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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: August 2003

Balancing Act® is in three sections this month:

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

  1. Techniques for balance

    What do you do when you feel as if you're in a rut? How do you extricate yourself from the muck that threatens to hold you fast in a perpetual "Groundhog Day"?

    • Don't zero-in on the generalized unhappiness (e.g., "I hate my weight" or "I despise my co-workers"). Focus instead on the specific remedies: "What can I do, today, about controlling my weight?"
    • Dump the baggage. If you allow past occurrences to accrue like stalactites, you'll get stuck in the cave. You can't fix the past, but you can fix the present and provide for a better future.
    • Visualize the outcomes. Think about the potential improvement you can make by escaping the muck and use that as a psychic reward for motivation.
    • Find a paradigm. Who else, under what circumstances, has improved from a similar condition and oppressiveness? How can you emulate their actions and progress?
    • Create your priority perspective. Faced with another's tragedy or trauma, we all tend to say, "Well, that puts my minor problems in perspective," yet we seldom live that philosophy for long. Life is short by any standard. What will you miss if you allow the quicksand to envelop you?
    • Build on strengths. NEVER attempt to escape from a serious "rut" by correcting weakness. Build on pre-existing strengths which already have the foothold and traction to help you move upward. An introvert, for example, is far better able to deal with a networking challenge by creating a plan of action—which happens to be a strength—rather than attempting to be an extroverted party animal for an event.
    • Challenge your own basic premises and beliefs. Even though correcting weaknesses isn't the best route, some weaknesses are perceptual, not actual. You may think you can't dance, but you don't really know that until you take some lessons and attempt it.
    • Consider your responsibility to others. Even if you can live in a self-perpetuating dead-end, can you live with the implications it presents for others in your life? What do you owe your loved ones, friends, and colleagues? None of us exists in isolation.
    • Reinvent yourself. We often succumb to a rut because we've artificially delimited our image, work, beliefs, etc. At one critical point I decided that I didn't have a work life and a personal life, but simply one life which I could apportion as I deemed necessary. It was one of the most freeing experiences of my life.
    • Trust in others. Most ruts can be easily left behind when someone extends a hand to help pull you out. Never suffer alone. Talk to people without ego or shame, and you'll find a plethora of helping hands.

  2. The Human Condition: Daydreaming

    I'm convinced that one of the most powerful endemic powers we possess is to daydream. (Comedian Steve Wright observed once that he'd like to daydream but he can't because his mind keeps wandering.)

    Why can't we all be Don Quixote at times? If your attention drifts during your wedding vows or while your child is telling you of a traumatic event, you clearly have a problem. But is it really necessary to incessantly listen to music, or keep the television on, or play a game on your Palm Pilot simply to keep the mind occupied? (If your argument is that these activities aid and abet daydreaming, then huzzah.)

    I've found that by visualizing any number of probable events and improbable happenings, I'm better prepared for the future and far less likely to be taken by surprise or become tongue-tied. My peripatetic mental travels have ranged from what might occur on the next phone call in five minutes to how I'd react if a huge flying saucer descended tomorrow on my property calling my name. (Don't lie to me, you wonder about the same things.)

    I daydreamed through a good many of my undergraduate and graduate classes and daresay that my grades were excellent as were my emerging mental plans. And there's wonderful intellectual exercise involved. My belief has always been that language and images predated thinking; if not, how did we think without using words and imagery? There wouldn't be any "tool" to do so. Thus, daydreaming constitutes calisthenics for the mind, low-risk, low-impact, and low-cost. The more we daydream, the more we're able to explore options, responses, and eventualities. And we can lose a fight or suffer a setback in daydreams, be none the worse for wear, take a "mulligan," and replay the round.

    You can keep daydreaming until you win. That's not cheating, it's within the daydreaming rules.

    One of the problems with the human condition is that we become inured to dealing with our current existence, but are somewhat weak at dealing with the future. So, when conditions do change, for worse OR better, we are dealt a shocking blow, and have to develop our behaviors and actions from the ground up. But if we've daydreamed sufficiently, we should be able to tackle whatever fate throws at us. And, trust me, it's as harmful to be unprepared for success as it is to be unprepared for failure, and as frustrating to be unable to exploit victory as it is to suffer defeat.

    There's a hackneyed aphorism that says we should "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst." Why not hope for the best and prepare for both the worst AND the best? Why treat failure as likely but success as lucky? I think there's a reason why some people who experience sudden and incredible good fortune—lottery winners, celebrities, athletes, executives—crash and burn. They've prepared for the worst and even for the journey, but haven't prepared to succeed.

    They simply haven't daydreamed enough, or been bold enough, or been uninhibited enough. We need to daydream regularly to prepare mind and emotions for what may lie ahead.

    I can assure you that I'll handle the next phone call superbly well, and would even manage to greet extraterrestrials with aplomb. After all, they just may have been daydreaming about me.

  3. Musings

    There is an annual opera competition in Providence which features candidates who have won at regional competitions around the country. Typically, eight singers compete for a variety of scholarships to help fund their training and studies. The three judges are selected from past and present opera stars, producers, and production managers. The setting is an intimate room in a "music mansion" that seats about 50. It's not unusual to find yourself sitting next to one of the judges or performers later in the evening at the local restaurants.

    As is the case with most artistic endeavors these days, the dedicated and energetic woman who runs the competition is almost always cash-strapped. Donations are solicited, and she managed over the years to raise the scholarships granted to $2,500 for the winner, and $500-$1,500 for the other finalists.

    My wife and I found ourselves agreeing with the judges' winning selection less than half the time, a result shared by many of our friends attending the event. So, in what I felt was perfect harmony, I offered the founder a $1,000 scholarship donation to be awarded to the audience's choice. This would be determined by a simple ballot at the conclusion of the evening while the judges were compiling their scores (a task apparently as complex as trying to define infinity).

    For perhaps only the fourth time in my life I was stunned speechless when the founder told me my donation was not acceptable. The reason? It would have undermined the judges and caused humiliation if the audience's favorite were other than their own selection for first choice (which, of course, was part of the point—let's reward the artist who created the best experience in the perception of the listeners and ticket-purchasers). It seems that only the judges were in a position to tell us what's enjoyable.

    Now, I don't mind a doctor overriding my opinion that a cheeseburger is the perfect dietary alternative, nor an attorney lecturing me that I cannot file suit and expect to win just because I feel that the trains ought to run on time. But I violently protest when someone endeavors to tell me what is art and what is not, and what I should enjoy and should not. I would never lecture people admiring modern art that it's a mindless con game if they take pleasure in it, nor would I inform people that rap music isn't exactly going to outlast Cole Porter.

    Chacun a son goût, you know what I mean?

    The trouble with any popular endeavor—and the arts are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon—enters when coteries of self-proclaimed elites proclaim that only they can identify true excellence. I've had people tell me that I collect stamps incorrectly, that I don't polish my car properly, and that if I'm not capable of memorizing the 12 standard chess openings I have no right to play the game. (I especially treasure this pomposity in casinos, when a player dripping cheap jewelry scoffs at the way I play blackjack, as if we're engaged in rocket science rather than random entertainment.)

    The pragmatically serious problem is that the bombastic arbiters are often egregiously incorrect. Most people shouting from on high about politics, or motivation, or the stock market, might as well be tossing coins.

    The opera competition doesn't get my donation because my rationale just isn't good enough: I thought people could determine for themselves what pleased them artistically. The founder demanded that I rely on the judges to inform us about what we should like.

    Sorry, but I'm not singing that song.