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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: March 2002

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Let's talk about me
  3. Musings
  4. Introspection: To have lived

  1. Techniques for balance

    Some ideas about how to play, recreate, and enjoy hobbies:

    • Make your own rules. Don't be constrained by purists who have the uncanny ability to turn fun into a day at the motor vehicles office. Hobbies are uniquely your own. (Of course, you might want to abide by the rules when you golf.)

    • Don't make it like "work." Once you schedule official time, adhere to it religiously, and deny other pleasures, you've abandoned your leisure and created another "job."

    • Do make it regular, though. Pleasure should be like exercise. You do need consistency and regularity to enjoy the cumulative effects. (But even with exercise, you can choose different times, durations, and regimens, and not beat yourself up if you miss a session.)

    • Enjoy, don't compete. I hate golf�it's far too much like work�but I love walking the courses. There's always someone with a bigger collection, more experiences, and newer materials. Who cares?

    • Tap into the literature. On the modern Internet there is information about the most ancient of human pursuits, but organized for great enjoyment. Learn something about what it is that pleases you.

    • Build it into your travel itinerary. There's often a convention, an exhibit, an expert, or an experience awaiting in a city you were headed for anyway. Do a little homework, and find out where the confluence of travel and interests occurs.

    • Experiment and don't stagnate. Try new things. You can always abandon them. If interests don't grow and expand, they become habit, which is neither fulfilling nor challenging.

    • Find partners. Virtually every pursuit is enriched by sharing it with someone else. I've even heard people who meditate�a most individual pursuit�compare techniques and experiences.

    • Invest in "tools." My father-in-law was a gifted tinkerer who used to say, "With the right tools you can do anything." Create the support that maximizes your enjoyment.

    • Combine the physical and intellectual. Exercise the mind and the body, either through pursuits that demand the combination, or separate interests that hone each.

  2. The Human Condition: Let's talk about me

    Have you ever been behind the driver who chats away on a cell phone while holding up traffic by driving 10 miles per hour UNDER the speed limit? Or behind the person at the bank teller or post office window who, oblivious to the 27 people in line waiting, has a little chat about what the kids are doing or insists on examining 13 kinds of stamps before purchasing three of them? Or experienced the person who narrates a movie, as if translating a foreign film into some other language, while sitting behind you in the theater? (My all-time favorite: a woman engaged in a rancorous and loud debate with her husband during "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe" insisting that there really was no child. I thought Elizabeth Taylor was going to start screaming at her from the screen.)

    The other night, when I was a featured and pro bono guest at an entrepreneur's forum in New York, a woman announced immediately upon meeting me that "You need what I'm selling!" I was dialing the vice squad on my cell phone before the host frantically told me she sold email marketing advice. I need email marketing advice for the consulting business about as much as I need the IRS to audit my tax returns every year.

    Self-absorption is the black hole of personality. It consumes all surrounding joy, happiness, calm, peace, and equanimity.

    Have you noticed the "questions" often asked by audience members, which are actually personal credibility and ego statements, as in: "As someone who has conducted over 100 studies of executive desk games, and been published in Esquire, Cosmo, and Chemicals Today, I want to ask you if I'm right in my position, which was featured in a radio interview three years ago�"

    I have to admit that my balance is tossed askew by these folks, and they tend to bring out the worst in me. I honk at the guy who's driving 40 miles per hour in the left lane of the interstate, and then give him what my son calls, "That Dad look." I ask people in the movies to please be quiet. I told that woman that I couldn't conceive of needing email marketing any more than I could conceive of suggesting to my daughter that I'd provide bagpipes for her wedding. And I always cut off inflated questioners with, "What's your point?"

    I'm sure that most readers are better at handling this than am I. It's just that I've found such behavior to be like nails across a chalk board, and I've come to believe that the only way to really stop it before it forces me to respond in kind ("She has no child, you dolt, that's the point of the story!!") is to throw very cold water on it very quickly.

    Margaret Wheatly, in her fascinating work, "Leadership and the New Science," posits that some animals have higher consciousness than others because they can process more information in a more sophisticated manner. So a dog, presumably, has a much higher consciousness than a clam, because the dog has so many more ways to process and use information. Just try to teach a clam to fetch, or to steal your lunch.

    Commensurately, I think some people have a higher level of consciousness than others, because they are more aware of their environment and are processing more information. The self-absorbed are simply the semi-conscious.

  3. Musings

    One of the great moments in the Winter Olympics occurred during one of the skating competitions, when former champion and perennial commentator Scott Hamilton said something like this: "Oh, she caught her toe pick and nearly lost the jump, but SHE SAVED IT, SHE SAVED IT, WOW, WHAT ATHLETICISM, LET THE GAMES BEGIN!!!"

    I hadn't the vaguest notion of what had happened, but my adrenaline was pumping the same way it does when I think my radar detector has missed a state trooper and I'm about to get a speeding ticket. (Don't kid me, you know the feeling.) I was swept away by the passion.

    In fact, there was a tremendous comfort during the Olympics, but not from the jingoistic medal count, or the terminally insouciant Katie Couric, or the ice skating judging that everyone knows is more corrupt than those guys selling stock options over the phone at midnight. The comfort was from watching people totally dedicated to excellence in what is at best minor, and often obscure, pursuits to Americans.

