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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: September 2000

You're receiving Balancing Act a tad early because we're off to France through September 1 and I wanted to clear the decks. We now stand at 2,100 subscribers.

If you don't think it's the end of the world, consider this: I've been interviewed in the last 48 hours by the New York Post, a magazine, and three radio stations- all on the TV show Survivor! I'm scheduled for a post-final analysis on New York radio on Thursday morning, right after I've met with the Federal Reserve Bank...

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Learning
  3. Musings
  4. The reading list

  1. Techniques for balance

    This month we'll tackle managing ANGER! (Studies have shown that people who are frequently angry have higher rates of heart attacks and higher stress levels, never mind the stress they cause to those around them.)

    • Do not take yourself all that seriously. Every time I think I'm walking on water I look down to find my knees wet. Nothing we do daily affects the course of western civilization. Lighten up.

    • Use humor as a release. When people yell at me I often reply, "Don't repress, tell me how you really feel." This makes me laugh at their discomfort, and often makes them laugh, as well.

    • Create a familiar "anger buster." Whenever you feel anger building, especially if it threatens to be uncontrollable, resort to a common behavior or setting. For example, you might take out a picture of your kids to calm yourself, or start humming a favorite tune, or reciting a short poem. The familiar sequence will tend to take you out of your approaching anger mode.

    • Discuss what bugs you at the time and don't allow stress to accrete. When the New York police cracked down on petty crooks they also immediately reduced major crimes. Discuss small annoyances as they occur to vent the pressure.

    • Ask a loved one or friend to help. Give them permission, when they see certain signs (your speech pattern, volume, making fists, etc.) to "break" the mood by saying, "I'm asking you to pause here, because you asked me to help you at this point."

    • Work it out. Physical activity dissipates stress. Go to the gym, work in the garden, play ball with the kids, wash the car, paint the hall (assuming it needs it). Make the endorphins gush.

    • Focus on observed behavior and evidence, and not what you think the other person is thinking or plotting. (I saw a woman become enraged once because she was convinced that someone was going to steal her best material, although there wasn't a shred of evidence, behavior, or history to support that fear.)

    • Don't drink, even in moderation, prior to, during, or after a stressful meeting or interaction. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and greatly increases the odds that you'll say or do something to exacerbate the anger.

    • Acknowledge your anger. There's nothing wrong with the emotion, but there's a lot wrong with behaviors that are based on it. It's the height of health and balance to say to yourself, "I'm angry, and with good reason. Now, what are the options that are rational and best for me?"

    • Get help. If you're angry daily, you have a problem which is psychological or emotional in nature. Find a good therapist. If you think that therapy is painful, humiliating, and/or expensive, it often is. But think what is happening to you, your loved ones, and those with whom you come in contact when you're hostile, volatile, and unpredictable. No contest.

  2. The Human Condition: Learning

    It's long been my belief that schools should teach basically a single talent: how to learn. I was right about that years ago but, in today's age of computers and speed-of-light communication, I'm frighteningly accurate.

    Schools are overly concerned with content. They teach dates, times, places, names, and things. But they don't teach us how to learn or make sense of all that content. I've seen students at all levels study with rigor and intensity, only to fail repeatedly, while others who take a lighter approach shine. This has nothing to do with IQ, work ethic, or hours. It has everything to do with knowing how to learn.

    Nor does learning have anything to do with fads, whether old (speed reading) or new (accelerated learning). It has to do with four simple talents, all of which can be acquired and nurtured.

    First, we have to read with comprehension. That means we must be taught how to understand what an author means, what the allusions refer to, how a metaphor is formed. Reading is a mechanical act, but comprehending is a cognitive act. (I recently found myself talking to the wife of a professional speaker as I dodged another boring convention by lounging at the pool. She told me grandly that her husband reads 15 books a week. I asked her if he comprehended anything at all. She went back to her vodka and tonic.)

    Second, we have to write with expression. Merely placing words on a page is to writing as putting colors idly on a canvass is to art. We must understand how to create our phrases, use our rich language, and apply syntax so as to develop a kinship and communion with the reader.

    Third, we have to speak with expression, to command a room, to galvanize the listener. Whether two people meeting casually, a business meeting, a social event, or a formal speech, we should be able to mesmerize (from a Dr. Mesmer, an 18 Century natural scientist) others.

