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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: December 2003

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, HEALTH, AND PROSPERITY TO YOU ALL!!

Balancing Act® is in three sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Self-absorption
  3. Musings

  1. Techniques for balance

    Getting organized...

    • If you have a habit of not being able to find things rapidly that you've filed, try filing duplicates under varied names. (With electronic media, you're not creating bulging paper files.) For example, file the number for television repair under "television," "repair," and "Sony"—assuming it's not a Toshiba!

    • Sometimes it's easier to remember a phone access code by keypad layout rather than number sequence. For example, the three keys along the top of the keypad and then the two proceeding down the right side constitute a more memorable pattern than "1, 2, 3, 6, 9" for most of us.

    • Pack your luggage the exact same way every time, with the same items in the same compartments.

    • On or about the first of the year, clean out all files—physical and electronic—using three criteria: a) ongoing need, retain as is (active warranties, phone numbers, birthday reminders); b) infrequent need, store elsewhere (bill receipts, financial statements, client reports—move to safety deposit, external or remote file, etc.); c) no longer necessary, discard (irrelevant correspondence, outdated travel information, expired memberships).

    • If you have standard, non-digital photos, keep the negatives in a different location altogether, to avoid catastrophic loss. (These photos last longer than digital photos, by the way.)

    • Every year (or more often if you make major changes) take photos of the inside or your home and of valuable possessions, so that you can prove insurance loss and restore the environment if necessary.

    • Use a calendar that allows you to see a year at a glance. When scheduling personal, social or business appointments, it is sometimes important to see what is immediately prior or subsequent to them, even if the days themselves are available. The "flow" is as important as the event.

    • If you're the only one with access to your computer, use the desk top notes or "stickies" to store the voluminous access codes and passwords demanded by different applications, web sites, and programs. Mine takes up less than an inch of space on my screen when it's closed, but immediately provides alphabetized access to all of my codes when opened.

    • You're better off with one closet, set of shelves, or garage corner that's filled with a chaos of little-used and indeterminate possessions than having part of every storage area look that way.

    • Keep duplicate sets of tools wherever you may need them (e.g., garage, office, kitchen, outdoor storage shed) so that you don't have to constantly make a trek to find them.

  2. The Human Condition: Self-absorption

    There's a classic and apparently true story about a wealthy New York woman who inhabited only the most elite New York social circles and maintained relationships solely with another fifty or so people exactly like her. When a political candidate she loathed won an election with the vast majority of the vote she despaired, "It must have been fixed, because I happen to know that not one of my friends voted for him!"

    We've all seen instances of people fanatically assured of a point of view that is the result of near-total isolation from divergent points of view. Their position isn't so much unassailable by logic as it is removed from any open windows and fresh air. One's particular political leanings, economic strata, and value system don't matter—it's rather a function of a narrow box into which people contort themselves.

    Astoundingly, these narrow, private enclosures are not disturbed by the ambulatory nature of the self-absorbed.

    I'm writing this on a 757 streaming toward Boston from San Francisco. During the boarding process, three people in first class held a lively conversation while one of them stood squarely in the aisle. As each new passenger entered and asked to be excused, he would squeeze over for a moment, then resume his clogging position, never missing a word in the conversation. I had counted nine sets of interruptions, squeezes, and returns before my experiment was ruined by a clearly unself-absorbed flight attendant who told him, as politely as she could muster at seven in the morning, to get the hell out of the aisle.

    Neither he nor his two companions had noted anything inappropriate about their conversation (or, at least, its physical layout). I'm convinced that people who talk in the movies (adults are worse than adolescents in this regard, and I think that partners who utter nary a word over the breakfast table become positively prolix as soon as opening credits roll), yank out a cell phone in a restaurant, or chat casually with a ticket clerk despite the population of Cincinnati standing in line awaiting their turn, are as isolated from the greater environment as a prisoner in solitary confinement.

    You might say that I'm describing a non-malicious set of behaviors that is often ameliorated with a simple "excuse me" or "do you mind?" Perhaps. But I suspect that habitual self-absorption is a chronic and serious detriment. The self-absorbed not only impede others' progress, but they also miss the peripheral, the subtle, and the nuance. They miss the arc of the rainbow because they are fixated on the road or the radio; they ignore the near-silent cry for help from a friend because they are only attentive to raucous noises; they don't understand the diversity of existence because they are tracking only their own.

    They also tend to reach improper conclusions based on their narrow world view. Baseball's Yogi Berra, though probably not self-absorbed himself, said once of a popular destination: "It's so crowded that nobody goes there any more." The line does typify, however, the distorted cause-and-effect relationships that perdure with self-absorption.

    When you and all of your friends can't understand why an event occurred, perhaps you need new friends. And when people keep tapping you on the back, it may not be that they crave your attention. It just may be that they want to move past your box.

  3. Musings

    It's easy to despair about the world these days. In fact, my guess is that it's been pretty easy to despair about the world at most any time, in every generation. That's not exactly an elixir for richer life balance.

    Yet I'm pretty upbeat. Perhaps it's because I travel for business and pleasure, or that I have a wide array of interests, or because I'm simply not deep enough to realize our peril. Nonetheless, I'm struck by how positively our society works.

    We actually operate on an inherent, unspoken ethical basis, within a very complex confusion of transactions. Most of the time, we are agreeing to provide (or purchase) a product or service of an agreed-upon nature and quality for a set remuneration. And the overwhelming preponderance of the time, that is exactly what transpires.

    A hotel provides a room that is described accurately, for example, and will change it for you if you prove it's not what was promised. The bill will contain charges as specified. The valet delivers your car without removing your possessions, and expects a small tip which is usually provided. (And if it's not, which is sometimes the case, the valet simply moves on to the next customer, muttering about your crassness but not otherwise harming you.)

    Airlines are sometimes late, rental car companies will sometimes send an incorrect bill, and the restaurant food may not be up to snuff. But contrary to what ardent conspiracy theorists may believe, these shortcomings are not plots but merely errors caused by human frailty, or variables which can't be controlled, or honest differences of opinion (who's to say that the filet isn't medium rare?).

    We tend to focus on the exceptions—the Internet scam, the contractor who doesn't deliver, the taxi driver who overcharges—but these are truly rare exceptions given the trillions of transactions of all kinds occurring every day. Society would dissolve in a moment if the basic ethos were not "do the right thing" but were instead "take whatever you can." No amount of lofty regulatory agencies or cops in the trenches could rectify a society with a value system of cheating and stealing (which is why black markets and corruption thrive in even the most brutal dictatorships and police states).

    I'm not making a case for a particular country or a particular culture. But I do think it's apparent that complex societies work best—perhaps only work at all, if you define that as providing maximum opportunity for the maximum number of people—when ethical standards of conduct underlie human interaction. That's why the exceptions make the headlines, but the rather startling operation of huge societies conducting business, providing safety, tending to health care, educating the populace, and attending the myriad of other interactions doesn't make the six o'clock news.

    And because it doesn't make the news, it may be all the more important to consider, because civil polity is an amazing state and the antithesis of despair. Perhaps the fact that the heat and lights work every day is not an occasion for awe, but the fact that they work because people who never see each other are generating the power, administering the system, regulating the flow, and paying for the output is rather daunting.

    Maybe I'm just easily impressed. Maybe I'm just easily thrilled. But that's okay, because it means I don't despair very easily.