Return to Newsletter Archives

The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: February 2005

Balancing Act® is in five sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Fright
  3. Musings
  4. Readers write
  5. ORTIYKMWOYBNT-O Department

  1. Techniques for balance

    • If you're reading a book that isn't what it's cracked up to be, put it down. Leave a play at intermission if you're bored. Walk out of a movie that offends you. Leave a party early if it provides only ennui. Take your life back.
    • You're probably better off significantly supporting and heavily involved in a few worthy causes than lightly supporting and remotely interested in many.
    • Write a letter if you're angry and forget about the incident if at all possible. The chances are you won't be contacted or receive remuneration, because the poor performance is being managed by the very person you wrote to! Sometimes you'll be surprised with a salutary response, and that's as good as it gets.
    • See some foreign films each year. The subtitles are a minor distraction, and the outlook and philosophy are usually far different from your normal home-grown films. (Those of you who are fluent in several languages, while I resent you, have a great advantage!)
    • Don't put yourself in (emotional) harm's way. If you park in a tightly-packed lot, your car doors are likely to be dinged eventually. If you attend an event with someone you detest, you are likely to be stressed. If you allow minor things to accumulate, you're going to have a large headache of a job in front of you. Nothing surprising there, right?
    • Don't feel you have to have an opinion. "I don't know" or "I haven't thought about that aspect" are fine responses to avoid being thrown to the mat and pinned in verbal wrestling matches you'd just as soon avoid.
    • If you're not improving your vocabulary every single week, then you're not improving your communications skills and, therefore, not improving your life.
    • Airbus now has a two-level behemoth due in two years that can fly between 500 and 800 people, and not an airport in the world can accommodate the beast. The major airports are now engaged in expensive and elaborate upgrades, just for that one plane. Which means that if you have an important and appealing idea, product, or service, people will adjust to obtain the value.
    • Diets are primarily about behavior and discipline, much more than types of foods and meal composition. Funny, but behavior and discipline are also responsible for most of our success, or lack of it, so no surprise there. (Jay Leno observes that only about 125 Americans could fit on that Airbus plane....)
    • It's February. How many resolutions are still in place? You still have 11 months to implement a new one.

  2. The Human Condition: Fright

    I find myself talking to a lot of people who are frightened, even though they don't realize it. Nevertheless, their actions, plans, reactions, and lives are often victimized by hidden frights. "Fears" are often obvious and apparent: spiders, heights, public speaking, a bully at work, an overbearing parent, embarrassment at a gaffe.

    "Fright" is more insidious, because it seems to operate on a subliminal level.

    These frights cross economic, gender, and cultural lines. There is no line of demarcation, apparently, for fright.

    The most common fright of all, perhaps, is that of rejection. We simply don't want to be unliked, unaccepted, or unappealing. On a large scale, vanity cosmetic surgery is an egregious example of over-reaction. But on a smaller and more damaging scale, we tend to sacrifice our own best interests and integrity to ameliorate the fright.

    I've seen people with superb credentials and qualifications surrender to the less well-informed and educated because they don't want to incur displeasure. In normal negotiations, whether over salary, assignments, or opportunities, many people refuse to support their own legitimate positions because they are frightened of being rejected or seen as resistant. (The inevitable results of such acquiescence is that people become angry at themselves later for missing the moment, and engage in the debilitating rituals of "I should have said...." and "Why didn't I...."

    In other words, not only do they abandon the negotiation, but they beat themselves up later for doing so.)

    We often hesitate to ask people for directions, or to remove their hats in the theater, or to lower their voices when they trumpet into a cell phone. We accept tasks dumped on us unfairly by others. It's one thing not to contest a traffic ticket too vociferously while the officer is carrying a gun and handcuffs, but it's another not to protest an imposition because an acquaintance is carrying the possibility of rejection and disdain.

    Women are much worse than men at this. They tend to want to "mother,"

    I think, but certainly are more frightful than men. They take resistance personally and don't stand up for themselves as frequently. A generalization?

    Perhaps. But in a Carnegie Mellon study, researchers found that men were eight times more likely than women to negotiate initial salary, resulting in starting pay 7.4% higher for men, directly attributable to this difference.
    [Fortune, January 10, page 72] We're frightened because our egos are involved. Our carefully sculpted self-identities might suffer if we are unattractive to others, not accepted by our peers, and not compliant with everyone's needs. Ironically, in being so afraid to alienate others we end up alienating ourselves. We sacrifice our potential to help others by delimiting our own growth and goals. My son used to tell me that he wasn't frightened by the dark, he was frightened by what might be in the dark. Fair enough. Buy a flashlight and shine it on the worst rejection you can anticipate. You'll find there's little to worry about except your ego, and then you can stop being so frightened.

