect “is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform…The corollary…is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.”

The early research was done with elementary school students. Experimenters withheld results of IQ tests from teachers and, instead, randomly selected 20% of the pupils and identified them to teachers as students who would outperform their classmates in the coming year. Those students, as a result of what’s known as the “observer-expectancy bias”, did indeed outperform the other students.

Yes, there are differences in skill levels and in measurable performance. And yet study after study after study shows that much of what we deem performance in organizations is actually chance, the differences attributable to predictable variations within a given system. (Think of dart-throwing monkeys performing as well as stock brokers.) And when it comes to potential, we get what we label. Much of our success in school, work, and life, is governed by self-fulfilling prophecies – by the labels applied to us.

Although I was familiar with the studies and even wrote about it before, it wasn’t until a good friend told me about Aimee Mullins that I fully appreciated just how limiting labels can be.

The story of Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins had both her legs amputated below the knee when she was just a year old. Despite that, she went on to race track at Georgetown and ultimately became a world-class athlete, author, international speaker, and activist.

The label-defying Aimee Mullins

The label-defying Aimee Mullins

In one of her TED presentations, she talks about looking up “disabled” in the thesaurus. Here’s what she found:

Disabled, a.  crippled, helpless, useless, wrecked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, run-down, worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, handicapped, senile, decrepit, laid up, done up, done for, done in, cracked up, counted out; see also hurt, useless, weak. Antonym: healthy, strong, capable.”

In her view, “the only true disability is a crushed spirit.” She was fortunate to be surrounded by people who, instead of labeling and limiting her, helped her realize her own rich and unique potential.

It’s particularly striking to watch Amy’s 3 TED talks in sequence. Here she is in her early 20s, here showing off 12 beautiful pairs of legs, and here, in her 30s, she’s talking about the power of labels. Is Amy Mullins “disabled” and “broken”? Or is she “smart, inspiring, funny, articulate, bold, beautiful” and much, much more?

What to do about institutionalized biases?

What labels do you use for other people? For yourself? As Amy describes:

“It’s not just about the words. It’s what we believe about people when we name them with these words…Our language affects our thinking and how we view the world and how we view other people…What reality do we want to call into existence? A person who is limited? Or a person who is empowered? By casually doing something as simple as naming we might be putting lids and casting shadows on their power. Wouldn’t we want to open doors for them instead?”

If you work in HR, your job is to increase the overall effectiveness of the workforce, not to label them and disenfranchise 90% of the people in the process. So some firms, even those like Microsoft that have been reviled for their long-held system of ratings and rankings, are changing their approach. Here’s why:

“What’s happened in the last 15 or 20 years is that HR has started to take a more analytical approach,” [a researcher] said. We started to see the rise of evidence-based human resources, and when they looked at the numbers they weren’t finding success [with stack ranking]. In fact, they were finding negative correlations to employee engagement and especially to innovation.”

Most companies have shifted to systems that are more flexible. Employees may still be rated or ranked, but not along a bell curve or with strict cutoffs. There is also more focus on consistent feedback and how people can improve.”

And even if your company continues with practices that are unfair and dehumanizing, you don’t have to take it any more. Instead of waiting for someone to assign you a label of their choosing, make a habit of working out loud. Start writing your own richer, more complete, more empowering story.

A different kind of corporate networking event

Old-fashioned networking

Old-fashioned networking

There we were, over 100 of us, gathered at a networking event. And it struck me that people have been holding these kinds of events, in the same format, for perhaps 50 or even 100 years. 

Groups of 10 sat at large round tables and listened to a panel talk about their networking experiences. Then the people at each table introduced themselves and discussed a few questions. Some people handed out business cards before they left.

True, we did meet some people and we did talk about networking. But we didn’t actually change how people develop relationships or make any meaningful connections.

 “There has got to be a better way,” I thought.

“How did you get your current job?”

One of the questions we discussed was “How did you get your current job?” And the answers underscored how most people take a scattershot approach to networking and really do play career roulette.

A recent finance graduate, for example, happened to attend our company’s event on campus and wound up in an arcane business area. Another person’s company was acquired and so now she had a new boss at a new firm. My favorite was an experienced person whose prior business was shut down. He got his current job after bumping into an old acquaintance at a bar. 

Old Acquaintance: “What are you up to?”  

Experienced Person: “I’m looking for something new.”

Old Acquaintance: “Oh, I think a friend of mine is hiring at his firm. Are you interested?”

Experienced Person (to the table): “So I sent him a note, and here I am.”

Everyone agreed that building a network is important and they all wanted to do something about it. But what?

