Katia Verresen on mindfulness at work

This interview with executive coach Katia Verresen does a beautiful, cussing-riddled job of linking up how self-care, self-compassion, gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness are critical for business.

Verresen’s approach is at the intersection of basic mindfulness skills and Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability.  For a little background, here’s a Q&A with Brene Brown on the TED blog, in which she discusses the concept of scarcity thinking, and the idea of not being enough:

Well, the idea of “I’m never enough” — beautiful enough, successful enough, thin enough, popular enough, loved enough, worthy enough — that’s shame and scarcity, and I’ve seen people overcome that every single day. I’ve gone through the process myself. I’ve interviewed people over the course of four years who’ve done a lot of this work. You have to understand shame. You have to understand where the message comes from, what drove it, how has it protected you in the past, and are you willing to look it in the eye and say, “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I’m not subscribing anymore. I’ve got a new way of doing things, and maybe you kept me safe and small in the past, but I’m not doing that.” The answer is absolutely that I’m not enough. You can overcome that, but you can’t overcome it without an understanding of shame. If you are not willing to have that conversation, there’s no way to the other side of it. You have to know what shame is.

Verresen approaches this from another angle, with what she calls abundance thinking: the idea that you have to take care of yourself, see what’s around you, see the resources and choices you have ahead of you, so that you can actively chart your course:

“You’re not going to build a billion dollar business on a string of bad days. It has to be a sequence of your very best days. Your performance is tied 100% to your attitude.”

The goal is to be in a non-reactive position (see also mindfulness teacher Tara Brach: Learning to Respond Not React). The example Verresen gives is about the moments when you need everybody to drop what they’re working on and jam out a huge and focused project:

When you’re building something new, you’ll inevitably run into 11th hour, all-hands-on-deck, crunch-mode situations — all the time. When you lead teams, you’re never out of the woods. In these cases, it’s so easy to tell your team, “Keep cranking, we’ll breathe when we’re done!” It’s easy to let all the habits enumerated above fall by the wayside because you believe you have no time or room.

But this is exactly when they’re needed the most. Every tool mentioned here takes less than 5 minutes to perform, enabling you to be at your best — which is also the way to ensure your team is at its best. At the times that matter most, you can’t accept less. That’s not going to happen if you’re pushing through exhaustion.

Cue up the classic Zen adage:


She goes on to discuss how essential feedback is for healthy teams (I wrote a bit about feedback here and here), and focuses primarily on appreciation-based feedback:

“When you look at healthy teams, unbridled, uninhibited appreciation is always a key ingredient. It’s the No. 1 retention tool in the world.”

Verresen offers a handful of tools for getting unstuck, for finding support, for busting yourself out of a rut, for approaching projects with neutrality. One I really love is the idea of forming a “giving circle” — a group of friends or colleagues where everybody is working on something unrelated (see Heidi Grant Halvorson’s work about competition as it relates to communication for more on the importance of projects not overlapping in this context) — to offer support, guidance, brainstorming, and resource-finding help to each other.

It seems so obvious to suggest putting together a network of people you trust, for ongoing collaboration, but how rarely do we offer up our struggles for others to look at? Our default answer is “I’m fine” when in truth we need some help. If we can be vulnerable and open, we can accomplish so much more with so much less suffering.


Derek Sivers on three things to consider in decision-making


I love this Derek Sivers piece about finding your work in the sweet intersection of these three factors. Really enjoyable breakdown of what you get when you’ve only got two of them and have forgotten to account for the third. He concludes:

When a life or plan feels ultimately unsatisfying, I find it’s because I’ve forgotten to include:

  • what makes me happy
  • what’s smart (long-term good for me)
  • what’s useful to others




I love talking and reading about work — my own work, and what other people do for work. I took a copy of Working by Studs Terkel with me on a backpacking trip once. There are infinite paths through life, and that’s true for the working world as well. There’s a fabulous series called What Do You Do that illustrates anonymous interviews with people working all kinds of jobs (art handler! bouncer! best-selling author! negotiation coach!) that I read with glee every time there’s a new post.  One of the reasons I love learning about other peoples’ work is that it’s about finding other perspectives, other voices, other approaches. It reveals that what we are all doing is pretty darn similar, just using different words and different frameworks. The delight of a generalist: it’s all related, you just have to find the common thread.

