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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: January 2001

Happy New Year to all! I'm in Vermont scarring the slopes, so Balancing Act® is being sent before I lose my balance on the blue hills.

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

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

  1. Techniques for balance

    There is a "funk" that often accompanies the Holiday Season and which reaches its nadir in the dark shadows cast by the beginning of a new year. As a very successful sales person said to me once, "We're heroes for beating plan on December 31, and on January 1 we're all working stiffs behind plan again." That's a tad severe, but here is my recipe for avoiding the January darkness. Don't take it lightly, because this can often be a near-clinically depressing period.

    • Rejoice in experiences gained, don't bemoan time lost. Sure, you didn't get to everything and now you're a year older. But you did get to a lot, and it's time to celebrate the accomplishments.

    • Savor the memories of those you've lost, don't engage in "If only I had..." The lives of our family, loved ones, pets, and friends are meant to give purpose to ours, not to bring us to a grinding halt.

    • Decide what it is you've really failed to accomplish that's important to you, and make a plan, with weekly goals, to do it. Here's a hint: Playing the piano well might not be within your competency, but appreciating music probably is. Focus on the reasonable, and don't self-flagellate. (Which is why I'm reading a great book at the moment, called "The History of Art." Finally, I'll know something.)

    • Get away. We tend to visit or entertain over the Holidays, but we rarely go away in early January. Even if it's a day trip, get out of the house. Go to a day spa. Don't simply face the Holiday detritus. Break free.

    • Change something fundamental about yourself or your life. Reinvent yourself, however modestly. Shave off your mustache. It worked for me. (Okay, I'm addressing men there, but of course women might also think about...) Change your makeup, or your "look," or your hair. Like Ronnie Milsap's terrific song, I see too many people "Lost in the 50s..."

    • Volunteer for some cause, even if it's for a short duration. Not only will you enjoy the "high" gained from helping others, but you'll realize in short order just how well off you really are.

    • Start practicing positive self-talk (see Seligman's book, "Learned Optimism" if you want the psychological basis). What I mean is, give yourself credit for victories and walk away from the defeats. Neither tends to be permanent nor pivotal. Learn to like yourself better. Why should I like you if you don't?

    • Go to a truly funny movie (that is, one where the "humor" does not derive from repeated obscenities or flatulence). Laugh out loud. Hey, go to two movies. You can probably do that for under $100 if you don't live in New York.

    • Go shopping. No, I mean it. Buy something for yourself. The gift return zealots will have already done their work, so the stores should be reasonably navigable. (If you can't think of anything to buy yourself, then buy me something.)

    • Watch a dog chase a squirrel. (I'm watching that act right now, in the back yard, while I type.) The dog never, ever catches the squirrel, no matter how clever the stratagem. The squirrel always returns the next day, no matter how close the call. Both seem entirely happy about that scheme of things and their place in the cosmos. Why shouldn't you be?

  2. The Human Condition: egocentricity

    So a guy calls me the other day and says, no kidding, "I've heard about you and your mentor program. I'd like to consider being a part of it. I'm calling to get five references to see if you're really any good. Also, although I've never read any of your books, this concept of value pricing you're credited with makes no sense to me, and I don't see how it can work. What's your reaction?"

    "How long have you been in consulting?" I asked, already knowing the answer.

    "Oh, I'm just retiring from my job, and an entering the profession. But, hey, you're not going to tell me that just because you've been doing it longer you're smarter than I am, are you?"

    I wasn't, but only because I hung up.

    Most people trip through life because their ego is hanging down around their ankles, getting in the way of their feet. I think that a healthy ego is important to success and emotional well-being, but I think egocentricity is a form of self-absorption that borders on implosion.

    We need to understand that confidence is based on the belief that you can help others to learn, arrogance is based on the belief that we have nothing left to learn ourselves, and smugness on the belief that we don't need to learn. Egocentricity is smugness raised to an art form.

    The people most intent on preserving delicate egos are, perforce, the most insecure. Any slight, intended or inadvertent, can puncture the delicate fabric of their well being. Consequently, they tend to excel at offense, because defense is so dangerous. (I believe that here is where you'll find most passive-aggressives lurking--that most hateful of all personality disorders.)

    We see egocentricity in oneupsmanship: "You were in Rio? Ah, but you missed Carnival, which is why we went when we did." We see it in volume over logic: The lout who continually breaks in on our conversation, too busy telling us why we're wrong to listen to what we're actually saying. We see it in gamesmanship: Asking questions of dubious worth to throw the other party off track and off their subject. And we see it in the "ignorant expert": The person lecturing us on wine who doesn't realize that someone at the table really does know about wine, and that sniffing the cork only makes you look like a stunned Labrador Retriever. (I was in my favorite coffee shop a few weeks back when some guy entered and, seeing my car parked down the block, lectured the room on Ferraris. He got the model wrong, the performance wrong, the engine wrong, and the price wrong. Then he said that he was sure the owner wasn't sitting in any coffee shop.)

