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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: February 2000

"We wanted to thank you for the excellent e-mail newsletter, Balancing Act. We have utilized your suggestion that we only have one life, which has certainly simplified things. Your ideas and insight continue to help us move forward."

-- Doug and Carole Anton

"Alan, this newsletter is terrific. Reading it this morning was quite uplifting. What a great way to be recharged on a dreary day."

-- Lois Kelly, CEO, Meaning Maker

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The human condition
  3. Musings
  4. Quandaries answered and asked

  1. Techniques for balance

    Become sensitive to the positive nature of interactions around you. We're too prone to focus only on the negative. For example, a surgeon of great renown recently operated on my dislocated finger to improve it aesthetically. The surgery was a failure. After reviewing the results, he said to me, "Well, Alan, I'm sorry to tell you that I've gotten a lot more out of our relationship than you have." I thought it was a classic response, and I realized that a slightly bent finger should be the worst thing that ever happens to me. I was energized by his humility and candid admission of "failure."

    Don't hesitate to write a letter of complaint. I call this "positive venting." (My wife calls it "constant whining," but let her write her own newsletter.) I find that when a corporate monolith or supercilious individual causes me grief or stress, I'm much better off immediately venting the frustration. About two- thirds of the time I get an apology (often with a refund or freebie of some kind) and about one-third of the time I'm ignored. But 100% of the time that I do this, I feel better.

    I've had some inquiries about how best to volunteer talent and time. Given the age we're in, I've found these sources on the web that accommodate online volunteerism. I'm sure there are a hundred others. So, some online volunteering for the time challenged:

    New York Cares
    212-228-5000
    http://www.ny.cares.org

    ImpactOnline
    650-327-1389
    http://www.impactonline.org

    Points of Light Foundation
    202-729-8000
    http://www.pointsoflight.org

    Here's an interesting new self-published book on a little-acknowledged stress factor in the workplace: Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, by Noa Davenport, Ph.D., et al, Bookmasters, Inc., Box 388, Ashland, OH 44805, 800/247-6553, noadnz@iastate.edu. It talks about how co-workers advertently and inadvertently "gang up" on a victim, and what can be done about it.

    Read the music liner notes. I've just purchased a Sammy Davis, Jr. boxed CD set, and the voluminous liner notes are incredible in terms of educating me about why certain phrases, accompaniments, and instrumentation make a difference, which I can then listen to with some intelligence.

    Buy an art book on an aspect you know nothing about (which for me includes almost everything) and then visit a museum that features that school or style. All of a sudden, you will become conversant.

    If you find yourself beset with "road rage," quickly ask yourself if the perceived transgression is worth losing your life over. The answer is: NEVER. Recently, one non-violent woman shot and killed another non-violent woman in such a confrontation, while a minister killed another motorist with a cross-bow in still another. Stay in your car and count to ten, then count your blessings. It ain't worth it.

    There are some classic books out (see Milton Cross and Karl Kohrs) which describe the great operas in detail. They allow me to understand what otherwise, I have to admit, would be indecipherable. (There were times when I rooted for Tosca to throw herself off the roof quickly and put us all out of our misery.)

    Find an inn or bed and breakfast out of season, and stay there overnight. It's peaceful, the service will be great, and you'll get a real bargain.

    If you want to laugh very hard, watch the old Roadrunner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote's dealings with the Acme Co. for his rocket sleds, huge spring skates, and other devices of mayhem (which never work and always backfire) knock me out. What really kills me is that the Coyote has such an outstanding credit rating.

  2. The Human Condition: intellect

    At the Johnson O'Connor Institute, where they test everything from memory to musical ability (they told me I could play the radio, but not in public), they believe that vocabulary and intellect are closely related. In fact, Johnson O'Connor himself postulated that deliberately increasing the vocabulary would commensurately raise I.Q. scores, and had done some research to try to prove it. I believe he was on to something.

    The three key signs of intellect that I've been able to isolate in the thousands of interviews I've conducted over the course of my career are:

    • Large and varied vocabulary
    • Use of humor
    • Use of metaphors

    I've found that people who demonstrate facility in these three areas are inevitably bright, positive, and enthusiastic about life. Conversely, I've learned that people who have a limited command of the language, have no sense of humor, and don't understand metaphoric references are generally boring, hard to help motivate, and unimaginative.

    These results are quite unscientific, but that will hardly dissuade me in my own newsletter. I've found the correlation to be incredibly high.

    What kind of people are you hanging out with, as we used to say in the old neighborhood. Can they use ironic humor, or do they resort to off-color jokes? Do they speak with vibrancy and excitement, or do they grunt like Neanderthals? Are they stretching you to grow and learn, or are you a huge fish in a microscopic puddle?

    Groups tend to descend to the lowest common denominator in order to retain all members. Those aren't my kind of groups, and probably explains why I'm something of a loner. Cocktail party banalities stun me into a coma, and when I try to raise an intellectual point or ironic bon mot I'm usually met with stares that would do a catatonic reptile proud.

