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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: April 2003

Balancing Act® is in three sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Hanging On
  3. Musings

  1. Techniques for balance
    • If you want to be a more effective debater, memorize a half-dozen quotes which can be used to justify your position on almost any occasion. For example, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public" (H.L. Mencken).

    • Periodically engage in "meta-talk" with your significant others. This is talk about talk, or really an evaluation of the impact of the language you use, irrespective of the merits of the issue. For example, "I believe you belittle every attempt I make to understand your family, so it's very difficult to even attempt it in such an atmosphere."

    • If you truly want to manage your time effectively, stop thinking in terms of amount and start thinking in terms of priority. Divide priorities into musts and wants. Ensure that you have ample time for the musts, then fill in the wants as needed, and ignore everything that isn't on the priority list, unless you have still more time left over. If not doing them creates problems, they will become priorities. If not doing them doesn't matter, they will disappear. And if all of your musts are work-related, throw out the list and start again.

    • You will never be able to determine whether you will like a book by the testimonials (always raves) or thumbing through it (out of context). Find three reviewers you generally always agree or disagree with, and make you judgment based on this "jury." (If the book isn't widely reviewed, try the reader reviews on Amazon.com.)

    • Keep a cheap, disposable camera in your car. It's handy for shooting a rare, spontaneous event (a bear alongside the road—which happened to me), or recording facts after an accident or crime.

    • My technique for eliminating spam: I create rules (Outlook Express, Entourage, and other programs allow for this) such as: Delete any email with a subject line of "lose weight" or delete any mail from the domain "bulkemail.com." These are sent to a junk folder. Once a day I quickly review the junk folder simply by subject or origin to make sure a legitimate piece of mail didn't get inadvertently screened, then delete the entire mess. I create two or three new filters every day as I get new spam, but the volume has been reduced by 90%.

    • If you want to reduce stress, take control of your schedule. Mid-morning to mid-afternoon, most airports are empty with no lines. Monday to Thursday evenings you can see even first-run films without problem and arrive at the last minute. The most popular restaurants can usually accommodate you early or late (before 7 and after 9). Don't do things when everyone else is doing them if you don't have to, and quite often, you don't have to.

    • TIVO (television recording via microchip) is far better than conventional VCRs. It can store about 80 hours, can record and then "catch up" with a program currently being broadcast, and rewinds and fast-forwards at high speed (automatically bypassing commercials).

    • Assess what your time is probably worth, then evaluate the pleasure you get from a particular pursuit and how much it would cost you to have someone do it for you with equal or greater competence. Using those criteria, I'd never cut my own grass, but would also never put my dog in the hands of a trainer or kennel. I have a robot which vacuums the pool, far cheaper than two hours out of every one of my Saturday mornings. What are you doing that could be farmed out, and what are you farming out that you really should be doing?

    • Say what's on your mind when you're asked, so long as you can justify it with facts and examples. Squelching our opinions in order to "fit in" or "get along" seldom makes us either good company or reliable colleagues. If someone requests your opinion, you do more harm to them and yourself by withholding it than you would by delivering objective and constructive critique.

  2. The Human Condition: Hanging On

    While waiting for my order at the coffee shop recently, I atypically entered into a sports debate with one of the regulars. He was extolling the latest exploits of Michael Jordan, perhaps the finest professional basketball player in history, who had scored over 40 points a few nights prior, which is also roughly his age. I created an unholy uproar when I commented that Jordan was now embarrassing to watch, well past his prime.

    My friend virtually sprang from his chair. "How can you say that?!" he screamed. "Jordan past his prime is still better than 90% of the rest of the league!"

    "Well, maybe," I said, "but he was named to the recent all-star team as an act of mercy and memory when others surrendered their place to him."

    "Listen," retorted my colleague, "he doesn't embarrass himself out there."

    "Yes, but is that the goal in life—to go through it merely not embarrassing ourselves?" That ended the discussion in stunned silence. I beat my retreat with my latte.

    Remember the popular, envied kids who were graduated with you from high school and who immediately, in the space of 90 days, became pathetic and undesirable because they tried to continue to hang around and retain their status the next semester? The new "in crowd" wanted nothing to do with them. Entertainment, business, politics, sports, education—almost every discipline—has had its share of people who stayed too long at the fair. For every star and celebrity who goes out on top—Sandy Koufax in baseball, Jim Brown in football, Greta Garbo in acting—we have hundreds who hang on, faint outlines of their former profiles, echoes of their erstwhile resonance.

    I've watched too many people at all levels of professions embarrass and demean themselves in futile attempts to remain what they were a decade or more prior. They become curiosities and oddities, and audiences seek to "take one more look" before the individual permanently retires or, much more likely, dies.

