The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: May 2002
Balancing Act® is in three sections this month:
- Try to stay calm. Remember that your judgment is the key asset, and it will be muted by emotionalism and stress. Others will need you.
- Seek advice. Don't go it alone. Utilize a trusted advisor who is not intimately involved as an objective sounding board.
- Stay healthy. Fatigue affects judgment and relationships. Get rest, eat logically, exercise.
- Take a larger view. Consider the immediate condition in light of your family structure, spirituality, career, and so on. Place the incident proportionally within the realm of your entire existence.
- Make tough decisions. They don't get easier with time. End a relationship, leave a job, cut financial losses, decide on a medical procedure. There is no literature that suggests that lengthy waiting improves either the quality or the alternatives in such decision making.
- Don't assess blame. Finding the cause will help the restorative process, but finding a scapegoat hinders the recuperative process.
- Retain familiarity and habit. To whatever extent possible, maintain some routine and regimen. That familiarity will increase comfort, decrease stress, and aid in judgment.
- Don't assume the worst. The worst may indeed have happened, but usually it's not that bad. Work with the current facts, not what might occur.
- Look for precedent. Has this happened to you, someone you know, or someone you've read about? Are there responses already proven to be effective and practical for your situation?
- Seek outside agencies. There are support groups for everything from compulsive gambling to spousal abuse, and they can immediately provide both comfort and pragmatic next steps. Tuck your ego away and consider such support.
I'm intrigued when two people engaged in the same endeavor or occupation provide entirely different responses to helping others. I'm not talking about the "bad day" we all experience, but rather a behaviorally consistent response (or the equivalent of every day being a bad day).
One hotel desk clerk will greet you with "Welcome to the hotel, how may I help you?" while another demands, "Next!" One telephone operator goes an extra nine yards and says, "The listing wasn't in Princeton, but I did a state-wide search and found it in Morristown," while another states, "No listing with that name," and cuts the connection.
(The other day I called the cable company to have a line moved, expecting the worst. A service woman gave me my choice of times and told me that if their repair person were not on site between 8:30 and 10:30 as promised, they would fix the problem for free and give me a $50 credit. "Who are you?!" I asked, amazed, and thinking I had called FedEx by mistake. "We are the Cox Cable Company," she said, "and we intend to give you excellent service even if it kills you!" I hit the floor, hysterical. These people are intent on ending the cable company's poor repute.)
So why does one mail clerk smile, say "hello," and take pains to find a better way to ship your strange package, while another orders, "Go over there and fill out those forms, then get back in line"? I think it has less to do with the boss, the family, the environment, hormones, television, ornery customers, UFOs, and Bill Gates than we think. I suspect it's actually about one's world view.
I've found that some people are viscerally cynical, with deep-seated convictions that life is, in reality, a slow, deadly march through enemy territory. You can tell who they are because they have that attitude as soon as they arise, before there's any chance that something or someone has adversely affected them, and the new sunrise, the chirping bird, and the kid playing ball in the street are not nature's signs of renewal and redemption but are rather intrusions and annoyances, endangering one's defenses. These are the true misanthropes, who feel that their jobs would be better if it weren't for the customers and life would be sweeter if there weren't so much, well, life.
As the economists say, "On the other hand," we have those people who see their awakening each morning, no matter what their condition, as better than the worst alternative, and who believe that existence demands mutual-supportiveness and civility. This has nothing to do with professions and everything to do with outlook. I've found nurses who were unsympathetic and needlessly cruel, and police officers in riot gear who were unfailingly polite and respectful.
Californians and the English share a peculiar idiosyncrasy. If a visitor complains about the weather, the local person will immediately apologize, accepting full responsibility for nature's unreliability. (In fact, Californians are often pre-emptive, apologizing for the weather before you even say "hello," on the assumption that you have as much right to climatic perfection in the Golden State as you do to sand on a beach.) As I've considered that behavior, I've realized that it's eminently logical: The apology costs nothing, and if it makes me and them feel better, why not?
If you feel the world is out to get you, it probably will. But if you believe that existence is largely what you make it, you'll probably make out just fine. And if you manage to help someone else make out well along the way, that's money in the bank of life.
I'm often asked, having been known as an aggressive business person, why I choose to do a newsletter like this for free. While there are quite a few good reasons—such as the pleasure of writing for pure fun for a wide and diverse audience which chooses voluntarily to subscribe—the fundamental reason is to learn. I'm constantly surprised by how stupid I was two weeks ago.
I've recently incorporated about 40 submissions from readers of this newsletter in my book about life balance which will appear later this year. A clear pattern among the anecdotes and techniques which were sent to me is that "balance" doesn't mean symmetry, and "compartmentalization" doesn't help balance.
There's nothing wrong, readers warrant, with writing a report at two in the morning IF you choose to do that because you feel like it and not because of guilt or fear. Similarly, hitting the beach at two in the afternoon makes sense, but only if it can be done without guilt (I should be working) or fear (what if someone catches me). Balance isn't achieved by creating compartments of, for example, 22% work, 14% personal time, 18%, family time, 40% "downtime," and so on.
I think life balance is about fulfillment in the long run and larger view. There are days, or even extended periods, when we must engage in "out of balance" stuff: there's a crisis at work, the kids are sick, a plane is cancelled, an unexpected demand is made. But Ronald Reagan, no matter what your politics, put it rather succinctly when he ran for President: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
I ask every executive whom I coach this question before any other: Are you having fun? The intention is to co-opt the conversation, and arrive at an emotional level rather than a superficial discussion of work priorities and time demands. But it's also a fundamentally logical question: Are you enjoying yourself, are you well off by your own measures, are you feeling good about yourself?
These questions and their truthful answers are far more important than how much time you devote to family, business, social events, hobbies, or spirituality (even if you could cleanly compartmentalize your life, which I doubt that you can). Here are some questions, a sort of self-test, which may be useful in thinking about your state of "balance." ("An unexamined life is not worth living," observed Aristotle.) In no special priority order:
- Talent fulfillment: Are my talents as I perceive them being utilized, challenged, and stretched, and am I able to develop new and diverse talents?
- Object of interest: Am I growing as an object of interest to others, am I sought out as a valuable resource, am I able to increasingly assist others?
- Time control: Do I have increasing flexibility and influence over how I allocate my time, and do I have increasing discretionary time to allocate?
- Passion: Are there people and pursuits in my life who and which enthrall me and gain total commitment, focus, and support? Do I love without qualification or equivocation?
My "test" is simply a bit of a provocation. But if you are challenged, sought by others, controlling your time, and passionate about people and pursuits, I would suggest, upon examination, you lead a life highly worth living.