  3. Musings

    I have a six-dollar watch someone bought for me at a pushcart in New York which I wear when I'm doing physical labor (about twice a year). After a couple of years it stopped, so I had the battery replaced, which cost me exactly six dollars. I realized the next day that I could have purchased a new, six-dollar watch.

    We talk about a "throw-away" society, but I'm not sure that it's a black and white, good and bad equation. I'm not sure we should discard items that are functional merely for the sake of having a newer one, although the auto industry and the television industry and myriad others would seem to argue otherwise. And I do believe that giving things to others is better than discarding them, so long as they retain a legitimate use.

    (I still fall on the floor when I think of the Seinfeld episode in which a homeless shelter indignantly returned muffin bottoms to Seinfeld, who was marketing only muffin tops, and thought to provide the perfectly edible excess to the shelter. "Who do you think we are," challenged the shelter manager, "that you would have us eat muffin bottoms?!")

    A problem emerges, however, when we create, in effect, "throw away" relationships. I'm still using the same insurance agent, printer, landscaper, snow plower, travel agent, web designer, and others whom I began working with ten, and sometimes twenty, years ago. I make sure that they continue to be on top of their respective games, of course, but I don't shop around for better prices or nicer offices. (I stopped using my long-time accountant only after I became convinced I was getting poor service and inferior advice.)

    There is something to be said for loyalty. I appreciate people who are loyal to me, because it moves me to higher levels to ensure that I earn such trust. They also provide me the benefit of the doubt when I mess up an order, jumble some spelling imaginatively, or get a date wrong.

    So if the snow plower doesn't arrive as early as I'd like on occasion, or the printer gets a couple of pages transposed, or the travel agent forgets to insert my frequent flyer number, I neither go ballistic nor search for a new source. I remember all that they've done well and move on.

    Too often we seem to proffer our loyalties to objects (take a look in your closet or garage, and those old shirts, boots, and luggage you can't bear to part with) and withhold it from people. We anthropomorphize objects while dehumanizing people. Should I really abandon my travel agent because a web-based outfit can save me 10%, or go with another landscaper because he's $5 less per hour? Those are tiny savings compared with loyalty and the special treatment it usually brings.

    I had a $1,500 Ferrari watch once, which I had purchased at an auction for $150, and I really came to love it. But there came a time when I gave it to my son (who, for a rare moment, was speechless) because it was time to move on and I knew it would be in good hands (and still is). But, looking at the weather we're enduring thus far this winter, I'm wondering if I should have given it to the snow plower....

  4. Readers write

    Dear Alan,

    Re: "to the barricades and being ticked off":

    I've coined a phrase regarding this phenomenon. It is that "some people are determined to be offended." I'm sure you have observed it.

    For example, these people would rather use a plural noun with a singular verb than observe good grammar because they are offended when the male gender is used to refer collectively to the entire human race. They would rather use politically correct language with ambiguous definitions than attempt to be accurate. I think you can be accurate without being offensive. For example, rightsizing or "transformation" as Donald Rumsfeld prefers to call his present initiative, stills amounts to the same thing: reducing the size of an already stretched US military in the vain hope that better technology will compensate for fewer troops. So-called "rightsizing" anywhere else means laying-off people. To call it anything else ignores the trauma these events have on people. Why can't they just say so instead of trying to hide behind some euphemistic term?

    I'm sure you can think of other examples, but I feel better for having shared my experiences with you. -- Bruce Hoag


    The following is a verbatim discussion with a Wall Street Journal customer service representative:

    Me: My paper has been delivered erratically over the past week.
    WSJ: Define "erratically."
    Me: Last Thursday it didn't come at all. On Friday and Monday it was delivered only to the other side of the bridge, and the Monday edition was someone else's. Tuesday, I received Thursday's missing issue.
    WSJ: What bridge?
    Me: The bridge leading to my home.
    WSJ: Is it a toll bridge? Is it dangerous to leave papers there?
    Me: It's a small bridge I own that accesses my property.
    WSJ: Is it safe?
    Me: I've driven over it 40,000 times. Fire engines can cross it. 18-wheelers have crossed it.
    WSJ: But is it safe?
    Me: Yes
    WSJ: Okay, then why was someone else standing on it on Monday?
    Me: No one was there on Monday.
    WSJ: You said, "Someone else had a paper there on Monday."
    Me: No, no, the paper belonged to someone else.
    WSJ: Do other people use the bridge? Perhaps they are taking your paper.
    Me: The paper has always been delivered to my door.
    WSJ: Well, is the bridge new?
    Me: NO!!!
    WSJ: Sir, there is no need to become angry. We will credit you with a full week's extension on your subscription. Is that satisfactory?
    Me: Yes, okay.
    WSJ: Please be advised that we can't guarantee future deliveries until you get the bridge fixed.