The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: May 2004
Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:
- Don't fill silences that emerge in conversations. Give the other person and yourself an opportunity to ponder. I find that filling silences because of unease usually creates a silly or embarrassing statement.
- Establish familiarity with someone whose help you might need. Example: By chatting pleasantly with the boarding agent at the airline gate, a close call about whether your luggage is small enough to go on board will tend to go in your favor. (If you're a "stranger," it's 50/50, and if you've been unpleasant, that luggage is heading for the cargo hold.)
- Insure items, but safeguard memories. By that I mean that you can always use insurance to repair a car or buy a new suit, but cherished photos and mementos should probably be in fireproof containers or at least carefully out of harm's way (such as two fighting pets).
- Ignore requests for address updates sent to you by automatic computer software. I think it's unfair and intrusive for people to ask in this non-personal manner. If you're really interested in updating information about me, give me a call.
- If no one ever disagrees with you, then you may work in isolation; you may intimidate those with feedback to provide; or people are apathetic to you. It's generally a sign that you're support system isn't functioning properly.
- ALWAYS ask, "Can you do better?" Hotels will often upgrade you merely on the request at the desk, as will some car rental agencies, people working on commission, etc. It's not an unfair question, since the response can always be, "Sorry, I can't."
- Evaluate the community work you're doing or considering. A primary consideration should be whether or not it's personally fulfilling. If it's too much like "work," then you won't provide the extra effort, insight, or innovation probably required. If it's personally gratifying, you'll be a much better volunteer.
- Never act on a single piece of adverse feedback. Get at least two more opinions and look for a pattern. (One could make a similar point about positive feedback.)
- The best diet of all: Eat moderately, don't snack between meals, and exercise at least every other day for both aerobic and muscle toning purposes. That's it.
Apparently, I'm rather tough to buy presents for, or at least so my family tells me. One year, for some appropriate occasion, my sister inexplicably bought me a session in an isolation chamber somewhere in downtown New York.
Upon arriving in an old loft, gift certificate in hand, I was shown a coffin-like apparatus with a few inches of highly salted water in the bottom. The idea was that, once entombed completely unclad, you float with perfect buoyancy on body-temperature water, in body-temperature air, in total darkness. There is no stimulation whatsoever, just private time with your own thoughts.
After what seemed like two hours, my own thoughts were that the attendant had forgotten me when my 45-minute allotment was completed, and I bolted out of the sarcophagus.
I had been in there for 12 minutes. It was abundantly clear that my sister was trying to kill me.
I abhor that kind of isolation, but do find that "alone time" is vital to renewal. By that I mean time spent away from conversation, phones, mail, disturbances, and the myriad interferences of busy lives. It might be a walk with the dog, sitting by a pond, daydreaming with your feet up in the basement or attic. (Comedian Steve Wright reports that he would love to daydream, but he keeps getting distracted.)
This kind of low-level stimulus is just right to allow us to consider where we are and why, a sort of existential break from the vicissitudes around us. Many of us know where we've been and have some ideas about where we're going, but we don't really know where we are. While it's popular to aphorize that it's tough to set a course if we don't know our destination, I'd posit that it's impossible to reach a destination if you don't know from which port you're now embarking.
We need to build such reflection into our lives. Otherwise, the default position is almost always reactive: We open mail, answer the phone, respond to colleagues, listen to our family, watch television, and so forth. Why is reflective time - alone time - so important?
Because without it, we can't rejoice.
We spend a great deal of time reacting to feedback, problems, difficulties, failures, setbacks, objections, and obstacles. Yet, when we succeed, we seldom take sufficient time to reflect on what that triumph means. How did we achieve it; what does it mean in terms of our growth; what is the affect on confidence; is there a way to exploit it; how can we share it?
Many people meditate in some form or another, and I understand that it can be very rewarding. My problem, as with the isolation tank, is that when I try to reflect using a discipline or procedure, I focus on the procedure itself (sort of the Heisenberg Principle run amok). It's tough to reflect in a metal box that appears to be both shrinking in size and running out of air. Perhaps I'm just paranoid, but that doesn't mean I couldn't suffocate in there.
Are you building "alone time" into your life? Are you aware of where you are and why you're there? Despite the bromides about understanding history on the one hand, and having a vision of the future on the other, the best guides are the signs in large shopping malls, accompanied by a prominent red arrow.
"You are here."
In the great, overarching tsunamis of societal change, there are indications that a return to class, dress, and civility might just be building on the horizon. And it wouldn't be our worst fate if that wave inundated all of us.
Very few of my clients require what has traditionally been known as "business attire." With the exception of professionals dealing with clients every day (and sometimes without even that exception) "dress down Friday" has ingested steroids and grown into a lumbering, casual week. In 90% of my work, if I donned any of the lonesome suits hanging like sentries in my closet, I'd be perceived as "the suit from out of town"-literally! Even the Federal Reserve Bank, that bastion of conservative and non-casual fiduciary procedures, embraced a "business casual" dress code.
I've heard some women say that "every man looks good in a tuxedo." And with the possible exception of the rumpled Academy Award-winning producer of "Lord of the Rings," I'd have to concur. It's tougher to act, well, casually in a Tux, and I find that one's manner, habit, and speech improve, as well. I've observed that the same holds true for a woman in a cocktail dress or gown.
The legendary Ritz Hotel in London demands "proper attire" in all public areas after 6 pm, meaning a jacket and tie for gentlemen. I have to admit that the atmosphere engendered is among the most civilized I encounter in any of the great hotels. I moved from skeptic to a member of the clothing police within 24 hours of arrival. (And the rules are the rules: turtleneck shirts may look chic elsewhere, but not at the Ritz, where they would only look déclassé if not banned.)
Perhaps it's a sign of my aging, though I'm still the guy who tries to avoid shaving every day and hangs around in jeans. Nonetheless, there's a real appeal in a return to elegance, even if the rented attire produces merely a leased improvement in attitude. We need an infusion of class, because borne along with it is an improvement in manners, discourse, and polity.
I'm weary of complete strangers on the phone calling me "Alan," as if they're old friends, and unimpressed with the waiter providing a first name as if to become a new friend. It's sad to see a dearth of "thank you" notes while enduring a plethora of increasingly distasteful advertising and promotion. One might believe that airlines which eliminate first class are removing elitism, but what they're actually deleting is the "class." We've become too egalitarian, with everyone claiming a right to belong to every elite program, to benefit from every lagniappe normally attending merit, and to every perquisite that would ordinarily accrue solely to tenure.
And the problem with rampant egalitarianism is that the default position is the lowest common denominator. When I first began flying in 1972, the Pan Am Clipper Club was by invitation only, and you had to wear a jacket. Last month, in an American Admiral's Club in Dallas, I watched with perverse fascination as a heavy man in shorts clipped his toe nails, bare feet resting on a table.
Here's to class. There's nothing elitist about craving standards. We may not be able to bring back the Clipper Club, but at least we can reasonably hope to bring back shoes.
- Several alert readers correctly corrected me on "myriad," by pointing out that the adjective doesn't require a preposition (There were myriad opportunities….) but the noun form does (A myriad of moons circled the planet.). Thanks to the eagle squad, keep 'em coming.
- "Fulsome" means noxious and offensive, not "full."
- "Noisome" means noxious and offensive also, not "noisy."
- "Meretricious" means "flashy" and "having the appearance of a prostitute," not "with merit." Don't attempt to praise a deserving (and literate) woman by citing her "meretricious work."