    We've become an anti-intellectual society. Let me present a paean in defense of elitism in this respect: Intellect is the real key to power and influence, and sets you aside from the crowd. Develop your intellectual prowess, and select your friends with that aim in mind. The problem with being the largest fish in the pond is that you can never know how good you actually are. Fortunately, it's not hard to find larger and larger bodies of water, if you're willing to seek them out.

    Someone wrote me last week to say that he's always prided himself on his own smarts, but when he reads my books he has to keep a dictionary alongside his chair. I'm happy about that, because I have to do the same thing when I read John Updike or John Irving.

    A growing intellect provides for an increasing object of interest to others. Interesting friends create an interesting life. I'm happy to have you as subscribers. A neologism here or there helps. And now, I'm off to the natatorium.

  3. Musings

    "Meta talk" is talk about talk, and we just don't do enough of it. We tend to talk above, around, and aside from what we really mean, take too much for granted, and assume what we shouldn't. Ironically, this happens more in long- term relationships than in short-term acquaintances, because in the latter we have no secure frames of reference and in the former we become blasé about our expectation (and those of out partners).

    The therapists make a fortune (or at least bill a lot of hours) by suggesting to us that it's healthy to say, "When you just told me that I'm acting exactly like my mother, I was really hurt. What did you mean by that, and can we talk about some ways to make the feedback less painful?" Instead, we tend to build up resentments at best and develop plans for revenge at worst. Thus, we fulfill the cycle of talking but not communicating.

    It may be immediately painful to confront a partner about a hurt or humiliation, but it's not nearly as harmful as the result of tolerating (and, perhaps, responding in kind to) such behavior over prolonged periods. The acceptance of hurtful language and callous behavior is an enabler which will generate more of it. That acceptance-even in the name of love, harmony, the children, or whatever-will also mortally wound self-esteem and turn the relationship into one of antipathy.

    I've dealt with too many people, both professionally and socially, who are trapped in relationships of words without meaning and gestures without sincerity. After a while, a fatalism develops which justifies the morass. "What can you expect, this is the way it is. There's no sense trying to deal with this now, it will only make matters worse."

    Life is far too short to accept self-induced misery and "inevitable" suffering. Let the martyrs engage in that, it's what they're paid for. (Humorist George Ade once observed, "Don't pity the martyrs, they love the work.") Whether you are married, or have a significant other, or are dealing with parents, or trying to cope with your children, or thrusting and parrying with co-workers, it's senseless to talk but not to communicate. The temporary discomfort of the confrontation is minor compared to the long-term damage to you and, probably, to others.

    My rules for meta-talk:

    • Do it dispassionately and not in the heat of battle or personal torment.
    • Cite specific observed behavior and statements and don't make judgments. (The statement should be, "When you tell me I have no sense of humor I feel you're ignoring my issue that you constantly belittle me in front of your friends," rather than, "You've never respected me because you have a superiority attitude from your spoiled upbringing.")
    • Do it privately, and away from the house if you have to.
    • Do it on occasion when you have positive feedback. ("I want you to know that when you complimented my business judgment in front of your father I felt like a million bucks.")
    • Make a habit of doing it regularly, so that it's not only a response to an "incident" and you are both comfortable with the process.

    Sometimes it makes sense to talk about talk, even if you do run the risk of thinking you're in a Woody Allen movie.


    From reader Lynn Durham of New Hampshire, on political correctness: When I was on the Governor's Office of Volunteerism we had a First Lady Award for Youth Volunteers. Well, we had to correct that with our Governor being a woman. So we wondered - - First Man, First Husband, First Spouse? But what if.... should it be First Significant Other? One member told us it was Domestic Partner that was correct now. What if they didn't have a Partner? The decision making got grueling, well that might be a slight exaggeration, and after much fun we decided on First Family Award. If they don't have one by blood, they can make up their own.

    (From the editor: Aren't we fortunate to live in a country where we can devote time to these weighty issues?)


  4. Quandaries answered and asked

    From last month: Your son is 14, and at the dinner table informs you that two of his best friends are taking drugs. He tells you that he would never do drugs himself, and he's a terrific student. He has told you this, having asked you to guarantee that you will keep what he told you a secret, and you agreed before hearing his story. What, if anything, do you do now?

    I received some interesting opinions on this one, including "observe the confidence at all costs," and "don't get involved where you probably won't be appreciated." My feeling is that lives may be at stake, and no promise of confidence can override that fact. Moreover, if it were my kid doing drugs, I'd want to know from any other parent with the caring and conscience to tell me. I'd explain to my son the untenable position I'm in, and why I must take action, and then ask him to help me decide what each of us has to do from here.

    For next time: You have a co-worker who has been out for several weeks with unspecified medical problems. Upon return, the colleague has a distinct body odor which is not only unpleasant from several feet away, but is causing others to mock and make unkind jokes. You and this person were always cordial and friendly, though solely in the work environment. What do you do?