    The Norwegians and Italians raced to the wire after a 10K cross-country relay, with the former winning by just a few feet. Luge, skeleton, and toboggan sliders competed for the difference of hundredths of a second, which is probably more due to random factors than to controllable skills. People performed stunts in the air on skis and snowboards.

    In short rink speed skating, all of the favorites were wiped out in one cataclysmic pile-up in the very last lap of the 1500 meter race final. The lone standing survivor, an Australian who had been dead last and had just won his nation�s fist-ever Winter Olympics gold medal, became the star. He has spiked and bleached hair, and enough pierced body parts to justify being hidden from people while they're eating. In complete humility he pointed out that he deserved to win since he was the only skater standing and crossed the finish line first, which makes sense to me. The favored Apolo Anton Ohno observed that competing was the objective, and that these things happen in speed skating, while rejoicing in the silver medal he earned for sliding across the line after the pile-up. Good sportsmanship all around.

    Don't even get me started on curling.

    I think it's fabulous that people devote their lives and energies to trying to excel at their passions. That doesn't just apply to those who made the Olympic teams. It applies to all who immerse themselves in their pursuits: I know a person who plays in a mandolin orchestra (Did you know that mandolins were once much more popular than guitars?), another who collects photos of old trolleys, someone who makes furniture on a herd of power machines in what was once a garage, and even someone who grows (raises? breeds? cultivates?) award-winning gardens.

    There's nothing wrong with producing our own happiness. I heard a speaker once condemn this as immoral (he later became a spiritual counselor to President Clinton during his many ethical troubles) and I radically disagree with him. Just as we can't really provide much economic help unless we're economically comfortable, it's hard to help others to be happy if we're miserable ourselves.

    The pursuit of happiness is a fine thing. All of those Olympic athletes certainly seem well-balanced, positive, and productive. They are good sports, win or lose, which is an object lesson for all of us.

    So let's get Scott Hamilton to narrate our lives: "Gads, what a column, he barely saved his point with a brilliant analogy, followed by a rare double metaphor, THE CROWD LOVES IT, WHAT INTELLECT, LET THE GAME'S BEGIN!!!!"

  4. To Have Lived

    The title of this article is in the future perfect. Ever since I learned conjugation in eighth grade, "future perfect" was one of my favorite phrases. That's because the future should be perfect.

    When I hit 45 years of age, I figured that half of my life was over. But on March 3rd I encounter 56, and what am I to make of that? I'll tell you what I make of that: I have lived.

    With slightly over three weeks to go (I'm writing this in Los Angeles on February 6) I both dread and anticipate still another birthday. I've flown the ocean on the Concord, and occupied a private railroad car under the English Channel. I've piloted both a B-24 bomber and the Goodyear blimp, and in April I'll solo on a genuine steam locomotive. (One advantage of ageing is that the grown kids you continue to support must come up with increasingly creative and dramatic birthday presents.)

    I tell you this not to brag, but really in somber reflection. I've lived my own life. I'd never claim that it's the perfect life style or even a particularly exemplary model, but I've pursued my loves, interests, and beliefs, and that's not a bad summation of a meaningful life. I've had the good sense to drive and discard fast cars as I became bored, but also to find a woman who has kept me intrigued and beguiled for over 30 years.

    She and I had a fascinating conversation not long ago. My wife felt that I was contributing too much to one of my favorite causes recently. That's a significant difference from spending too much on myself. Years ago, my ego became an entry in the Rose Bowl Parade. The anodyne for ego is not puncture, but self-worth.

    Tom Stoppard, world-class playwrite, wrote that "Age is such a high price to pay for maturity." Indeed. But the price is high, not prohibitive. I've paid the price and am still in the game.

    I hated turning 30, despised 40, but handled 50 extremely well. I suppose 60 will be a day at the beach, though I'd rather be at the beach than contemplate the fact that the event will occur in four years. We all remain 24 in our hearts.

    I understand that I risk "sharing too much" at the moment, but the subscription rates around here are quite reasonable. I decided to write this column after having "high tea" at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Ray, having worked a grand total of 45 minutes this morning for a very appreciative client. I was actually having a nice vodka with my finger sandwiches, overlooking the countryside, and decided that I was going to handle March 3 quite well after all.

    Last night, delayed in Dallas for four hours by an infrequent snow storm that effectively paralyzed the airport, I met a landscape architect in the Admiral's Club. I NEVER talk to strangers, but we began a conversation that lasted until our planes boarded. He told me that he had just returned from a trip to pay his respects to his mentor, dying at 60 from melanoma. "Only his eyes were still him," said my new friend. There were the two of us, highly successful people, sharing a moment about what it is like to have lived and be living.

    Erroll Flynn, the actor, said that "Anyone who dies with $10,000 still in the bank is a failure." I don't know about that degree of hedonism, but I do know that I will have lived life. I've probably experienced most of my landmark events, but there may be a few still to come. And I may have met all of my life's most significant influencers, but I can still serve in that capacity for others.

    I always thought that Tom Stoppard had it right. But his statement is incomplete. It's a high price, but a great investment, nonetheless. Raise a glass, if you will, on March 3.

    I'll hear you.