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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: July 2003

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Distinctions
  3. Musings
  4. A reader writes

  1. Techniques for balance

    Some ideas about how to spend your summer vacation.

    • Don't overstructure it, or it becomes another job. You don't have to see every site or sample every dish to prove that you've enjoyed yourself.
    • Think about sending your luggage ahead by FedEx to simplify your travels and minimize security hassles. Just remember not to lock it.
    • Take far more money than you estimate you need, in whatever form. Don't pass up an unexpected opportunity which may not present itself again because you lack the cash.
    • Buy at least one significant memento from the trip that you all agree does not have to be relegated to the attic and can be regularly viewed.
    • Make sure you are all in the pictures, and not merely inanimate objects.
    • Don't go on organized tourist side trips if you can find a way to visit the same places on your own.
    • Try the local food and don't solely search for steak and potatoes. (I actually met a woman who would only eat pasta wherever she went.)
    • Take more film and batteries than you think you'll need.
    • Don't be paranoid about not checking email or calling your voice mail. If you don't want to do it, fine, but if you choose to do it you're not "ruining" your vacation. I find that taking an hour to check messages in the early morning or late evening is no different from my hitting the pool at 2 in the afternoon when I'm at home. Isn't it up to me how I choose to balance my life?
    • Using the Internet, prepare yourself for the weather and, in other countries, the currency, electricity, history, and local customs.
    • The ideal life, it has always seemed to me, is represented by looking forward to and enjoying vacations, and then looking forward to and enjoying returning home.

  2. The Human Condition: Distinctions

    I'm a highly trained problem solver. No, no, I'm not kidding! I spent 11 years with one of the most highly respected firms in the world specializing in problem solving and decision making. In every relevant test I've ever taken, I finish in the highest possible percentiles in inductive and deductive reasoning. (When I forget to do something I promised to do five minutes ago, or can't find the remote control because I'm sitting on it, my wife reminds me that I'm the dumbest smart person she's ever met.)

    Here's a test: You're in the finished basement of your home watching television at night. Suddenly, all the lights and TV go dark. You know there's a flashlight in the drawer next to you, which you find and light. What's the next thing you do?

    Second test: You're slightly late for an important business meeting on a stormy day. You get into your car in the garage and the driver's door won't close. You slam it three times, and each time it pops open. What's the next thing you should do?

    The key to rapid and efficient problem solving is the search for distinctions. We're inculcated from adolescence to search to similarity and commonality in order to "fit in" ("I have a shirt like that," "We've vacationed at the same place," "I used to live in Denver, also"). Yet, if you want to add precious time to your life and avoid "failure work," you need to find distinctions when you have a problem.

    Why are sales better in the northeast than in the other four regions? Why are you treated well by three managers but not the fourth? Why do your children listen more attentively to your partner than to you? It's too easy to write these off to flukes, poor timing, or personal chemistry, even though those causes may occasionally be the culprits.

    More usually, however, the distinction is the philosophy of a manager, the prior experience of an individual, the tone of a voice, or the power of a past deed. I found long ago, for example, that the distinction of almost everyone who was truly exceptional in direct sales, as opposed to those who were merely adequate or worse, was enthusiasm. Yet most of my clients place a premium on product knowledge and experience in the field. Once I convinced them to hire enthusiasm for sales (which can be tested quite readily, by the way, on paper and in interviews) not only did they improve their sales forces but they also saw me providing increased value for them.

    In the first example above, you should immediately look out the window. If the neighborhood is dark, going to the fuse box or relays won't matter. If the neighborhood is lighted, then check the house power supply. In the second example, look at the passenger door which does stay closed, and note the distinctions compared to the driver's door. You might immediately be able to identify a latch or gear that's not engaging properly on the driver's side. This is faster and safer than trying to tie the door closed with rope!

    I believe it was Walter Lippman who said that we shouldn't look back in sadness, nor forward in trepidation, but rather look around us in awareness. Find the distinctions that represent strong balance in your life and seek to replicate them wherever possible.

    Chances are, you'll close doors behind you and light the way ahead.

  3. Musings

    I'm sitting on the East End of Grand Cayman staring out toward Cuba, 270 miles away. The water color changes abruptly in patches, from teal, to aquamarine, to cerulean, to azure, to navy. If you were to paint it this way, viewers would say it's an unnatural effect. Yet here it is, demonstrating that "natural" and "nature" aren't always synonymous, despite the cognate.

    Snorkeling here is like strolling through the Guggenheim. I've found that the fish, like paintings in an exhibition, stay in identifiable areas. They are utterly accustomed to people, and stare back with equal curiosity as new faces appear. (I've begun wondering if the fish are here on their own timeshare program, staying in their own rental units, and enjoying viewing the peculiar humans who swim out to them. Are we really taking part in a fish resort?)

    The bigger fish hang out under the piers. At the very end of one of them lurk what I call the "gangsta fish," as tough a bunch as you'd ever want to see. They're nearly two feet long, appear to be outfitted with aluminum siding, and at least two of them are smoking Luckies, no filters. They don't move at all, somehow compensating for the tides and wave action through subtle, undetectable trim control. They don't suffer fools out here.

    Near the ladder is the lair of the barracuda. If you've never seen one of these million-year-old beauties up close and personal, you just haven't lived. They look like torpedoes with a severe underbite, as menacing as a junk yard dog but without the intervening fence.

