Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 140: April 2011)
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Techniques for balance
Any touchdowns you score before or after the game don’t count.
A great many people are superb at performing when the pressure is off. We can answer all the Jeopardy questions (in the form of a question), remember the lyrics, hit the ball smartly, counter an argument, sell our services, and be the life of the party. But when the music starts, for many of us, we’re suddenly no longer in tune.
Pressure—whether real or perceived, and if it’s perceived it’s real—tends to act like guilt or depression in that it masks our talents, constricts our voice, and undermines our presence. We don’t function well, or even normally, but rather are trying to race with a 50-pound load on our backs.
I’ve watched people perform and fail to perform under pressure for a long time. Here’s the comment of Bill Russell, the extraordinary Boston Celtic center who was pivotal in winning so many basketball championship games:
“Heart in champions has to do with the depth of your motivation, and how well your mind and body react to pressure. It’s concentration that is being able to do what you do best under maximum pain and stress.” (From his book, Second Wind.)
Most pressure is self-imposed. There are ego concerns, overwrought feelings of responsibility, the crazed notion that we’re supposed to be perfect (as opposed to merely successful), the perceived limited window of opportunity before us. On a regular basis, pressure like this is a killer, because it generates great stress, one of the fundamental causes of illness, major and minor.
Why do we do this to ourselves? I think it’s because we sometimes feel that we can’t be successful enough. The sales results were outstanding, but not as strong as three years ago. You won six in a row, but that’s not near the record of nine. You created five new products, but not one is selling at the rate we had hoped.
We have two choices: We can remove the pain and stress that Russell talks about and which we impose on ourselves. Or, we can get used to the fact that they will be there waiting for us in a competitive world, and we might as well get good at competing under all conditions.
In any case, we have to be comfortable with who we are—win, lose, or draw. Otherwise, there’s no way you’ll ever win enough.
The human condition: Savoir Faire
Savoir faire means, literally, to “know how,” from the French. However, its connotation goes far beyond that insufficient English translation. The phrase really refers today to poise and comfort in social and business situations.
Do you know the proper way to eat an artichoke at a dinner table, or when and how much to tip the concierge, or when to use “imply” versus “infer,” or what colors look best on you? Some people have an admirable sense of demeanor and inclusion in the environment in which they find themselves. This was once restricted to the aristocracy, who had a complex system of formal recognition (“your grace,” “your eminence,” “your highness,” “your majesty”), then became a more common attribute of the middle class, then seemed to become lost in our increasingly casual society. (I was shocked to see the President recently addressing well-dressed Brazilian political, business, and social elite in an open-collared shirt.)
However, the development of savoir faire through education, observation, travel, and acculturation is an important trait in success. I’ve seen too many people struggle with the wrong silverware at business meetings, use the wrong words during presentations, wear the wrong attire to events, and use inappropriate behaviors in their interactions. These are setbacks, sometimes crippling, which are avoidable.
It’s one thing to scream and spill beer at a hockey game, but it’s another to shout out inappropriate humor at a business meeting with your boss present. It doesn’t sound difficult to expect that people know how to conduct themselves, but it’s apparently not a very universal phenomenon.
We’re in a time of massive shouting to be heard: the “amplification” of social media platforms, the screaming of talk show hosts, the invective of political commentators, and the cacophony of entertainment which believes that volume trumps content. (I love La Bohème, but found “Rent,” which was based on it, to be unintelligible.)
A bit of savoir faire goes a long way. You never know when that artichoke is going to show up.
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I kept hitting the brake with my foot and the starter button with my finger, but my car would not start. I was about to have a conniption over the impossibility of this kind of major mechanical malfunction, and/or both of the car’s batteries simultaneously dying.
“Am I going to have to call roadside assistance to come to my garage, or should I call the service manager?” I asked in frustration, reaching for the phone.
“Neither,” said my wife, “if you try taking your finger off the ashtray and placing it on the starter button.”
Copyright 2011 Alan Weiss. All rights reserved.
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