    That's not to say that age automatically diminishes skills or appeal. Mel Tormé sang wonderfully until the stroke that eventually ended his life. Many artists and writers create their best works with the benefit of maturity, experience, and time. Management guru Peter Drucker, in his 90s, seems to be as acerbic and insightful as ever.

    The critical factor isn't chronology but rather the competency and expertise to continue to perform at your best level, or to exceed that level. Once that level is no longer rising, the laws of entropy obtain, and the plateau will ineluctably erode. The secret in that case is to reinvent ourselves.

    Athletes become coaches; singers become actors; actors become directors; business people become entrepreneurs; entrepreneurs become teachers—the potential for such "reinvention" of ourselves is boundless. Some of the most uninteresting and stultifying people I've ever met are those who have been doing the same thing for years and years at the same level of performance. (Which is why I'm so opposed to specialization in consulting. It's not merely the fewer business opportunities, but it's also the lack of growth and delimiting of intellectual breadth.)

    I've reinvented myself several times. (This newsletter was one manifestation along the way.) I'll continue to do so. I'm always proud to be on top of my game, but not when I'm seen as an icon rather than a leader, and not when I'm the beneficiary of pity rather than respect.

    Listening to Sinatra at the end of his career was agony for anyone who remembered when he was the finest popular singer in history. Watching Jordan isn't fun when you realize he's not at his best and yet simply can't bring himself to give up the adulation. "Not embarrassing yourself" is never justification for continuing. The pursuit of higher levels of excellence is the justification for continuing.

    Otherwise, we're still hanging out at the noontime dance hoping to find shelter under our former shadow. But, meanwhile, the music has changed…

  3. Musings

    All through my schooling and right up into my middle-aged, adult life, the threat of nuclear war was quite real. In grammar school we held air raid drills which required us to retreat to the basement and cover our heads with our coats (which we felt scientists had determined would work reasonably well against radioactive fallout, such were the powers of cotton). In high school, many of us had to comfort classmates crying in the halls as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded (there was no CNN and school went on as usual).

    My college days in the 60s were filled with sit-ins and protests about the Viet Nam War, civil rights, and three major assassinations. Yet few people I remember stocked up with canned goods, water, and batteries, never mind duct tape and plastic sheeting. There were some folks who built fallout shelters, of course, but they were generally seen as overly alarmist and overreacting.

    Perhaps we were all lazy or unenlightened, or perhaps growing up with the bomb simply inured one to its continuing menace, just like polio or scarlet fever. You knew it was out there, but you also knew there was a far greater chance of being hit by a car.

    We seem much more terrified today. I know of many people who have virtually stopped traveling, who have huge stockpiles of provisions and medicines, and who have armed themselves. Perhaps I'm being simplistic, but how did we live for four decades in a nuclear standoff without daily paranoia, but post-9/11 seem to be locked in a state of palpable and perpetual fear?

    Our balance, I believe, is too susceptible today to variables we don't (or believe we don't) control. We lead lives indebted to banks and lenders, instead of circumscribed by thrift and bank savings. We hear events instantly via television and the Internet, but also hyped, biased, and shaped to maximize the entertainment value, numbers, and ratings. Trusted sources of news, such as Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and Ed Murrow, have given way to blow-dry hairdos and "live remotes" with reporters who can't even use the language correctly (much less apply it articulately). We live with obligations— from schools, friends, family, business, civic duty, social calendars—which inexorably strangle our freedom but which nonetheless accrete in our lives like stalactites on a cave roof.

    The family dinner table—that daily fixed event where all gathered to review their day and receive feedback and advice on it—has all but disappeared, superceded by extra-curricular activities, two-income parents' jobs, computers, video games, drivers licenses, and extraordinary peer pressure. Teachers, once paragons of ethical behavior and learning (and not uncommonly role models for one's own professional pursuits) are now regarded as unionized employees who hold low-paying jobs and are no longer believed to be the best and the brightest.

    Government has become so complex and bureaucratic that a sole vote s eems like a straw in the wind, even though the last general election proved otherwise in Florida. We've allowed ourselves to become victims and file law suits, rather than to be accountable and hold responsible positions. We are besieged with "sound bites" and hype, telling us what we want instead of providing us with what we truly need.

    In short, we seem to have surrendered control over much of our lives, and with it the confidence and security that sees us through troubled times. I wonder sometimes if we have the equation reversed, and it's actually our own terror—our fear of having lost control of our lives and destiny—that creates the environment in which terrorism can thrive. If that is the case, then we have good news and bad.

    The enemy lives within us.