And one of the things that is so neat about finding the common thread is that it removes the need to think about the work at hand as a problem, a fire to put out, and instead lets us think about it more openly, with more curiosity, and see it as a project to be investigated and explored. The cost of thinking about work as a problem is that it changes how you approach the work — it strips away inquiry and replaces it with urgency. Worse, it creates a barrier to finding the root of the issue.

Say I’m approached by someone at work saying “we need to change ______” (fill in the blank document, process, specification, really anything). If I were approaching it as a problem, I would just do what they ask, and just fix their problem. But if I approach it as something worthy of investigation, I dig deeper into why they think they need this fix. What’s this symptomatic of? What is the underlying frustration? Who is impacted? This is the way medical professionals are trained to interview their patients — to assess first, and act second. That’s not the training in most fields, but it’s valuable everywhere.

There’s a sweet aside in Michael Moore’s autobiography, in which Kurt Vonnegut tells him the meaning of life:

“We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

It’s beautiful because it’s totally open for interpretation. It might mean putting compassion and kindness and empathy above all else. It might mean that we do work because it’s hard or because it makes us happy. It might mean doing work for future generations. Or it might mean just surviving.

As Robert Frost famously said, “the best way out is through.” Do the work. Get through this thing.pat-fennessy-aiga-design-quote-frost(This gorgeous print is by Patrick Fennessy.)

Shawn Achor’s 2012 Ted talk (The Happy Secret to Better Work) makes a very clear link between work and happiness. The premise is that your brain is more open to learning, more motivated, and more able to do good work when you’re happy. And conversely, the usual “I’ll work hard and my success will make me happy” script does not work.

And this Harvard Business Review article about positive work cultures being more productive than negative ones takes that same idea one more step to clarify that it’s engagement that keeps people happy. It points to disengagement as a very costly cause of organizational and individual stress, and goes on to note that you just don’t find engaged, happy workers in negative work environments:

“Engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.”

The piece goes on to distill six characteristics of a positive workplace culture, and all rooted in empathy. All of them.

Engagement is tied very closely to accountability in group dynamics (really, what reason is there to be engaged if the team, or others on the team are not held accountable?). There’s a somewhat grim discussion of (lack of) accountability in another Harvard Business Review article. It centers around the study of cooperation and what happens to teams with cheaters or “free-riders.”

“Within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice. However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not. But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual.”

Accountability and engagement bring us right back to the idea of learning to love the means, the process, the doing, the working, rather than the ends (the completed work). Maria Popova (brainpickings) wrote a lovely piece about Annie Dillard’s book the Writing Life, about habits, about routines, about the way we approach our work and our lives. Dillard said the single most representative sentiment, illustrating how I think about work and life, which can be applied to productivity, but also to relationships and intentions and work style and communication style and our whole selves, our priorities:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” – Annie Dillard

What are you willing to struggle for?

This piece on Quartz by Mark Manson about the concept of struggle resonated so deeply with me.  The premise is this: instead of asking what you want out of life, a more interesting question with more informative answers is to ask: “what pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?”

“At the core of all human behavior, our needs are more or less similar. Positive experience is easy to handle. It’s negative experience that we all, by definition, struggle with. Therefore, what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings.

He goes on to say that quality of life is determined by the quality of negative experiences in life (rather than positive experiences), so it’s valuable to get good at dealing with negative experiences. “To get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.”

This resonates so much for me because it’s so tied to my views on happiness, and learning to love and exist within the process of growing and learning. It requires stress resilience and grit.

This 99U article is a great summary of the concept of grit, and of Angela Duckworth’s research that indicates that grit is a better predictor of success than talent, self-control, or intelligence. It also links Duckworth’s research scale, so you can assess your own level of grit.