    At one point I had found, through sheer luck, two squid over a foot long, swimming in tandem, absolutely gorgeous. I followed their intermittent jet propulsion and resting, feeling like Jacques Costeau. Then I came upon a flounder, flat as a pancake, hugging the bottom, rotating eyes like two turrets on the upside, its body the pattern of a vivid Persian carpet. It flowed along the bottom a few feet away until it tired of my inspection and skateboarded out of sight.

    At that point I decided to adjust my mask, only to discover the water was well over my head (I'm not a strong swimmer), at which point I concluded it might be a wise idea to orient myself. That orientation abruptly informed me that I was a quarter mile off the beach, between the two piers (themselves separated by a quarter mile), and drifting toward Havana.

    I distinctly heard the fish laughing as I tried to motor toward the beach without seeming too panicked.

    It strikes me that the more engrossed we become in a single pursuit�be it a profession, a hobby, a love, or a burden�the more we lose our perspective and orientation relative to the greater world around us. It's relatively easy to be immersed in a temporary reality that divorces us from the greater reality, causing us to be less attached and relevant to those around us.

    And sometimes causing us to drift far off course without realizing it, making an ultimate correction stressful, time-consuming, and possibly problematic. Life requires a holistic orientation, I think, else we can't appreciate the beauty of a butterfly without also understanding the drabness of so much around us; we don't understand what it's like to soar in an airplane without being cognizant of the distance to the earth; and we don't fathom the size of the sea unless we orient ourselves toward the land.

    We often don't appreciate the lives we lead precisely because we're so caught up in them. Sometimes we have to lift our head up and look around. No matter what the depth of our passion or commitment, without perspective it can lead us into dangerous waters unless we know a safe port and welcoming shore.

  4. A reader writes

    As always I have gotten something extremely valuable from this month's newsletter that applies to my life, my present day situation, and how I plan on taking that information to make it better. THANK YOU! Every month I look forward to learning from your words of wisdom and I agree with the following wholeheartedly.

    "The worst cause of stress is not knowing what is going to happen in the immediate future AND believing that you have no influence or control over it anyway. (To this day, I believe that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the most stressful time for civilians in America, even more so than post 9/11.) Educate yourself to understand the facts (not panic or rumors) of a given issue, and to plan what you can actually do to at least influence your personal future."

    Often whenever I read anything you write, I seek how I can apply that wisdom to my business situation. Well, if I've learned anything over the past year, it's that life is not business. And if I make business the only important, end-all, be-all in mine, I will be miserable. I've learned there are most definitely more important things in this life and each of us has our own trials to navigate through.

    My most immediate is coming in only nine days. I am facing a bone marrow Transplant, and I have to say I was feeling a bit stressed over the whole thing. Stressed that is, until I read that passage and how it reminded me that I was more prepared than perhaps I thought. Alan, you made me laugh!!! And that was about the best medicine I needed! I realized, you were so incredibly right in what you said. Stress dissipates when knowledge enters the picture. I did educate myself based on facts, not speculation, and my future is what I make of it.

    I also took something else out of this newsletter, perhaps more than you intended us readers to do, I'm not sure. I think a lot of us go through the day-to-day of life manifesting fear into some broad termed descriptive called stress. Yet it's funny how we "stress" over the smallest of things. That or maybe it's just me. Again, not 100% sure. But I have found when I do not have all the facts, rather than jump on any bandwagon of rumors or panic, my inclination is to go on a fact finding mission, so I can base my decisions on pure analytical, rational thought. It's worked for me!!!

    I have always been a very positive person. In fact, I measure a high "I" on DISC personality testing, with maybe a little D thrown in for good measure. But I have never been a blind follower, and when I received word that I was going to need a transplant, and that it was now moved up due to complications, my first stop on the way home was the library to read everything and anything I could get my hands on regarding the subject. To me it is exactly what you said in the newsletter regarding stress. For some, knowing that information they feel would create more stress than not knowing. But it's the uncertainty, the loss of perceived control that creates the stress. I say perceived control because none of us really has any from moment to moment. Being prepared with an arsenal of information is about the most in terms of control any of us can have.

    I will say this. This is probably one of the most frightening times of my life, but I'm not scared because I know what I know based on facts, statistics, odds. I'm as prepared as I'm ever going to be. So when I read this newsletter, I just had to reply to you thanking you for yet another paradigm shift in my thinking. My goal for the future is really quite simple. First and foremost, to kick this cancer's butt! Secondly, to get past this long sabbatical and back into the game of speaking, consulting, and writing. I can't wait!!!

    I was bummed that I won't be able to attend your keynote at IMC this weekend, but I will be there in spirit! I have already put your book on my list of musts for my recuperation time. It sounds awesome!!! Anyway, I just wanted you to know how much you have helped me in my life and in getting through this crisis. So many times we look forward to what we need to do next to land that client or next big speaking engagement, life becoming all about business and work. But the title of your newsletter to me, your very words in everything you've written says it all, Balancing Act. Life truly is a balancing act, and I'm just thankful to you for helping me balance mine. Take care and Thank you.

    Tammy Carullo Practice by Design Consulting, Inc.
    8 Chris Lane
    Lebanon, PA 17042
    P 717-867-5325

    [Note: Tammy came through with flying colors and is on the road to recovery.]