Bringing Joy to our Jobs

I’ve written before about Total Immersion swimming. While it’s taught me a good deal about swimming, the bigger lessons are the Kaizen-based mindset that form its foundation.

Kaizen, a Japanese word that describes the idea of continues improvement, is an attitude we can apply to anything in life. For me, Kaizen is a mindset that is equal parts curiosity, self-reflection, self-knowledge, high standards, patience, and discipline.

To illustrate the thinking, here’s an excerpt from a Total Immersion blog post by TI founder, the late Terry Laughlin, that I got a few weeks ago. Swimming is, of course, just a placeholder:

Expect improvement. Most adult swimmers have become resigned to swimming year after year with little to show for it. A T.I. Swimmer’s goal should be Kaizen (continuous improvement) Swimming. Because swimming offers limitless opportunities for solving the UHSP (Universal Human Swimming Problem) and increasing self-awareness, you could continue gaining in Mastery for decades. I still make exciting advances every year, and still sense almost limitless possibilities for further improvement. The refinements I’m making are fairly subtle, but my capacity for fine distinctions in position and timing has increased steadily. My current focus is on greater relaxation, especially when swimming faster.

There’s so much to grab onto in this short excerpt:

  • The mindset of expecting improvement, rather than resignation to being stuck. It’s all too common in the workforce to resign oneself to no longer improving. Not only is this a depressing thought, it’s an enormous waste of talent and potential.
  • The notion of increasing self-awareness. I’ve found that self-awareness builds on itself. The more genuine curiosity and humility we hold, the more we discover.
  • “Gaining in Mastery for decades.” Imagine continuing to work on mastery, in something as deceptively simple as recreational swimming, for decades. Imagine applying this same mindset to other skills we hope to develop in life: listening, learning to apologize, being courageous, connecting with people, writing, public speaking, presence…
  • “Limitless possibilities for further improvement.” Terry sees learning at a micro-level, the tiny subtle improvements, as joyful. So often we think of learning and growth as painful, something we must endure, because it can be uncomfortable. Terry knows that learning often feels like struggle. The question is, what would it take for us to convert that struggle into joy?

Goldilocks Was Wrong

Freelancers know this best: most weeks feel either a little too hot or a little too cold.

When work is too light, when you’re in a dry spell, it can feel like the next right client may never come around. Fear starts to creep in.

“Maybe no one will ever hire me again. Ever.”

The worries (and the bills) pile up.

Then comes the deluge. When it rains, it pours, and there’s only one of you! You can’t keep up with all the work, you’re pulling late nights, scheduling clients two months out, handing them off to other folks because you can’t meet their timelines.

Non-freelancers, people with “regular jobs” with a weekly paycheck, have echoes of this experience. We often bemoan the heavy periods, when the work is piled up too high: we get frustrated at the extra hours, we over-experience the stress of looming deadlines. We long for our workload to be “just right,” but that feels perpetually out of reach given all the demands on our time.

Then, all of a sudden, things lighten up. A contract falls through, a program gets suspended, our calendars free up and our Inbox empties a bit.

This should feel great, but it causes its own struggle. We can’t seem to shift gears and find it hard to take advantage of newfound time to reflect and gain perspective. Instead of letting our soil rest and get replenished, we get restless and antsy. We long for the intensity, the thrill, the daily affirmation of being on the hook. All of this white space is, frankly, uncomfortable, as are the nagging questions that bubble up: why aren’t I on that big project, leading that important team, at the center of the action?

Goldilocks is a nice story, but there’s no “just right” bowl of porridge waiting for us.

Life, and our responsibilities, come in waves. Our job is float with the waves, instead of getting knocked around by them.

We do that, in part, through strategies—time management, good prioritization, the 80/20 rule, delegation—that smooth out the waves.

But most the answer is a mindset with psychological resilience built in. I’m reminded of a yoga teacher who would remind us that we couldn’t wait for everything to be just right in our lives before we made time to step on our mats—out job was to step on them every day. In the same way, our job isn’t to “cope” with this particular period (whether it’s an up or a down), our job is to see that this moment is every moment.