Duckworth’s 2009 Tedx Talk is heartening:

This article about Location Labs (that I’ve already promised I will not stop linking to) ties the the concept of grit to the importance of diversity (not just diversity of race/class/gender, but also diversity of experience):

Over 30% of their hires in 2015 started their careers in completely different role or field. “We’ve found that candidates with this type of background have the underdog grit that allows them to be successful here,” says Grossman.

Grit is so necessary for work involving transition (startups, major organizational changes, product development), but it cannot exist without autonomy and empowerment.

happiness, growth, vulnerability, gratitude and resilience

Happiness requires a state of growth and learning.
Growth requires being vulnerable.
Vulnerability requires gratitude and resilience.

That’s my take on what it means to happy in life. There aren’t different processes for being happy at work and not-work — it’s the same framework.

Gretchen Rubin‘s book The Happiness Project illuminates beautifully the idea that being happy requires growth. She describes having settled on this stroke of brilliance, only to be informed that there is a William Butler Yeats quote to that effect. This is not a new sentiment!

“Happiness,” wrote Yeats, “is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

She goes on to write about the importance of identifying feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right. Here, she discusses how important feeling bad is, because it’s what can help you identify what it is that will make you happy.


Most of my life I’ve been very afraid of being bad at things in general, but the very specific fear was being bad at something in front of somebody. It took me a very long time to identify that churning gut feeling as a physical indicator of learning and growth, and longer still to learn to embrace it as evidence, as proof, as the one true indicator that I’m learning and growing and making myself vulnerable.

I certainly felt like I might puke right around the time this photo was taken, when a friend and I were setting out on a hiking trip in the remote wilderness in Newfoundland where there was no trail. Photo by Christopher Tracey.

A subtlety worth noting: In order for growth to be related to happiness at all, it has to be about the process of growing and learning, not about an end state. It’s easy to believe that when you’ve achieved something, then you’ll be happy (“when I get that job, I’ll be happy” or “when I finish this project” or fill-in-the-blank future state that disregards the work you’re doing right now), but the means are as important as the ends. It is in doing, in making, in learning, in growing, in the process that we find growth. And oh boy, are generalists good at learning to love the process.

Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande wrote a lovely piece for the New Yorker about realizing his surgical skills had plateaued, getting a coach, how much he learned and his techniques improved, but most interesting to me: How vulnerable and exposed and scary that can be.

We give a lot of lip service to efficiency at work, but it takes time to learn and improve. Truly, learning is inefficient.

And how of course the now-famous Brene Brown “Power of Vulnerability” TED talk explains that:

And beyond assessing your own vulnerability, it’s important to support the state of growth and help make it safer for others to be vulnerable around you. One way to do this is staying excited when somebody you meet doesn’t know something, rather than being dismissive or judgmental or condescending.

There’s a joyful XKCD comic about just that:

And of course Hank Green is great at explaining excitement:

But this is important beyond simple kindness extended to others, Golden Rule style — it’s a well-researched concept in ESL education, tied to ability to learn. Stephen Krashen describes the concept of the affective filter, which is essentially a brick wall that rises and prevents new information from entering a person’s brain, when that person is stressed or anxious. Being kind and letting other people be vulnerable with us promotes a learning atmosphere. This is relevant in so many fields, and is demonstrated in the vulnerability required for a good sprint retrospective, for folks working in the scrum framework.

This beautiful TedxSF presentation by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg is a ten-minute celebration of the concepts of gratitude and open-heartedness. (Here is the video’s transcript.):

The narration is is by Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, and is rooted in empathy and expectations.

Resilience can mean a lot of things, but let’s focus here on stress resilience, with Kelly McGonigal’s awesome TED talk about re-framing our understand of the purpose of stress and making friends with it as something useful to us, in much the same way Brene Brown helps us understand why we need to make friends with vulnerability.

Cue some dramatic singing of the Circle of Life: Happiness –> growth and learning –> vulnerability –> gratitude and resilience –> happiness

IMG_2118(Smashed penny from my friend, artist Shaun Slifer.)