The same themes, over and over and over

As people described their experiences with networking, the common theme seemed to be frustration:

“I don’t have any time.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“I know I should follow up but I don’t.” 

Ironically, the event just increased their frustration. It further reinforced what they already knew (“I should be networking more!”) without providing them with a better way of doing it. After the event, everyone would still struggle with time, technique, and a lack of a system or new habits.

That motivated me to make some simple adjustments to the next event I’d participate in.

5 ways to make networking events better

The best networking experiences I’ve ever been a part of are dinners hosted by Keith Ferrazzi. Aside from the food and drink, the venue and the small tables designed to promote better interactions, he also gets people to know and care about each other. And he does that by sharing personal information and asking probing questions. At one of his dinners, you can do more than meet people. You can make friends for life.

What if our corporate networking events were more like that? Even if you can’t control the food, the venue, or the tables, here are 5 simple things you can do to make networking events better.

  1. Prepare rich profiles: Prepare in-depth profiles of everyone in the room, including links to their LinkedIn pages or other public profiles. 
  2. Ask humanizing questions: In the profile, include questions such as “What are you passionate about?” and “What’s your superpower?” to avoid people simply providing their corporate title and work history. Provide a real example of an interesting profile.
  3. Allow time to explore: Share the profiles ahead of time so everyone can look for people they’d like to meet at the event. Make sure they can access the profiles during the event, too, and give them time to browse.
  4. Offer helpful nudges: At least one person should be a designated match-maker, making introductions based on things they’ve noticed from carefully reviewing all of the profiles. (“You two were both in the Peace Corps! You should definitely know each other.”
  5. Build in a little structure: Help people with follow-ups by structuring specific actions into the event. It could be “Make 3 new LinkedIn connections during the event”. (Or, better yet, use your company’s social platform if you have one.) Or “Schedule a lunch & 2 coffees before the night is over.” 

Next time, instead of having everyone just talk about networking, make sure they can actually practice it.

What do you think? What made your great networking experiences great? What would you do to make your next event better?

Working out loud when you’re looking for a new career

Suppose you’re looking to do something new. Maybe you don’t enjoy what you’re doing or you got laid off and want to try something else.

What would you do? How would you discover what you like and the relevant opportunities that might exist? You could wait, hoping for something interesting to come along. You could work your small network to see what’s out there.

Or you could work out loud – a process of making your learning, discovery, and contribution visible. It may be the best way to improve your chances of finding or creating fulfilling opportunities.

Here’s a story of someone I admire who did just that.

The story of Joyce Sullivan

Joyce Sullivan

Joyce Sullivan

For more than 20 years, Joyce Sullivan worked at large banks, managing big, complex projects. At times, it was challenging, well-paid, even exciting. Particularly in the earlier years, it felt very entrepreneurial. Joyce felt she could “see the opportunity, find the zealots, organize tasks, connect talented people who were passionate about a sometimes esoteric topic, and get them in a room to create some kind of change.”

But as the banking industry changed, so did the work and so did Joyce. When her firm down-sized, Joyce was ready to do something different. But what?

Building on initial interests

There were some constants throughout Joyce’s career. Trained as an educator, she always enjoyed learning and helping others learn. She enjoyed working with people at all levels, listening to them and learning from them. (Not just with the leaders but with the people who really do the work.”). And she liked learning about the next new thing.

One of those things was social media. She remembered how she felt when access to personal email was blocked by her firm. She had used it at work to stay connected with family and, when it was blocked, It started to feel like I was losing my freedom.” Joyce was interested in how social media gave people a voice and some control. And so she made a point of using all the tools herself and talking with other people about how and why they used them.

She was just a banking professional at the early stages of learning and exploring, but she liked it and her efforts grew increasingly purposeful.

Leading with generosity & Leveraging other networks

Over time, Joyce came to know more than her peers about what social media was and how it could be used at work. To increase her learning, she volunteered to serve as the first Chief Digital Strategist for the Financial Women’s Association of New York.  She’d been a member of the venerable, 57-year old institution for years and appreciated how helpful they’d been. Having seen newer networking groups grow through their use of social media, Joyce wanted to help her own organization use those tools and grow, too.

While it was an unpaid role, it allowed her to apply some of her learning in a business context. It helped her leverage an existing institution to establish meaningful business connections. And, importantly, it enabled her to present at conferences.where she could further shape both her reputation and her network.

Joyce was no longer just a banker interested in social media, but a social media professional who also happened to be a banker. By experimenting with ways to apply her interests while working out loud and building a network, she discovered ways her hobby could be much more than that.