    Here's what you do with egocentricity: call the bet. That's right, just like in poker when you suspect a bluff, you match the last raise and you ask to see the cards. Unlike poker, when the other party might not have been bluffing, the egocentrics are never holding anything above a nine of diamonds. Ask them where they got their information. Tell them that they're wrong, and volume makes them even a louder wrong. Tell them that the comment about your child going to a "backup" school is worse than inaccurate, it's an attempt to cause pain, and you wonder why they feel the need to do that. You will repel all borders, who will quickly attempt to jump back into their little rowboats.

    Don't ignore the behavior, which only enables it. Egocentrics eat up a lack of resistance (remember that they're always on the offensive) and they become bigger and bigger in their self-promotion. They can become so big that the rest of us can't breathe. Puncture the gas bag.

  3. Musings: On trains and skates

    I'm sitting in Amtrak's new Acela train returning to Providence from New York, where we spent a couple of days to see our kids, have our traditional picture taken at the tree in Rockefeller Center, and, generally, do the town.

    The train is late (which I think is what "Acela" means in Swedish) and it's packed, even in Business Class. Outside, I watch an unending procession of red tail lights moving, at funereal pace, northward on Interstate 95. It's 5 p.m. on a Friday, and people are making their tedious and painful way home. At least I'm traveling faster than they are and can sip a drink.

    The ubiquitous McDonald's arches pass by with a military precision, every 5.6 miles. Holiday lights adorn desultory neighborhoods. Billboards hawk everything imaginable, usually with sex. This is, after all, the northeast corridor, and we won't hit greenery and the ocean until we're well into Connecticut.

    And still the car lights snake onward, lemmings on their way to the sea.

    I watched the thousands of commuters in Penn Station, hustling on board the local trains (which DO run on time) to their homes in New Jersey, Connecticut, and suburban New York. I could never join them in that methodical madness. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (in "Emile") said that "Man is not meant to live in herds. The breath of man is poisonous to his fellows." I'm sure that I'd go mad within a month. I'm not cut out for mass migration. I'd be alone on the Serengeti, asking departing impalas, "Why can't we just stay in one place?" Like the Canadian Geese, once migratory but increasingly sedentary, I've begun to question the reasons for my movements.

    I'm at home in the big city and I'm at home in the 'burbs, but I'm disconnected in between. There are no redeeming features about commuting-it is the greatest time waste that I know of, the La Brea Tar Pit of productivity, a black hole of engagement and interaction. I know that there are those who have adapted to its demands in a fashion that would have made Darwin proud, learning a foreign language, catching up on reading, inventing electric forks. But adapting to a negative condition doesn't mean that the condition is any better, just that we've been able to cope with it. After all, people have adapted to Kathy Lee Gifford, humus, Kabuki Theater, and bagpipes. But that doesn't mean the experience is one to be relished, or engaged in without strong drink.

    I'm not advocating that those of you in the nine-to-five world chuck it all tomorrow. But I know that a great many of my readers are refugees from that world, entrepreneurs and risk-takers who have decided to lead an independent and uncertain life. Those of us skating on that thin ice often have a recurrent philosophical quandary: AM I CRAZY, OR WHAT? THE SAFETY IS ON THE SHORE.

    Yes, but the wind and the speed, and the ability to leap and spin and momentarily free ourselves of the earth's grip, are all out on the ice. We jump and cavort and twist and soar, and for a precious few moments we defy gravity. Often we fall and bruise, and sometimes we trip and get wet, but we seldom drown.

    So, for all of you commuters out there, my hat's off to your fortitude, forbearing, and phlegmatic nature. But for those of you who have traded in the to-and-fro for the trial-and-error, enjoy the ice, but clear me some space. I think I'm going to try a triple axle.

  4. The reading list

    This month: Thought provokers.

    • "Conundrum," by Jan Morris. A well known and gifted writer, Jan used to be James. A stunning account of transexualism and the pain many people bear.
    • "Why Sinatra Matters," by Pete Hamill. One of our outstanding essayists and reporters treats old blue eyes as a symbol of something uniquely American.
    • "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," by John Berendt. Forget the awful movie, this was a best seller for over a year for good reason, as it explores an actual murder in the strange culture and wild underside of Savannah.
    • "Throwim Way Leg," by Tim Flannery. Searching for little known animals among even less understood tribes in the wilds of New Guinea.
    • "The American Way of Death (Revisited)," by Jessica Mitford. The follow-up to her classic, finished by her husband after her death, on the distasteful tactics and underhanded methods of the American funeral industry.