Under Pressure


This weeks’ words were written by my partner at Ei and one of my favorite people on the planet, Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom. Enjoy the story…

“I’m so nervous I’m sweating. I want to leave. I don’t think I can do this.”

I stood next to Geralyn to offer support. The presentations were just about to start. She was sweating. Profusely.

“I’m serious. I don’t think I can do this.”

She was serious, but she was also looking for encouragement, for reassurance that it would be OK. She was at the edge of what felt like a cliff and wanted to take a leap, but she just wasn’t sure she could reach the other side. She was afraid of the fall.

For the past year now…
We’ve been offering a 60-day professional development opportunity at Leo Burnett, a world-renowned creative agency in Chicago. The program, entitled Leo Leaps, helps people choose and pursue a question or project that is meaningful to them. The Ei team teaches skills and mindsets from design thinking, and builds a community of support and accountability to help participants complete their projects while absorbing helpful content they can apply to the rest of work & life.

The program culminates with a Storytelling Night, where participants share their learning with friends and colleagues in a 4-minute presentation (think short TEDx Talks). In a program where learning projects are self-directed and range from learning French to re-designing the company’s on-boarding experience, Storytelling Night serves as a common deadline for getting work done.

Back to Geralyn…
She had already cried and vomited earlier in the day. We reached out to encourage her and she wrote back:

“I’m so nervous. I really hate public speaking. I don’t know how people do this…I almost didn’t come to work today but then I knew all of you would be disappointed. I would’ve been disappointed in myself. I just feel ill.”

It was her turn to present.

She walked up to the front, took a deep breath, laughed nervously, and began. She talked about how much she loves meeting new people, how she always knows what to say.

Recently her best friend had started dating a man who is deaf. When she was with him, she didn’t know what to say. She felt awkward, and sad.

So her leap was to learn sign language. She took a class and was slowly learning some basics. And then, right there, on the 21st floor of a massive high-rise in downtown Chicago, in front of her peers, Geralyn taught us how to sign: Pizza. Beer. Toilet.

She nailed her presentation.
Afterwards she was gushing.

She couldn’t believe she’d done it. A week later, when we sent an email to alumni of the program asking who was interested in being a coach for the next group of leapers, she was one of the first to sign up.

We’ve now run the Leaps program with a half-dozen cohorts in 3 different companies. Every time, the importance of the Storytelling Night becomes more clear.

When learning a new skill or taking your next step, There needs to be a concrete, public deadline, a stake in the ground that will not move. A goal that needs to be reached. A reason for making time to work on your project today, and then again tomorrow.

For us, Storytelling Night serves that function, providing the healthy pressure that people need to stay accountable to their own goals, especially when they have to pursue them outside of normal business hours.

So far it’s helped people learn sign language, record their first podcast, organize a community garden, and re-design how HR helps people understand their benefits.

So if you’re looking for the most beautiful parts of your work, it might be time to apply a healthy dose of pressure.

Have a great Wednesday,