    Fourth, we have to listen with discernment. We must do more than merely "hear," but rather understand what the other person is saying and not saying. We must achieve rapport through empathic listening, the rarest, perhaps, of all art forms. I've seen tables of people happily speaking and not one of them listening, which seems to me to be rather futile.

    Add your own fifth or sixth talent, but the point remains the same: We are not enabling students to become perpetual learners. In an age when content can be found through any search engine, when the esteemed Encyclopaedia Britannica is online, and when multi-media stimuli assault us all day long, we haven't helped our children (or ourselves?) to become lifelong learners.

    What a simple talent, but what a difficult sale. Writer and philosopher George F. Kennan said once that, "No one, to the day of my graduation, had ever taught me to look understandingly at a painting, or a tree, or the facade of a building." What an insightful but sad commentary.

    Are you learning to learn? Or are you simply reading 15 books a week?

  3. Musings

    My wife, daughter, and I were lounging on the steps at the shallow end of our pool. My big dog, Trotsky (a Shepherd/Husky, you can see him on my web site), was taking it easy in the shade next to the cabana at the deep end, about 50 feet away.

    Suddenly, a squirrel drops down from the cabana roof, and heads toward us, looking for food. About 20 feet away, he sees us, and promptly turns around. However, he is now staring at Trotsky, who has emerged to stand directly in the squirrel's path, and who is thinking about starting the barbecue for an early lunch.

    To the squirrel's right is an impenetrable hedge, to his left the pool, behind him the three of us, and dead ahead is Trotsky, now smiling and advancing. The squirrel, three feet from doom, leaps into the pool, swims past the startled dog (who will not go into water under any circumstances), jumps out at the diving board, and heads for the woods, with a great story for the guys at the bar that evening. Trotsky looks as though he wants an instant replay, but it is all over.

    Why aren't we as innovative as that squirrel? He didn't try to fight a fight he couldn't win, he didn't surrender, and he didn't allow panic to paralyze him. He figured out a way out. Ironically, we're not very innovative because we're all victims of our own success, in that we're often afraid to tangle with the status quo.

    Many years ago a book called "The Imposter Syndrome" detailed how even highly successful people in art and business frequently believed that they didn't deserve their success and that some day they would be "found out." (When I first began professionally speaking I feared that I would be dragged from the stage for imparting nothing but common sense supported by examples. I'm still getting away with it.) My take on this is that we fail to understand out successes, instead focusing on our weaknesses. Since we often can't articulate our own success and explain our own victories, we can't easily replicate them (especially under pressure) and, consequently, feel "lucky" when we win and accept defeat as what we really deserve.

    The fact that I've observed repeatedly is that no one really succeeds in life by correcting weaknesses. We succeed the most, and the most dramatically, when we build on strengths. But to build on strengths we first have to recognize, accept, and understand them, no small task.

    What are you good at, and why? What traits and attributes serve you best under what conditions? What abilities can you rely on in tough times to save the day? I advise that you ask these questions of loved ones and friends, because we too often sell ourselves short on our own assets.

    Spontaneity, innovation, and initiative are best employed when we are confident of our talents and exercise them regularly, no matter whether the conditions are familiar or unfamiliar. That way, you can occasionally jump in the deep end and swim to safety.

  4. The Reading List

    This month, historical novels with great learning and fine story lines:

    "Aztec," by Gary Jennings. A wonderfully detailed and exhaustive view of the Aztec civilization. Find out what "staking out this ground" really means. "Aztec Autumn" was the sequel.

    "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier. An extraordinary tale of the Civil War, and a Confederate soldier's attempt to return home to his true love.

    "Gods of War," by John Toland. Toland has won the Pultizer Prize for an unparalleled history of World War Two in the Pacific, called "The Rising Sun" (which I recommend you read). This is his novel, which provides the same gripping details.

    "Shogun," by James Clavell. Great learning about the history of Japan, bushido, and war lords. Try not to think of the television special with Richard Chamberlain if you can possibly avoid it.

    "The Heirs to the Kingdom," by Zoé Oldenbourg. The Middle Ages and the Crusades, in all their horror. Not a pretty sight.

    "QB VII," by Leon Uris. One of the finest novels I've ever read, and a frightening look at the legacy of Hitler even after defeat. A book I could not put down, incredibly situated within the British legal system.