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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 108: August 2008)

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  • Vary your information sources. If you restrict yourself to selected avenues for your news and information, you will inevitably receive a biased view of the world and issues. (The same applies in the neighborhood, in clubs, in schools, etc. During an open house, my daughter's fourth grade teacher told the assembled parents, "Here's the deal: If you don't believe everything your kid tells you about me without checking, I won't believe everything your kid tells me about you without checking." We all shouted our approval.)
  • Listen to Billy Joel's "Shades of Grey." There are relatively few issues which are black and white, case closed, no thought necessary. As he laments, "I'm just not that sure any more."
  • In business, those closest to the work and the customer (e.g., a bell person or telephone operator) usually have more accurate information than those several times removed (e.g., a district supervisor or a vice president). If you want to really understand something, don't rely on second- and third-hand information. Go see for yourself. (A woman once told me that Broadway musicals were a waste of time. After sampling several, I realized that she was the waste of time.)
  • Understand that "expert" sources change all the time. Remember when you couldn't go into the water within 60 minutes of eating or you would cramp up and drown? Do you recall that cigarette companies once employed actual doctors in advertising to advocate the lesser health risks of their particular brand?
  • Let's be clear: There is often a profound difference between what may be legal and what is ethical, and vice versa. I'm always suspicious when a company's ethics oversight is in its legal department. Here's Anatole France: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
  • The esteemed New York Times is often called the newspaper "of record" in the U.S. and it is an impressive repository of information. But it's famous front page mission, "All the news that's fit to print" doesn't include the actual implication: "All the news that WE SEE fit to print." Don't believe everything you're told, no matter how loudly or insistently.
  • You can waste a great deal of your life on conspiracy theories, so here is a guideline to free up your time: Two people have trouble keeping a secret, and the thought that entire corporations or government agencies or a combination thereof can keep them over prolonged periods is as likely as a Yeti showing up at Lincoln Center for the matinee performance of South Pacific. (And, yes, men really did land on the moon.)
  • If you're curious about an urban legend or other commonly-believed but uncertain "wisdom" (e.g., GM's Nova didn't sell in Mexico because the car's name means "won't go" in Spanish), you can check it out on this site:
  • The Internet and its "social media" has a dichotomous quality: You can become aware of news and initiatives very rapidly, and see and hear them extraordinarily quickly. You can also be exposed to absolute lies, fabrications, and ignorance swelled to a cacophony by people parroting what they hear without validating it. Listener beware.
  • "Don't believe everything you hear, even if I tell you." - Oscar Wilde.

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Regimen or compulsion?

My bias is that we need to organize parts of our lives that are important. This varies in its significance.

I suppose if someone knows where to find something quickly, that's the point, no matter how bad the clutter may appear to an observer But I don't want my surgeon asking no one in particular, "Where did I leave that clamp?"

Creating a regimen around an exercise schedule, or work responsibilities, or family obligations, or civic and social commitments, enables most people to be more efficient and, ironically enough, more flexible. (In common parlance: multi-tasking.)

But an excessive regimen can become a compulsion, which is the height of inflexibility and at the margins of a behavioral disorder. (OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, refers to an obsession with an idea and a compulsion about behavior.)

I've met people who have decided to remove all fats from their foods, to the extent that they concoct strange replacements, the pursuit consumes their social lives, and, to me, they look far more unhealthy than if they allowed a moderate amount of fat to enter their systems.

Exercise is a great regimen, for mind and body, but the people I see running in rain, snow, fog, and other hazardous conditions I think are more compulsive than smart. Wouldn't a treadmill suffice for that day? And would your health be drastically affected if you skipped one day? I work out three times a week with a personal trainer, but I don't beat myself up when I can't get there because of other commitments. Nor do I compensate for it through some forced exercise. (The trainer beats me up enough for the both of us.)

We've seen people whose desks are beyond orderly—the pencils must be the same length and aligned perfectly, the phone pad squared against the phone. We recognize that as "over the edge." But there are also subtle routines which also form compulsions which we too easily overlook.

An orderly life is sensible, but a compulsive one is not. Even "order" makes little sense when you sacrifice value for the sake of order. I've seen restrictions placed on guests, pets, and even children to the extent that I wonder why the guests, pets, and children were included to begin with. (I knew a woman so fastidious about her Mercedes that her husband, who bought the care for her, was forbidden to drive it.)

In many cases, I love my ducks in a row. But there are times when I just run through the bushes, because it seems like fun. And, interestingly enough, the ducks on my pond have yet to line themselves up in a row.

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When I reached my 50s, and found myself huffing and puffing through airports (US Air designs connecting gates at Charlotte and Philly so as to endanger even a two-hour connection—you need to be an Olympic steeplechaser to be confident of making the next plane), I decided I had better begin working out, and joined a health club.

That helped, but about eight years later I forced myself (in between huffs and puffs in airports) to admit that I had created an exercise regimen that wasn't so much focused on burning muscles as burning rubber—I was in and out in 45 minutes, "unworked out."

I migrated to my current personal trainer and am now in the best shape of my life. I fly less than ever, but sometimes visit airports with luggage and proudly demonstrate my stamina, just to make a point, before driving home again.

The bad news here is that the same phenomena apply to your mind. There are people who arise, travel the same way to the same job, return home, have dinner, watch TV, and retire, in preparation for the same lemming path the next day. There are also those so immersed in a specialty or passion that their minds turn into tiny black holes of specialized focus, sucking in and destroying all other learning (my favorites are the cyberspace crowd, who will soon forget how to create eye contact and shake hands—they are busy sending email to a colleague 20 yards away).

Your body is doing its best when you're achieving a "burn," your muscles are slightly sore, you're perspiring, you have maximum flexibility, and you can perform aerobically and anaerobically.

Your mind is doing best when you are debating, considering other viewpoints, attempting things you haven't ever done, building both your creative and logical capacity, and "sore" from the work of invigoration and inspiration. The use of calculators has diminished many people's capacity to do math in their head. Similarly, Google and Wikepedia have diminished the willingness (and subsequent revelation) to research and investigate issues. (There IS such a thing as an original source, and errors on the Internet abound.)

Are you reading a wide variety of books, particularly outside of your comfort zone? Are you entering into lively and controversial debates? Do you express yourself in writing? Have you tried to figure out new ways to accomplish old tasks, and create new paths for the future?

Don't huff and puff through your intellectual life. Your mind can grow fat and lethargic and non-responsive, just as your body can.

Hey, can you hear me out there?

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When my kids were young my wife and I would play word games, and historical trivia and so forth with them, in an age before PDAs and Instant Inanity. (I remind you that they both got into very good schools.)

One day, while waiting for our car in front of a very expensive restaurant, my daughter noted that Lincoln was the name of a car and a President. "That's right," we said, "and what is the other?" For the life of her, she couldn't think of Gerald FORD. (Well, who could?)

As a hint, we said, "It's one of the most common cars you will find."

Looking around the lot she finally said, astonished, "There was a President named Mercedes?!"

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