As important, it helps to remember that part of the problem is the very the idea that there’s a perfectly balanced day or week waiting just around the corner. This fable contributes to the gnawing discomfort and dissatisfaction we say we so desperately want to overcome.

You could get it for less

If you’re pricing right for your outstanding work, it will sound expensive to others.

After all, they’re not used to buying outstanding work.

This means that the moment you tell them the price, it will probably feel uncomfortable, both to you and to them.

It helps to remember that yes, it’s true, they could find another way to do this.

Maybe they could get some graduate students to do it for free.

Or find someone who’s just starting who is desperate for the work.

Someone on a website, somewhere, who does piece work at a seemingly-cheap hourly rate.

Or someone who can do just enough to make the problem go away, but who won’t fundamentally move things forward.

All those options are possible.

But for this work, at this standard, delivered in this way, it will cost this.

And it will be a bargain.

The Empathy Challenge

The challenge of empathy is that it requires us to overcome our own convenient mental shortcuts.

“He’s just disorganized.”

“She is so rigid.”

“They are biased.”

“They don’t care about disadvantaged people.”

These shortcuts are the opposite of empathy, which is defined as “vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Surely someone else doesn’t feel they are disorganized, rigid, biased, or uncaring.

Our first step towards finding empathy is to see our mental shortcuts for what they are: they save us the trouble of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, helping us box in and simplify another complex human being.

Our next step is to work to see and hear the story they tell themselves about themselves.

This story is, of course, a positive one.

“I am flexible, nimble and creative.”

“I am structured and diligent.”

“I’ve been around the block, and I’m not naïve.”

“I value hard work above all.”

What are the truly good, worthwhile things they are in favor of? What are the values they cherish?

Our empathy breakthroughs ultimately come when we understand the values someone else is fighting for.

We are all protagonists in our own story.

Mariano Rivera on Luck vs Skill

At the end of every How I Built This podcast, host Guy Raz asks his guests whether they’d attribute their success in building their business to luck or to skill.

Hearing that question, it’s hard not to think: how would I answer?

Listening to episode after episode, I looked forward to this question. Both answers seemed valid to me. Then, last week, I attended a benefit for Family Services of Westchester, a not-for-profit that supports the community in Westchester County, where I live.

FSW is a wonderful organization that does important work. However, like most non-profits, their benefit followed a familiar script: drinks, a seated dinner at 10-tops, a silent auction, and a litany of speakers all saying how humbled they were to be honored… It’s not fully FSW’s fault. This is what is expected, and meeting people’s expectations is an accepted way to grab attention to raise money and awareness for good causes.

Mariano Rivera Hall of Fame
Mariano Rivera in 2011. Photo credit: Richard Perry / NYTimes

Near the end of the event, it’s time for the guest of honor: Yankee relief pitcher and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. I’m not a baseball fan, so I don’t know that Rivera was the first baseball player to be inducted unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don’t have any expectations.

But when Rivera starts speaking, the mood shifts. He has a natural charisma that holds the room, an easy smile and a quick wit. Sports marketer Brandon Steiner, who is set to interview Rivera, walks up to the dais and spontaneously asked him if he’d auction off his watch and his tie for the cause. Without missing a beat, Rivera flashes a big smile, says yes, and runs the impromptu auction himself. The room is jovial, relaxed and engaged.

For all his confidence, charm, and sense of humor, Rivera shifts gears when he’s asked about what got him here. In response to how he stayed calm in big situations, where his famous 90+ mile-per-hour cut fastball came from, how he became one of the all-time greats, Rivera’s answer is the same. He is a religious man, and time and again he says, clearly and simply: he had been blessed by G-d, he is just the vehicle for this blessing.

There is something about the clarity and genuineness with which he says this. He isn’t boasting, grandstanding, or prostrating himself. He is speaking his simple truth. As noticeable, he does so in ways that don’t diminish his own struggles, hard work and perseverance. Yet the ultimate message is that he isn’t the hero of his story, he is a vessel for a bigger story.

Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I’d offer that there’s an old lesson to be re-learned here.

The successes that really matter are ones of good health, a loving family, the talents we’ve been given and the opportunities we’re lucky enough to come across. Whatever other successes we might pursue, and achieve, are built upon this foundation of good fortune.

