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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 115: March 2009)

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Techniques for balance

  1. If the current times have told you nothing else, nobody knows certain things! Don't knee-jerk every time some "expert" prophecies doom and gloom. Once turbulence becomes "normal," it's no longer turbulent.
  2. Don't take it personally. If someone rejects your offer, disagrees with you, or doesn't "buy" what you're "selling," so what? That's their prerogative. It's not an indictment of you. (Women are worse than men in this dynamic, and often resist disagreeing so that the other party won't "dislike" them.)
  3. Look back of the past three of four months, and choose dates when you feel you should have taken a vacation. Then go to forward and write those times down as vacation weeks in the future, planning your work and other commitments around them.
  4. The way to parallel park-a dying skill-is to dip your left (driver's side) tail light in front of and even with the parked car's left headlight, then cut the wheel back to straighten out the car. Works every time unless you have one of those midget cars parked behind your space.
  5. Take a watch with a second hand, call your own phone, and see how long it takes to actually leave a message. In some cases, it's over a minute, and business people aren't going to wait that long. (No one cares where you are and it's obvious you can't answer the phone since we're hearing a recording. Skip the obvious and superfluous and get to the beep. We all know the drill.)
  6. Buy some stationery (cards, paper, and envelopes) from a catalog or online, with your name and address printed on them. Get a good pen, and use this for congratulations, apologies, regrets, condolences, and so on. Don't use email for truly personal expressions. And put a regular stamp on the envelope, not a meter imprint.
  7. Purchases are overwhelmingly emotional decisions (even in business). Don't focus on logical "features and benefits," but rather on emotional appeal and improvement. I bought my first car phone in 1985 when a woman called and said, "Mr. Weiss, how would you like to have one of the first car phones in New England installed in your car?" I've had one in all my cars ever since.
  8. You should feel free to provide unsolicited complements and never unsolicited critique.
  9. Your kids-or any others you want to influence-will not be swayed by what you write or say, but only by what you do. Your behaviors make you an avatar, so the question is what kind of example do you choose to be?
  10. You CAN go home again. But you have to realize that neither you nor home are the same, no matter what the superficial appearances.

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  • Why do we spend more time checking into the background of our auto dealer's reputation than the teachers and administrators at our kids' schools?
  • Why do people form long lines and drive for miles to obtain lottery tickets when the prize is $120 million, but not when it's $15 million? Is the latter too little to get excited about?
  • What kind of insecurity now urges people out of their seats to give standing ovations to very mediocre performances, debasing the gesture?
  • If the government really wants people to pay the taxes they legitimately owe, why does it create such hellaciously complex tax laws rife with differing interpretations and loopholes?
  • What kind of obliviousness or lack of caring prompts someone to wear jeans and a tee shirt at an event or in a restaurant where everyone else is dressed well?
  • Why do people interpret a sign that says "all you can eat" as a challenge to do so?
  • Why does upgrading for free to first class create a need to drink all the liquor that one can, no matter what time of day or what one's satiation point may be?
  • When did the change take place that the media created the news instead of just reporting it?
  • Why doesn't it occur to people that the more writing that fits on the back of their running pants, the worse idea it is to have anything written there?
  • How is it that people who think nothing of spending tens of thousands on a vacation, furnishings, or clothing, balk at an extra two dollars for a tip or a charity asking for a hundred dollar pledge?
  • Do we all realize how much illegal substances and outright cheating have damaged sporting competition?
  • Why do we put up with lousy service from technology firms that we wouldn't tolerate for a minute from other products and service providers?
    (How were we educated to accept "crashes" and "bugs" and poor performance?)

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I walked onto an American Airlines 767 in Kennedy Airport this morning, en route to LA and my Qantas flight to Sydney. A petite blonde flight attendant welcomed me on board, and offered champagne and orange juice.

She then proceeded to serve a four-course meal to the ten first class customers, including cocktails, soft drinks, wine, water, and coffee. She provided entertainment units, promptly cleaned the detritus of the meals, and took care of coats, pillows, and the inevitable bag that wouldn't fit on an ocean going freighter.

I carry American "special acknowledgment" cards, which the airline gives to its best passengers to give to its best employees. Mine are dusty, but I knew where I stowed them and they are good until 2010. She was astonished to receive one and genuinely grateful. I was astonished she was astonished.

She took pride in her work. Her outfit and grooming were immaculate. She always smiled. She interacted well with her crew mates.

I can remember a day when even ushers and coat check people took pride in their work. Recently, I've had to help ushers read the tickets, and I've had to wade through coats while the coat check woman finished up on her Blackberry mail or YouFace or something.

There is nothing wrong with the kind of pride that says to you that, as long as you have to do something, you ought to do it well, cheerfully, and thoroughly. I've met bus drivers who fill that bill, and congressional representatives who do not. Once upon a time, teachers were well within that camp, lauded for their learning and unselfish efforts to help students learn. Today, to too large an extent, they are blue collar, unionized workers, sloppily dressed, with few if any initiatives aimed at anything but making their work easier. Student performance isn't a factor in most cases. Yet what other test is there?

We're being forced into a crazed egalitarian society where no one is supposed to shine, or standout, or excel. Except for vapid celebrities and drug-assisted sports stars, we don't want our "peers" to be better than we are, even if they try harder or have more talent. (The Australians call this the "tall poppy" syndrome, wherein the tall poppy gets chopped down.)

Society is brought forward by excellence, not mediocrity. And excellence is based on taking pride in one's work, no matter how exalted or how humble. As John Gardner pointed out in his work on leadership, it's vital to have both excellent philosophers and excellent plumbers, or neither our pipes nor our ideas will hold water. And I would think an excellent plumber trumps a shoddy philosopher any day.

I imagine it's great to have that flight attendant's attitude every day. But I know it's great just to be around her. I think more of her employer for her efforts.

And like the underrated Ginger Rogers in Fred Astaire's shadow, she did it all in heels.

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Flying to LA in the bulkhead window seat in first class, there is a teenage Asian woman next to me, very quiet, barely heard by the flight attendant for the meal orders, extremely polite.

As we near LA, the pilot tells us that there is significant turbulence and he wants to prepare the cabin early, so we should take care of seats and tray tables and so on. The seats on this 767 operate in about 12 positions, with a foot rest that goes up and down and in and out, massage, bed and dining positions, etc.

I find that my blanket is stuck under the foot rest, so I begin playing with the controls to free it, but nothing is happening and I assume I've jammed the mechanism. So I start to try every single button in every mode. That's when I hear a guy across the first aisle start to giggle.

My pillow was covering my control area, so I was mistakenly hitting my seatmate's controls, and the poor girl, never complaining, was going up and down, getting smacked by the footrest, having the lumbar beat the pulp out of her, and madly racing forward and backward repeatedly. When I finally stopped, she looked as if she had just ridden one of those mechanical bulls.

I looked at her, aghast. "So sorry," she said.

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