The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: October 1999
Welcome to the second edition of Balancing Act. Thanks to all of you who have joined since the first edition, and to all of you "charter members" here from the outset. Subscription and cancellation information is explained at the conclusion of the newsletter. Thanks for subscribing.
- Alan Weiss
Feedback from our first issue:
"Congratulations for squeezing into the first edition of your readable and useful 'Balancing Act' a wise and practical template for governing one's behavior during ordinary as well as the extraordinary times in everyday life."
- Robert Perloff, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh (Bob is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Business Administration and of Psychology, a prolific writer and researcher, and the former president of the American Psychological Association.)
Balancing Act® is in three sections:
- Every year (Is that too much to ask?) set a goal to do something you've never done before. Smoke a cigar. Sky dive. Buy a $500 bottle of wine. Go to a spa. Attend the opera (I don't blame you if you avoid Wagner, though). You get the idea. After a few years, you've added immeasurably to your life.
- Put a stereo unit or boom box or something that can produce music in your work area. Cue up the music that you can't get enough of, no matter what your taste. Arrange things so that you can simply hit a button-or better still, a remote-to start your music. Turn it on whenever you're working on something that is enhanced (or merely not interfered with) by background music. I try to regularly go through all my Sinatra, Billy Joel, and Bobby Caldwell. (Hold your critique, I'm a romantic at heart.)
- Find a book on the basics of something in which you're deficient-art, music, theater, architecture, whatever-and then create an experience to match your new learning. Go to a museum or exhibit, attend a symphony or opera, visit the theater, go on a walking tour. I learned something about architecture in Barcelona, of all places, using this technique.
- Surprise someone who means a lot to you. Forget about significant, recognized occasions. Buy a gift, write a note, send some flowers, provide a compliment-completely out of the blue. Has anyone ever done that for you? If so, how did it feel? If not, how would it feel?
- Pull off your beaten track and drive up a road that you've never traveled before. See what's up there.
- Don't be afraid to vent. Stress is either internalized (making you ill) or externalized (making someone else ill). My wife tells me I'm a carrier. Nevertheless, if you're upset with service, quality, responsiveness, or results, speak now or slightly later, but don't forever hold your peace. It's unhealthy. Let it out and then let it alone, and move on. Nothing makes me crazier than people who go around informing me, "What I should have said was..."
- Find a competitive activity and throw yourself into it. Hear me out before you send me nasty e-mails. If you want to be physically active, chose tennis or racquetball or something like it; if not, try chess, or Monopoly or some other board game. Healthy and cordial competition gets the juices flowing, exorcises hostility, and provides the opportunity for some passion. Life's not about winning, per se, but about joyously entering the fray and engaging with our best effort, win or lose.
- Do not be lulled by these "models" that have you plot out the various components of your life on some wheel and spoke system, and then ask how much attention you're paying to each. The implication is that you should "balance" your time commitment quantitatively, which is nonsense. (You heard it here.) The point is really to balance your interests qualitatively. A lot of useless time with the kids doesn't measure up to an hour spent at their recital or soccer game, and spending hours speechlessly sitting next to your significant other doesn't hold a candle to the two seconds it takes to say, "I love you." (I see a lot of people having breakfast with their families at restaurants, with husband and wife both hidden behind the morning paper while the kids play with the silverware. Quality, anyone?)
- Decide on something selfish you're going to spend a few hours a week on. Make that time inviolate (you may shift the schedule but not the commitment). Whether it's a hobby, volunteer work, fixing up the abode, or sitting on a rock contemplating the universe, make it your sacrosanct time. It's not what you concentrate on, but the quality and passion of your concentration that counts.
- Sit down and list six things that you hate doing, or that get on your nerves, or that generally make you crazy. Eliminate three of them. (This includes relatives.) Stop suffering the "necessary evils." Take control of the stuff sapping your energy. Here's a silly but effective example. I know a terribly bright and rather charming guy who was driven to distraction by the staples that his dry cleaner utilized to attach the identification tags to his clothing. He'd struggle with these in the early morning while trying to catch a plane or keep an appointment. He went to the cleaner and said, "Find another way or you'll lose my business!" The cleaner now painstakingly puts his tags in with easily removed safety pins (and affords him a wide berth when he enters the store). He's ecstatic at having removed one of the thorns in the side of his life. So am I.
We are our own worst enemies because we snipe at ourselves from hidden redoubts, camouflaged and deadly. We could probably fight the enemy within if the assault were obvious: behavior which was clearly dysfunctional or beliefs which might be readily challenged.