Yet increasingly I worry that we’re living, in the United States at least, through the logical endgame of our national narrative of an individualistic, “meritocratic” society. As religious practice fades, as our communal ties weaken, and as technology feeds us stories that reinforce our worldview, more and more of “successful” people believe, deep down, that we’ve earned our good fortune.

What I saw in Mariano Rivera was the power of faith of any kind, and the truth that if we’re successful by any conventional measure, we probably have been outstandingly, undeservedly lucky. I also saw in the way Rivera told his story that there is no necessary trade-off between gratitude and agency, no need to diminish ourselves as we acknowledge that we are small players in our own story.

The best part is this: the moment we let go of our story of deserving what we have, we find greater ease in connecting with others, in giving thanks, and in doing what we can to rebalance the scales.


We’ve all had powerful moments when the right person says the right thing to us in the right way at the right time.

Often, these moments will fade for them…just another day and another conversation.

But they stay with us for ages.

It’s because of who they are, the relationship we’ve built with them, the fact that it’s them saying the one thing we need to hear right now, allowing us to believe that we can take our next big step.

We carry these moments in our back pockets where, like photographs, they get worn and a bit faded. In times of doubt and uncertainty, we pull them out, gaze at them, and take comfort.

“This person, who really and truly knows me, said this thing. Maybe it’s true.”

There are many reasons we keep showing up for our colleagues and friends, reasons we continue to be present and why we endeavor, each day, to fully see one another. One reason is for the privilege of saying those right words at a Polaroid moment, to give the gift of hard-earned belief and trust to someone who can do great things.

If you’re carrying around one of these snapshots, today might be a good day to thank the person who gave it to you.

Reflections from Hamilton Fish Park

Squash at Hamilton Fish Park
A picture I took while leaving the park. The white box is the public squash court.

Last summer, I joined a group of about 75 people to watch an exhibition squash match at the first outdoor public squash court in New York City. Former World #1 and squash legend Nick Matthew was playing American up-and-comer Andrew Douglas. If this were tennis, this would be pretty close to the Federer-Isner match, except that since it’s squash, 75 people showed up instead of 1,000.

The exhibition was to bring attention to the first free, outdoor public squash court in New York City, in Manhattan’s Hamilton Fish Park, a beaux-arts jewel in the chain of public parks built in New York City in the early 20th century. The park is surrounded by hi-rise public housing, squat, hulking and indifferent.

As a native New Yorker, I love finding new neighborhoods and I’m always struck by how different worlds coexist next to each other, marked by invisible borders of class, race and unspoken signals. While I’d never been to the Park, I spent two years going to a yoga class six blocks away on Clinton Street, and would eat an Italian lunch after each class. I’m more than an observer of separation, I’m a participant.

The afternoon was a coming together of different worlds, creating as many questions as answers for me.

The public court is, of course, privately funded. It is innovative and technologically advanced – it plays like a wood-floored squash court but is impervious to snow, rain and heat. The privately-raised funds were to demonstrate that squash could be a public game. It’s an effort by squash lovers to democratize access to an historically elite, blue-blood sport. Since squash is one of the few niche sports left that can get you a ticket to an ivy league college, it’s a laudable endeavor.

And yet the court is miniscule in the context of the park, dwarfed by the public space and the 50×25 yard swimming pool built by Robert Moses, one of the most powerful men of his era (who, of course, worked in the public sector). The pool itself was funded by the Works Project Administration, one of 10 $1 million pool projects started in 1936 ($18 million today) for the city parks. This pool, over the decades, has vacillated between the pristine state it is in today and, in the 1970s, a dangerous place to buy and sell drugs. There are no simple answers.

Back to the squash match on that hot summer afternoon. For an hour or two, worlds come together: a group of Squash fans from the 1%, kids from CitySquash, a not for profit that is bringing squash to urban schools, and the park regulars going about their business, playing basketball and splashing in the pool.

We were all quietly other occupying the same space, not quite connecting or interacting but at least in physical proximity.

