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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: May 2003

Balancing Act® is in three sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Baggage
  3. Musings

  1. Techniques for balance
    • If you enjoy the audio/video entertainment on airplanes, it's worth the price to invest in an excellent and comfortable personal headset. Airlines now allow you to use your own.

    • Keep a book in your car, maybe one you've felt you "should" read but really don't want to read. You can pull it out the next time you're in one of those hour-long, completely stopped traffic jams.

    • 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.

    • For those of you with a treadmill (or other exercise equipment) at home, cable television, a remote control, and a healthy dislike for healthy workouts: Divide your workout time by the number of cable channels and linger on each one for that amount of time. For example, 120 cable channels require 30 seconds on each one to complete an hour workout. The time flies by, you learn something along the way, and you improve your health.

    • Tell your restaurant server not to rush the meal, and/or that you'll let him or her know when you're ready for the next course. There is a trend in dining these days to rush patrons through a meal to "resell" the table. Don't fall victim--it's unpleasant and unhealthy. I've returned entrees that were served before the appetizers were finished, and I've indicated that if they're simply brought back reheated I'll return them again and won't pay for the meal.

    • Judge what's convenient and comfortable for you, and adjust your life. Don't use others' criteria unless they suit you. Case in point: A woman sitting next to me on a plane offered the free advice that I shouldn't be lugging around hard cover books because of their weight. I pointed out that it was the only way to read new books, and that she was carrying 20 times the weight in her computer equipment alone. (I told her she seemed to me to be very "high maintenance." She replied, "Why does everyone tell me that??!")

    • Virtually everything is more informal today than 10 years ago (I've had to wear a tie exactly twice this year so far). Yet many of us still invest mostly in more formal or business attire. We should be investing in comfortable, durable, and attractive casual attire, because we're spending more time dressed that way in all aspects of our lives.

    • Check the calendar for holidays when you're planning a trip or requested to go somewhere for business. The reason is that public school and private school vacation periods (usually at different times), three-day holidays, and/or extended weekends can significantly affect airline waiting times, availability of seats, and overall quality of travel. (Which is why I also try to avoid travel on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons if at all possible.)

    • An unexpected gift at an unexpected time will virtually always be better received (and more subject to wider acceptance) than an expected gift at an expected time, which carries a much higher burden of expectation.

    I never tire of arising early, opening the back door, and watching the dogs greet each new day as if they've never seen a new morning before, holding unlimited promise and excitement. That's an attitude we can all use. Just stop short of trying to catch a squirrel.

  2. The Human Condition: Baggage

    It was never a surprise to me that we carried so much burden from our youth and upbringing into our young adulthood, but it shocked me when I learned that, if we don't watch it, that baggage adheres to us like a giant leech for all of our adult lives. I know people in their fifties still influenced by what they were told about themselves when they were in grammar school.

    There's a bromidic phrase that asserts "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right." Unlike most aphorisms which carry an automatic and equally mantra-like converse (e.g., "A stitch in time saves nine" is refuted by "Haste makes waste," and "For want of a nail the battle was lost" is countered by "He can't see the forest for the trees"), this one is singularly true.

    I'm constantly meeting people seeking my advice who are quick to inadvertently inform me that my advice won't be of much help, e.g., "I must do better in sales but I'm not an assertive person and am uncomfortable confronting others," or "I would love to address my professional colleagues but I'm awful in front of a group." Well, then either don't think about addressing those colleagues, or work to improve your presentation skills, but please put an end to the conundrum, because only you can.

    Just as a fleeting gossamer of music can instantly transport us to a fond memory, our baggage weights us down so that we can't leave familiar turf. We treat the contents of the baggage ("You have no musical talent," "You're clumsy," "You have no sense of style," "Your don't have the discipline�") as if it's Gnostic wisdom, unchallengeable creed, writ in the runes.

    What we really need to do is simply jettison it.

    Recent studies of self-esteem support what I've learned and believed for over 20 years: Positive self-esteem is not a causal factor, it's a result. That is, when I succeed at something, my self-esteem improves, creating a cycle of success. But solely attempting to build positive self-esteem does not have a correlation with ensuing success at all (as borne out by studies that have included the California emphasis on esteem in the classroom over the last decade). For a couple of years I was president of a company owned by W. Clement Stone, the advocate of "positive mental attitude." Yet one quickly learned that his positive mental attitude was the result of amassing over $400 million dollars as an outstanding insurance salesman, not the other way around. He never made a penny of profit, by the way, from selling his positive mental attitude courses.

