TEDx Director’s Commentary

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Typically the director’s commentary doesn’t come out until the DVD is released. It is for the true movie buffs who love to hear what the director and/or producer were thinking. They go through every painstaking detail. If you don’t like film, then it would be the most boring two hours of your life. If you love film and how it is made, you can’t get enough, hearing directly from the people who made the movie. You get some insight into their heads and how they think.

Since I am fresh off my first TEDx talk, I wanted to share some “director’s commentary” with you – before the DVD is released (i.e. video is uploaded to the web). If you are interested in TEDx, you might enjoy this – otherwise, it could be a boring ten minutes!

The director’s commentary around my TEDx experience involves two parts: how I ended up being asked to speak at this TEDx event, and what it was like to prepare and deliver the talk.

Getting to King Street East
The official name of the TEDx event at which I spoke was TEDx King Street East. King Street is a major street running through the heart of downtown Toronto. I met the event organizer, Chris Murumets, at an actuarial conference in Toronto this past May. Chris volunteered to be a part of a presentation that I was organizing on Design Thinking. Chris told me that he was impressed with my presentation this past May and asked me if I would like to come back to be a part of a TEDx event he was organizing. I gave him an emphatic yes, and I’m so glad that I decided to speak.

Prepping for the big day
I decided to start working on my talk in mid August. Here’s how I approached it.
August 12: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
August 19: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
August 26: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
September 2: Labor day, forget to think about TEDx talk
Skip to September 30: stay up until 2 am finishing draft of TEDx talk

I settled on “Empathy” as a topic early on. Becoming more empathetic has had a big impact with my outlook on my work, and I wanted to share that story. I have a technical background (i.e. I am a geek), and I notice that many other people with technical backgrounds also seemed to have empathy problems.

But, I thought this has to be bigger than me to be enjoyable for the audience. I wondered, “do empathetic organizations outperform companies that lack empathy?” Thankfully, a fellow TEDx speaker recommended a book (Wired to Care). In this book, the author places a few companies in three categories (high empathy, low empathy, and somewhere in between). It turns out that the stock performance of highly empathetic companies is substantially better than that of low empathy companies. Bazinga! Something bigger than my personal story.

More prep
I’d love to tell you that preparing for this talk was easy. Delivering fifteen minutes of original live content that you know will live forever on the internet sounds scary to me. Scary enough for me to want to practice!

Once I had a draft of the presentation, I must have practiced a million times. Once in front of a few co-workers and my wife. Once with a fellow TEDx speaker. I even created a recording of my talk and sent it out to a few friends for review.

Each reviewer gave me great feedback and helped shape my talk. All that was left was to continue to practice. I recorded my best version yet four days before the talk and then I listened to it almost non-stop.

You heard that correct, I listened to myself speak over and over and over again. I listened to my talk on the drive into work. I listened to my talk on the flight to Toronto. I listened to my talk on the subway. And lastly, I listened to my talk about an hour before I was on stage.

I have used this technique before for big presentations. Develop the talk, practice several times, record a “good” version, listen to the “good” version until you can give the talk in your sleep.

You did all of that for that?
Devoting so much time to one presentation does add some pressure. It’s tempting to not put in this kind of prep and then write off a poor performance by saying, “no big deal…I didn’t really put that much time into it.” Hopefully, some of you will watch my 14 minute talk once it is up on the TED website. And you might think, “wow…you did all of that for that?” And that’s ok. I would rather work hard knowing that my performance might be a colossal failure, with no excuses. I don’t like thinking, “what if I had actually tried?”

The talk
It was the definition of fun for me to stand up and share a part of my journey. I was fortunate to only have a few verbal missteps, and I don’t think they took too much away from my talk. The attendees at the event were gracious and gave me some positive feedback. Some of my favorite quotes were, “my son is a 25 year old computer programmer and he has got to hear your talk!” and “you have advanced the image of an actuary by a light year!”

I am looking forward to sharing my talk once it’s up on the TED website. Now, I need to get busy creating content for future talks. (i.e. taking risks, caring for others, and trying new things)

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Get emotional

As someone who is continually looking at numbers, specs, contracts, prospectuses, etc, it is easy to forget about the people who buy our products. Focusing singularly on the technical aspects of one’s job tends to create a clinical environment. Somewhere in the discussion of “ROI”, “pattern of cash flows”, “interest rate sensitivity” and “asset/liability matching” we lose touch with our emotions.

I’ve written about the importance of feeling something at work and how I believe it’s important to be “emotional” – even – no, especially – when you work in a technical field. Being “emotional” has a negative connotation, but I believe being an “emotional” employee will help you to become more engaged and innovative.

Your company exists because of its customers. Customers are the reason that any business exists. And spreadsheets, contracts, processes, KPI targets all serve as a buffer from the messiness of people’s lives. But why is it that we create, or allow this separation?

I believe this separation mindset was made popular during the industrial revolution, where management believed that employees were interchangeable parts. Managers only cared about the work force being as efficient as possible and most workers were happy to have a job that paid them much more than they could have made farming or continuing the family craft. Empathizing with the customers didn’t seem necessary.

But as we have moved from an industrialist society to a post-industrialist connection economy, empathy and connections matter. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t care if their work has impact.

Isn’t it time to change how we view our work?