It reminded me of an unspoken truth of modern social change work: that the “exciting,” “innovative,” and privately funded now idea is often nice but small relative to the greater forces of public spending, public spaces, social fabric, and community. It felt metaphorical to witness this positive, new-style, small charity project in a revived, old-style public park that itself is nestled on the Lower East Side, the corner of Manhattan where wave after wave of immigrants arrived, struggled and, often, eventually thrived.

I left that afternoon seeing the strengths and limitations of both the old and the new approaches, and wondering what it will take for us to do more than comfortably and habitually occupy our own spaces: how do we actively and deliberately make the best of these spaces come together?

Most days, even if we’re in social change work, we are like the two neighborhoods right next to each other: the fancy yoga studio five blocks away from public housing. We frequent our respective places, are generally positive and well-intentioned people, but we don’t talk to each other.

Sometimes we do a bit better, like we did that afternoon: two worlds occupied the same space and peacefully, albeit inoffensively, coexisted.

Rarely, though, do we really stop to interact with each other.

Rarely do we take the time to intentionally learn from each other.

Rarely do we notice how much those who came before us have to offer.

Hamilton Fish Park
New York Times article on Hamilton Fish Park from June 21, 1936.


Why New Strategies Come Up Short

Someone had the idea to install a high-end Dyson hand drier in this bathroom. It’s more efficient, cleaner, and will decrease paper waste. It is, quite simply, a better mousetrap.


Except that the paper towels dispenser wasn’t removed. Maybe there was a good reason to do this, and maybe there wasn’t, but either way, it’s before noon and the  paper towel waste bin is overflowing. The new device, the new approach, is being undermined because no one had the guts to say “and we’re going to stop doing the old thing too.”

Strategy is about making choices.

Most of the time, our new strategies come up short not because we don’t have enough good new ideas, but because we’re scared to let go of the old ones. We are unwilling to stop doing the things that are comfortable that got us here–they feel like they form our identity, there are people who are accustomed to doing those old jobs, so let’s have our strategy be “in addition to” everything else rather than “instead of.”

That all sounds plausible enough, but the truth is we’ll never get to the other side of the pool if we keep clinging to the edge over here.

Maybe You Should Focus on This

I notice this all the time with my kids.

I can’t solve problems for them.

Often, as they get older, they don’t even want my help any more.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I can say, “I think focusing on this part will make a big difference.”

And it does.

Because they have the skills. That’s not the problem.

Some of the time I can help them with diagnosis: how to apply their skills to this problem.

But most of the time it’s not even that. They have all the tools, it’s just that it feels uncomfortable–to them, to to anyone–to stick with and prioritize the hard bits.

As bosses and colleagues, as coaches and spouses and friends, we don’t need to have all the answers. Even if we had them, that wouldn’t matter, because they’d be our answers, not someone else’s.

What we do need to do is to listen attentively, to pay close attention, and, occasionally, by reflecting on our own experience, context and perspective, suggest a slightly different focus: a new lens through which to see a situation, a rejiggering of what could be at the very top of the list.

We shouldn’t be in the solutions-giving business. The answers we can provide are rarely just right, and, even if they were, it’s disempowering when an answer comes from someone other than the person facing the challenge.

But helping people channel their energy in the right way—that’s a great way to partner.

The Difference Between Discomfort and Injury

Every athlete knows that aches and pains are part of the process. Especially as we get older, something always hurts a bit.

The challenge is distinguishing between aches and injuries.

For an ache, the best approach is to continue to work the area to promote healing. Usually a slightly different activity is best, but, counter-intuitively, healing happens faster through more use of the affected area. This increases blood flow and stretches and strengthens the supporting muscles and tendons.

Injuries, on the other hand, require rest. We suspend activity, ice the area, maybe immobilize it until it stabilizes and is ready to be built up again.

These truths apply to our mind and hearts, not just to our bodies.

When we are challenged emotionally, when we take what feels like a professional risk and fall short, we often misdiagnose the difference between discomfort and injury. Any blow – in the form of embarrassment, a critique, a sale we didn’t close, a displeased client – hurts our ego.

It can feel like an injury, but it’s usually just discomfort.

If we allow ourselves the mistake of bandaging up and immobilizing that new muscle that we’ve just used the first time, healing will take forever.

What this new muscle really needs is more work and more effort, so it can be strengthened.