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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: September 2001

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Solitude
  3. Musings
  4. Ends and odds

  1. Techniques for balance

    This month: The best coping devices when a personal or professional setback is irreversible and can't be immediately ameliorated.

    • Step back and ask if it's really the absolute worst thing that could have happened. It's usually not. That will gain some perspective.

    • Don't try to "get back to normal" too quickly. The issue will remain in your consciousness, tugging like dead weight. Face the setback, acknowledge it, and admit its implications. Confront it.

    • Look for cause, not blame, and for what can be, not what should have been. While you can't change what happened, you undoubtedly have options for the future. Think through what's best from this point on.

    • Allow for grieving. There are strong therapeutic reasons for formal periods of grief, and social mechanisms such as wakes have persisted for eons with good reason. Permit feelings to surface and be expressed in the company of others whom you like and trust.

    • If your behavior played a contributing factor, strive to correct it. If it did not, then don't shoulder imaginary burdens.

    • Immerse yourself in your passions when the episode is sufficiently behind you. Allow your emotions to have a positive escape valve. Throw yourself into hobbies, interests, family, and/or new pursuits.

    • Think back rationally and reflectively. Don't compartmentalize the event, or attempt to jettison it overboard. Include it in your history and experiences, and allow it to enrich you with that perspective.

    • Think about my "ACP" approach: Once is an Accident, twice is a Coincidence, and three times is a Pattern. If a setback is repetitive in nature, you're probably the cause (the good news being that you can therefore prevent it from recurring if you choose). If you've been fired five times, the way to bet is not that you managed to find five rotten bosses.

    • Find the humor. In a recent television broadcast I was shocked to learn that plant operators during the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, only hours away from a catastrophic meltdown, were asking if Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon had arrived (the actors in the eerily similar "China Syndrome" movie about a nuclear accident). The humor clearly helped their judgment.

    • If needed, seek professional help. Prolonged melancholia, depression, despair, and other behavioral changes are not normal. Therapy is nothing to be ashamed of, and I've often thought that all of us should be required to go through it every time we get our driver's license renewed.

  2. The Human Condition: Solitude

    My wife and I recently returned from Nantucket, where we adjourn every year for a brief time to enjoy one of the last unspoiled pieces of America. We take one of the convertibles on the ferry, breeze around the island, eat our way through the place in true Japanese horror movie style, stay at a favorite resort, and hit the beach.

    Except this time, for the first time during any of our beach vacations anywhere, we were shut out. It rained every day, and even the determined (and lovely) Maria was afraid to go near the water lest she be swept to sea. (Seeing the movie "The Perfect Storm" didn't help.) So, we made due with driving around, shopping, exploring, treating ourselves well, and reading voraciously.

    On the ferry coming home I realized that we had had an awfully good time. Just getting away is wonderful. We could have read the same books back at the house, had equally good meals in our favorite restaurants, and explored in the same way, I guess. But changing one's environment and creating some forced solitude is an elixir.

    We are, all of us, rather conscientious beings, which is a polite way of saying we carry a lot of baggage, along with a little guy on our shoulder who keeps whispering "You don't deserve this," and "You really oughta…" Consequently, we don't take the time to create solitude for ourselves and/or with our significant others. But solitude— that is, being away from the normal environment of repair people, supermarkets, neighbors, and the vicissitudes of communal life—provides for contemplation, perspective, and renewal.

    Now, I'm not talking monk-like privation or isolation. I could never disappear into the wilderness for a few weeks, and I only lasted 20 minutes out of a paid-for 60 in an isolation tank that my sister once bizarrely thought was a great gift. But changing the daily regimen of one's life on a vacation of any sort is cathartic.

    I've watched friends and colleagues who are never alone. They awake to a family breakfast, join friends at a health club, endure the forced socialization of the office, engage in meetings, have dinner, share family time (if they're lucky), work at home, and another day has evanesced. When they do go out, it's with friends or at parties. And work on the computer is not solitude. It's simply membership in an unseen but greatly felt wider community.

    We all need solitude at regular intervals if we're to take stock, to regard ourselves from a greater height, and to look toward the horizon. A great deal of the aberrant behavior I must deal with, personally and professionally, is the result of people who can't imagine they're acting irregularly, because they never take the opportunity to think about themselves or their behaviors.