And she continued to look for additional ways to contribute. She’d teach finance professionals about LinkedIn, organize her own networking events, and connect people in her growing network who could help each other. With each act of generosity, she would learn more, make more connections, and have yet more to contribute.

Narrating her learning

I first met Joyce via conference call while she was working at another bank. She made a point of connecting via LinkedIn and Twitter. And though many months would go by before we spoke again, I could follow all of her learning on-line: the people and companies she was meeting, the tools she was trying, the work she was doing, and the discoveries she was making.

This was more than just personal branding. Joyce was earnestly narrating what she was doing, including original contributions, in ways that could help others.

I was amazed at the incredible range of things she was involved in – from delivering webinars to making videos to giving talks at big conferences like SXSW and the 140 Conference – and how she knew so many interesting people.

New possibilities

All of this learning and all of these connections opened up new possibilities. People who’d seen her work would contact her about an opportunity: “Joyce, can I talk to you about…” and would ask her about training, coaching, or speaking to their company. One of the highlights was being asked to appear with Maria Bartiromo on CNBC  “offering advice for baby boomers suddenly back at the drawing board.”

Yet the drawing board wasn’t a blank canvas at all. Joyce drew on her 20 years of banking and her years of purposeful exploring and networking. She eventually started her own consulting firm, SocMediaFin, offering “social media strategy development and implementation for financial services and other highly regulated industries”. She’s now a popular speaker at conferences and companies around the country. And she gets genuine fulfillment from her daily interaction with her large, diverse, and still growing network.

When Joyce was laid off, she didn’t recede into the background or just rely on friends and family for access to existing jobs. Instead, she channeled her energy into purposeful discovery – learning, experimenting, meeting people, contributing. And by making all of that visible using social platforms, she turned those experiences into new and more fulfilling possibilities.

You can, too.

Career Day

Career Day

Career Day

Last week, I was at my son’s middle school for Career Day. I struggled a bit as I thought of how to describe what I do and whether it would be relevant to 11- and 13-year olds.

Could I show them how working out loud would give them access to opportunities that could make work – and life – better?

“How would you find a job?”

So I started with a question: “How would you find a job?” And the responses from the 50 kids in two different classes were largely the same.

“Fill out a form”

“You might see a help wanted sign”

“Apply on line.”

“Ask family and friends.”

They were the same answers I would have given 30+ years ago. Then I followed up with a question they found much more interesting.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?”

A cake by Rosanna Pansino

A cake by Rosanna Pansino

Now more hands shot up. “Baseball player.” “Something with physics.” “Decorate cakes.”

“Decorate cakes?” I asked. “Okay. How would you get a job decorating cakes?”

The aspiring cake decorator said she might go to her local bakery and apply. Good. But what if she could put her cake decorating skills online so 100 or 1000 bakeries could see what she could do?

Another girl piped up: “Like Rosanna Pansino.”

Um, who? “She bakes things and puts her videos on YouTube.”

So I pulled out my phone, searched for Rosanna Pansino and, sure enough, I found this:

Search results for Rosanna Pansino

Rosanna, it turns out, is 28 years old and has had some minor acting roles. But she also loves baking. And instead of applying for a baking job, she starting using social media to make her work visible and establish her reputation as the “Baker of Nerdy Things.”

Best. Job. Ever.

Major League GamingAs time was running out, one young boy got the courage to say “I want to be a gamer.”

The other kids laughed and the teacher was skeptical. “Are there jobs like that?” But the kids knew better. “Sure! You could test games.” “You could create them.” “You could play them in contests.” “You could write books.”

Having gone through several examples of working out loud with the class, I asked them: “What advice would you give your classmate? How could he find opportunities to play video games for a living?”

“He could post cheat codes online.” “He could post videos of him playing.” “He could play online where other people could see him.”

In short, he could play games in an online, public way that would make his skills searchable and discoverable while helping him connect with people in the gaming world. He could work out loud.

How would you find your next job?

If young people can embrace the idea of working out loud for such a wide range of aspirations, what will you do when you look for a new job? Will you fill out a form? Ask your friends and family for connections?

The universe of possible positions for you is so large and yet the traditional routes to finding a job are so grossly limiting and ineffective. You, your broker, and your close connections will only be aware of a small sliver of the possibilities unless you use social platforms and work out loud.

As the class got ready for their next session, I had one final question.

“You have an incredible advantage. You have ways to make you and your work visible that people my age never had. As a result, you have access to so many more opportunities than your teacher and me.

How will you use that advantage?”