But the insidious nature of the enemy resides in the treason that occurs in our own camp. Too many people relentlessly doubt themselves and demean their accomplishments, while exaggerating their setbacks and illuminating perceived flaws. It's narcissism turned inside-out. (Gore Vidal once observed that a narcissist is someone who's better looking than you are.)
How does treason against your own best interests manifest itself? In the nature of your internal (and sometimes external) conversations. Listen to yourself. If you're successful in an endeavor, do you say you were lucky, or do you focus on the behavioral causes of your success? I've always believed modesty to be an overrated asset, but it's still short of treason. Here are the possibilities:
- Health: I contributed to the event's success because I took the time to listen to the committee members and provide them with a feeling of inclusion.
- Modesty: I was fortunate to have committee members who responded well to my strategy of inclusion.
- Treason: I was lucky that the committee members decided to contribute as much as they did, or I would have failed.
And what happens when you do "fail," when there is a legitimate setback? The traitors within our psyche don't claim luck this time, but rather incompetence. If the competition beat us, it wasn't because they were in the right place at the right time, it was because we didn't prepare well, we didn't anticipate, we weren't good enough. The traitor makes sure that we beat ourselves severely, even though the defeat might have been unavoidable under any circumstances. (Loren Eisley once commented that some coasts are set aside for shipwreck. In other words, failure is not necessarily about our personal performance.) In these cases:
- Health: The event failed because we didn't publicize it sufficiently, and our publicity chair didn't put in any effort, which I didn't detect early enough.
- Modesty: I accept the accountability and I've learned what I have to do better next time.
- Treason: I did it again. I'm worthless. What's the use?
Beware of the traitors within us. The very way we explain our successes and our failures to ourselves can eliminate the treason that undermines our lives. The problem, of course, is that some of us don't have a positive vocabulary, and only the traitor can speak out.
(For techniques about "self-talk" and "learned optimism," see the work of Martin Seligman, including the book Learned Optimism.)
There is a constant refrain of both grief and relief from people whom I mentor, which goes like this: "That's so obvious! Why didn't I see this!?" While I'd like to respond that only someone with my Gnostic wisdom and acute senses can detect the ineffable flaws of the human character, I'm constrained to admit that none of us is suited to be our own objective onlooker. Hold a mirror too close to your face and the images blur (and your eyes hurt). We are simply not equipped to look too closely at ourselves. A good thing, too. We can't see ourselves well because we wear too many filters, trudge on under too many burdens, and collapse under too much self-scrutiny. I was told by someone that, "I hate to make sales calls. I hate the potential rejection. I can't stand the pressure." My response was, "So, stop doing it. The objective is to get business, not to make sales calls, and there are scores of other alternatives which can produce business. Why choose the one you hate?" She looked at me as if I had just landed from someplace around Neptune, or had stated that Charo was the greatest living performer, but then she collapsed in laughter and tears. "It really is that easy, isn't it?" she said. Yes, it is.
We confuse alternatives with objectives, input with output, tasks with results. Only the outcome really matters. But we all become so entwined and convulsed in our own life constructs, that we seldom take the time to ask, "Why am I doing this?" Usually, there are alternative ways that involve much less pain. Sometimes, you don't have to do "it" at all. Blasphemy. But truth. I can generally help people simplify their lives because I've simplified mine, which is no small irony is an increasingly complex and bizarre world. Remember John Naisbitt's "high tech/high touch"? He was on to something there. I'm always asking myself about the rationale for my chosen alternative, and is there a better and more salutary approach, given my strengths, my preferences, and my state of mind at the moment. The Whole Earth Catalog stated once that "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." I don't know about that, but we probably ought to get good at living our lives in the most beneficial state for ourselves. We just can't effectively help others unless we're effectively helping ourselves. People are always telling me-and this includes very high level executives-that "they" won't allow something. "They" won't allow the new initiative, "they" will frown on my ideas, "they" will give me a hard time, "they" will prevent our success. There is no "they." You are "they." Isn't that obvious? If it hurts, stop doing it. If it's painful, find another route. If it feels good, keep doing it. Your ethical compass will take care of the boundaries, but your internal gyroscope needs to keep you upright in a world that can easily knock you down. A sliver away from "they" is "them." As a matter of no small coincidence, one of the five greatest science fiction films (on my list) of all times was simply entitled "Them." It was about giant ants. Do you get my drift?
This example came courtesy of Nick Miller who writes a neat newsletter called "The Sales Accelerator." ((NickMiller@aol.com) He wrote about locking himself out of his car on a major interstate highway, with hundreds of vehicles whizzing by, and his cell phone and all his belongings inside the car. He was five miles from any rest stop, and no emergency phones were in sight.
What would you do? I'll tell you what I would do next month, and it's very different from Nick's intelligent solution.