    Most philosophers and psychologists regard humans as sentient because they exhibit self-awareness, supposedly alone among all animals (which I doubt). But is there sentience when that self-awareness is sacrificed in the scurry of constant motion, achievement, and competition? Margaret Whitely in her book "Leadership and the New Science" posits that the ability to process information is a sign of consciousness, so that a dog is more conscious than a snail, because a dog can process much more information than a snail.

    Doesn't that also mean that some people are more conscious than others, because some take the time to gather more information about themselves and their impact on their environment? It would certainly explain a lot in terms of differences in human capability.

    Solitude is great for one's mental health. Sometimes you get rained out. But that doesn't mean you lose the game.

  3. Musings

    Infrequently, but often enough to bug me, I receive a friendly reminder that I've done something incorrectly, because someone else has experienced a problem. In other words, since the problem has annoyed them, the cause must be external to their own universe, and I have been designated as most likely cause.

    Three or four times a year someone will firmly chastise me for the breakdown of my web site, since they could not order a book, didn't receive a proper response, or kept encountering a glitch. The assumption, as is often the case with this cretaceous era of computer software, is that someone else has loused it up for them. In fact, if you applied three seconds of reason to the situation, how could I exist if my system were so bad that every person who visited the site couldn't order, was unable to communicate, and had their credit card rejected? Wouldn't I be so awash in problems that I'd either have to fix them or simply crawl into a fetal position and stay there for the duration? What are the odds, therefore, that the other person's equipment is the culprit? Pretty high.

    My graduate class students have a habit, while trapped like a deer in the headlights (when I ask, for example, about the contribution of Elton Mayo to modern management) of telling me that my questions are poor, which is why they have trouble answering them. The first few times I encountered this I punished this insubordination by demanding they read both The Celestine Prophecy and listen to that abrasive, insufferable psychologist on Oprah in the same week, but I began to take precautions, surreptitiously, to ensure that I did ask excellent questions. (And the dean soon ruled my punishment to be a grotesque overreaction.)

    I've decided to take as much personal responsibility as I can for my quandaries and vagaries, so as to be able to demand that others do the same. This is an equation that comes out in my favor, since I'm far better prepared to do it than most.

    I don't accept seats I don't like in restaurants. I ask for better ones immediately. The host or captain should have attended to it, but it's my ultimate accountability to attend to my own comfort. Cursing Microsoft and its labyrinthine technical support may help to vent frustration, but I'd better learn either to use their system or arrive at an alternative if I'm to correct my software problems. (I've arrived at an alternative.)

    A reader wrote, when I had detailed a health scare, that my demanding to see a physician and not settling for the emergency room sounded "whiny." Ye gads! The trouble is that we don't demand enough on behalf of our own health, and suffer through long waits, inattentive staff, and monolithic insurers. If we don't take control of our problems, but merely assign them as inevitable symptoms caused by someone else, then we've assigned ourselves to those hackneyed "lives of quiet desperation."

    We're all the generals of our own lives. Some battles are minor skirmishes— responsiveness from a bureaucracy or service at a store—which require few troops and minimal resources. But some battles are pitched and decisive—trouble with an abusive spouse, poor education at the children's school—which require all the heavy artillery and a willingness to risk life and limb in a cavalry charge against the battlements.

    I've found a youthfulness in my "maturity" as I've discovered I can take on more and more accountability for my own happiness and contributions. Blaming others for our dilemmas is an enslaving philosophy. Taking accountability for freeing ourselves is emancipation. The latter is an anabasis to health.

    "You should have told us earlier," lamented the hotel manager faced with my reasonable request. "Perhaps," I said, "but the point is, I'm telling you now."

  4. Ends and odds

    • If you haven't read David McCullough's new biography of John Adams, you're missing a truly great book. For example, I've learned about the selflessness of a president I barely had read about, and am astonished at the diletantism and ethical minefield that constituted a Thomas Jefferson I had previously thought above reproach. (McCullough also wrote the incredible "The Path Between the Seas" about the heroic building of the Panama Canal, which is better than most novels.)

    • Find a recording somewhere of Sammy Davis, Jr. singing "Begin the Beguine" (there was no such dance as the "Beguine") to the accompaniment of a sole drummer and then ask yourself if there is any current music to compare.

    • If you're near a ferry, take a quick round-trip for no reason. One of my favorites is the Staten Island Ferry.

    • Say what you will about New York, but the limo driver who picked me up at La Guardia Airport asked, "What type of music do you prefer today?" "Classical," I told him. "What period?" he asked. "Uh, Baroque," I stammered. He cued up a Vivaldi CD and then asked if I'd like some bottled water.