    The acquisition of skills enables us to perform better--or in new areas-- thereby creating success, enhancing self-esteem, and building the motivation to acquire still more skills. That's a great cycle, and one we should scrupulously pursue for ourselves and our loved ones. It requires that we be agile, nimble, and light on our feet. It's tough to do that when we're carrying several hundred psychic pounds of baggage.

    Investigate what I call your "self-beliefs." Are they justified? Dizzy Dean, a baseball pitcher, observed that "If you can do it, it ain't braggin'." Fair enough, but if you can't do it, it doesn't mean you're failing. It simply may mean that you're being impeded by heavy luggage bequeathed by your (even well-intentioned) parents, siblings, friends, spouse, role models, or teachers. By throwing out the baggage you're throwing out the self-belief, allowing you to acquire the skills to at least give you a fighting chance at success.

    Someone told me once I'd never get out of Union City, New Jersey. I did. It merely required that I leave without all my baggage. I've never missed it.

  3. Musings

    Note: To my loyal readers from outside the U.S., my apologies for my American perspective. Perhaps, however, this may strike a chord with your observations and experiences, as well. Thanks for your patience with me.

    I've just returned from full-day speaking engagements in Santiago and Quito, passing through Peru (and am in Mexico as many of you are reading this). The travel was uneventful by today's standards, although the Chilean economy nearly crashed due to a huge banking scandal, and the police discovered a plot to assassinate the Ecuadorian president. Ho hum.

    My audiences totaled about 400 sales executives and managers, utilizing simultaneous translation. About half or slightly more spoke English. I speak enough Spanish to take a cab, obtain a hotel room, and order a meal without alarming anyone unduly. The work was arduous, tougher than I like these days, but the experience was wonderful.

    Among my hosts and audiences I found delightful, professional, interesting people (despite the fact that ubiquitous cell phone use is readily accepted in the middle of meals, during the formal programs, and while in personal conversations--acts that even New Yorkers would find intolerable). I also found average national incomes ranging from $5,000 to $12,000 annually, and abject poverty yards away from pointed affluence. I stayed in the best hotel in Quito, but was cautioned not to walk around the neighborhood.

    Peru and Ecuador became my 52nd and 53rd countries to be visited, respectively, and Columbia should become my 54th in June. In all of those travels, what shocks me most is Americans.

    Despite the omnipresent American business people and tourists (yes, contrary to the press, we're still all over the place), I find that most of my countrymen are falling behind our overseas counterparts. Few Americans speak a second language even haltingly. They make few concessions to local culture. (When I watched a portly man walk across the lobby of my outstanding hotel in Santiago in shorts, a tee-shirt with an inane message, and flip-flops-- in the midst of well-dressed Chileans--I found myself averting my eyes in embarrassment.) American who don't travel don't seem to have much of a notion of the world other than what seeps into their minds through television sound bites. Even those who do travel seem rarely to take the time to learn about the local culture, conditions, and climate.

    I found no animosity nor intolerance. If the Iraqi war is an issue, it was raised only in intellectual conversation over drinks with more of a need to understand how we feel than a need to chastise us or argue. Both of these countries--and this is not uncommon--despite politics, geography, and culture, share the U.S. as their major trading partner for both imports and exports. Our culture, for better or worse, is unavoidable: In Santiago at the U.S.-brand Sheraton, I purchased the Miami Herald with U.S. dollars, chatted happily over drinks with my hosts who are fluent in English, and listened to the lounge trio do a superb job on Cole Porter classics. For all the world, I could have been hosting my Chilean colleagues in San Diego or Orlando.

    I have to admit to mixed feelings about all this. It's a pleasure to travel with the comfort and ease of understanding and of familiar icons (American products and stores abound). But we do seem to be the 2,000 pound gorilla which people have no choice but to accommodate and not upset.

    I found myself doing everything I could to change that impression. I'm only one person is a small boat, and I fear I'm trying to row against the wind and tide. But the effort surely can only help us all navigate better to our destinations.