Generalist, multi-disciplinarian, Renaissance lady

I am a generalist. A multi-disciplinarian. What maybe used to be called a jack-of-all-trades. I have a little bit of skill in a lot of areas, and I’m a quick study. I can pick up enough of what you know to have a meaningful working relationship. At one time, I thought I wanted to be a specialist, but I realized what that would involve — there is a significant life trade-off when you specialize.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers — the idea that you have to practice something for that much time to achieve mastery. And to work for 10,000 hours at something means you can’t spend those hours on any of the other interests in your life. You cannot indulge your curiosity in the same way a generalist can.

One of the trade-offs of being a multi-disciplinarian is that it’s easy (and dangerous) to see yourself as a failure for not staying in one track. There is of course no inherent failing in moving through multiple careers and projects — it’s what you’d very naturally do when you’re a person who is fascinated by the world and many aspects of it call to you.

But the working world at large really appreciates the idea of a specialist and doesn’t quite know what to make of a generalist. You see job postings for “mechanical engineer” or “nurse” and if you’ve specialized in those fields, then those are the terms you look for when you’re job hunting. But you don’t see job postings for “smart person who can do all kinds of things” so there is another layer of struggle in being a generalist, which is convincing yourself that you have value, and convincing potential employers that a generalist is what they’re looking for.

One thing I do want to note though, is that I don’t think this is black and white, that you’re either one or the other (specialist vs generalist). My suspicion is that it’s more like a spectrum, and we’ve all situated to a general position on the spectrum, when our personalities and interests are taken as a whole.

Emilie Wapnick gave a terrific Ted Talk called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling,” in which she introduces the term “multipotentialite” — it’s a really worthy watch for anybody who identifies as a generalist.

“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it. But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way? What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do? Well, there is no room for someone like you in this framework. And so you might feel alone. You might feel like you don’t have a purpose. And you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you. What you are is a multipotentialite.”

In her followup to the Ted Talk, Wapnick touches on the extra layer of struggle: “I see career, productivity, and confidence, as the three largest multipotentialite challenges. These are areas we each need to address and find workable solutions to.”

But I think generalists have a gift as well — we are massively empathetic. I can’t speak to causation but I do think there’s a very strong correlation between generalists and empathizers. Maybe it’s an empathetic natures that drives someone to want to experience new situations and work with people and materials and projects of all kinds. Or maybe knowing enough about a lot of subject matter, and having experienced lots of roles and worked with lots of people from lots of backgrounds, it’s easier for a generalist to see things from another person’s perspective.

But in either case, this combination of empathy and exposure to many fields and skills and backgrounds is what uniquely positions generalists to be great facilitators.   In this interview, MDavid Low discusses what it’s like to have switched roles, from being a specialist and technical contributor to being a generalist. Interestingly, what he notes as a special skill in the generalist role is facilitation. In response to the question “What are the biggest pros and cons of being a ‘utility man,’ as you are, as opposed to a specialist?” he says:

I think it’s led me to be somewhat decent at being the skipper on the team. Helping to guide and motivate the team towards the right outcome, but with enough of the right insights from each role in my past to be able to provide the right insights for the future.

I like to think that the landscape is changing a bit — I know that those of us with varied backgrounds are good for the organization we work in, and I think that some organizations are seeing this and starting to write about it. This article about Location Labs delves into the company’s hiring practices that result in their 95% employee retention rate. They focus on hiring “diamonds in the rough” – people whose potential for growth is massive – and one of the ways they do that is by looking for diversity of experience.

When screening resumes, they don’t look for specific technologies or skills. They look for results. What was this person’s legacy in past roles? Over 30% of their hires in 2015 started their careers in completely different role or field. “We’ve found that candidates with this type of background have the underdog grit that allows them to be successful here,” says Grossman. “We’re not overly impressed with pedigree. We let demonstrated growth be our primary filter.”

Demonstrated growth, eh? That’s one thing most generalists can claim.