Part of my personal journey involves a transformation of a worker who lacked empathy, to one who saw the life changing impact of knowing the customer intimately. Here are a couple of huge benefits of being closer connected to your customers:

  1. Better engagement – most workers net worth does not increase $1MM for every $1 increase in the stock price. Your record quarter doesn’t mean much to 95% of the company. What matters are the lives that you are able to impact through your work.
  2. Innovation – the magic of design thinking depends upon empathy. When I truly feel what it is like to have a particular problem, I see the real needs. The real problem. And I will develop more innovative solutions.

So, why aren’t more workers connected to the customers? I think the language we use plays a large part in removing the emotion from work. Here is an example from the actuarial field:

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This symbol stands for “the probability that a life aged 33 will not be living at the end of 15 years.” In other words, what are the chances that a guy aged 33, would die before 48? We would run a model and I could tell you that out of a 1000 lives, 21.297 people are not alive at the end of the 15 years.

While this may be technically accurate, it misses all the emotion. What if you thought of this symbol standing for:

  • A father not being there to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day
  • A mother not being there to see her son graduate high school
  • A middle school aged girl who isn’t sure who will take her to a father-daughter dance

Photo credit: Jenna Perfette photography

How much more motivating and rich would your work become if you felt more connected to the impact your business has on its customers? Start by imaging the peoples lives that are represented by the spreadsheet. Your customers are more than just points in a model or a series of cashflows. They are real people.

There’s nothing wrong with using technical language to describe a calculation, or spending time in a spreadsheet. But don’t lose sight of your customers. Literally. Place their pictures on your walls, know their stories, go and talk to them.

You’ll find yourself more engaged and you’ll find yourself thinking more creatively about solving their problems.

Things that matter the most

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This was an emotional week for me at work. Monday I found out that a friend of seven years and my manager of three years, was leaving the company. I’ve felt a range of emotions this week and I’ve been ok with each emotion, dealing with them as they come. By that, I mean that if I feel sad, I don’t say “I shouldn’t feel sad”, I just allow myself to feel down for a while.

I learned this lesson when my mom passed away. There were times months after her death that I would become overwhelmed with grief and I’d think, “I should be stronger than this.” I operated in this way until a wise friend of mine told me to deal with the emotions that come with loss as they come. To not deny myself a certain feeling.

I spent this week riding in my car with radio off (99% of the time, I am listening to a book on audible) and thinking and praying – praying that I would have patience, wisdom and grace.

As I’ve been dealing with a range of emotions, I keep coming back to one thing I am continually grateful for – that I actually feel something at work. There are many days when I walk out feeling so excited and proud about what we have done for our customers. There are others where my team and I are in the middle of solving important problems and everything is clicking. There are also days when nothing seems to go right. When it’s 3pm and I’ve yet to get to any of the items on my to do list. And there are days when good friends, people you care about and who make work a brighter place, leave the company.

But in all this, I am feeling something.

I can’t imagine not being connected to our customers. I love hearing their stories. I love knowing that the stuff we make will help them through the tragedy of a great loss. I wish I would put myself in positions to know them better.

Mom and son at SFO

Mom and son at SFO

I can’t imagine not being connected to my co-workers. I love knowing what is going on in their lives. Asking how a sick mom is doing or how a child’s first week of school was are the kind of things that make a true connection.

Feeling comes with wanting to be vulnerable and by desiring to truly know people.

Our customers are real live human beings. They are not policy numbers, they are not a series of cash flows. They are people. With kids, and moms and dads. With jobs, with lives. They have bad days. They get sick. Some of them experience tragedy. But they are real.

My co-workers are also real live human beings. They are not just boxes on an org chart. They are not just a “direct report.” They have lives too. A lot of that life is shared with others at work, but much of it, some of the most important moments are outside of work.

I will never forget asking my wife to marry me, holding my baby girls for the first time or eulogizing my mother. But I will forget that awesome board presentation that I gave last year, the new product we developed this spring, and a million other moments like these.

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I hope that emotions I feel at work, come back to people. To our customers and a my co-workers. Sure, it feels good to have a great quarter, to ship a new product, or to give a great presentation. But people matter – their lives matter. I hope and pray that my actions will let others know that I care more about the moments they will always remember, instead of those that we will all forget.

Fun at work

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Fun at work can seem like an oxymoron. How can work be fun? What if I don’t like my job, or my boss is a jerk? Even if you don’t work at Pixar, IDEO, or Google, I believe you can choose to make it fun.

Sure, every minute of every day is not going to be a party. But having fun at work – playing at work is a key ingredient to creating art.

I feel very fortunate to be in the prime of my working life in 2013 as opposed to 1913. The industrialist of 1913 has no place for play in the workplace. Work to him is all about coloring inside of the lines, not making a ruckus, and starting and stoping when the whistle blows.

Not anymore. The opposite of the industrialist mindset is what will help you succeed today. Color outside of the lines. Make a ruckus. Work when your team needs you.

In the picture above is my team. I have the pleasure of working with five of the brightest, hardest working, most creative guys I know. We have a lot of fun at work. If an hour goes by and we haven’t laughed or done something interesting, I would think something is wrong.

This picture is an image of what it looks like to have fun at work. Start by doing…it may feel strange at first – there is a lot of industrialist out there to look down at you – but keep going. Work and fun will be intertwined and you’ll be more creative, more connected, and more successful.