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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: May 2007

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for Balance
  2. The Human Condition: Legislating Absolute Protection
  3. Musings
  4. Snippets

  1. Techniques for Balance

    • There is no reason for a service person on the phone to call you by your first name. Simply by telling them, "It's Mr. Johnson, not Herb," will change the dynamic of the conversation in your favor. False friendliness is an attempt to make the service person a peer so that you're more likely to accept their explanation or solution.

    • If you want to be taken seriously, don't sit down with a hunk of metal sitting in your ear blinking a blue light.

    • Why am I still hearing from people who are miserable because their computer crashed and they haven't been backing up their files?

    • Take a "mini-vacation": Reward yourself with four hours in the middle of the week to sit in the park, go to a movie, shop for a personal need, or just take a walk. The kids might be in school; you've forwarded your phone; you've not scheduled anything else; all other matters can wait. Like an occasional nap, you can seriously recharge your batteries this way.

    • Don't ask the waiter or captain "Is the fish good?" No decent restaurant is going to serve food so poor that its own staff warns you away from it. Instead, ask qualitative questions: "Which fish has the firmest texture?" or "Which steak has the most marbling?" or "Is there sugar in that topping?"

    • And by the way, if you are a regular in a non-chain, good restaurant, and the management doesn't buy you an occasional free drink, appetizer, or dessert, or doesn't automatically give you their best table, go elsewhere. They don't value your business.

    • Most planes today, even shorter-range models (particularly Airbus aircraft) have outlets for lap tops. Buy an adapter with multiple heads for the different systems and don't worry about lugging around an extra battery.

    • It is actually very simple to buy three-ounce versions of anything (or to obtain empty three-ounce jars for transfer) so that you can take any liquids you wish on a plane. They should last you about a week, and any trip longer than that will require checked baggage anyway. Tip: Place your quart-sized transparent bag holding the liquids in an outside pocket of your carry-on luggage so that you never have to open the luggage itself.

    • It's actually silly to mark on your calendar birthdays, anniversaries, and other events requiring acknowledgment with cards or gifts. Mark them two weeks AHEAD of time, which will give even a procrastinator plenty of leeway to make the appropriate purchases.

    • Good hotels will provide media to record television shows for a modest price is there's something on you just don't want to miss but you have plans for the evening.

    • Don't feel obligated to answer every question you're asked. When someone asks me what I consider the dumbest question to ask a professional speaker, "What do you speak about?" I merely say, "I don't know how to answer that question." Similarly, when someone demands, "Tell me why you feel that way!" I often state, "I simply do, and I don't feel compelled to defend it since I'm not asking you to agree with me."

    • If you learn a major city or capital in most of the states and most foreign countries, you can talk to anyone. I'm an introvert, but when the bar maid says, "I'm from Albania," I ask, "Tirana?" She then will say "Yes!" and I'll say, "Tell me about it," or she'll say, "No, a town to the south," and there we go. I mean it, anyone from cab driver to clothing designer, from politician to president of a company.

    • What mammal has the largest diversity and variety of members of the species? (Answer near the bottom of the newsletter.)

  2. The Human Condition: Legislating Absolute Protection

    Crusty but brilliant management guru Peter Drucker, one of my idols (he was sort of the Simon Cowell of consulting) once said that "laws that result from a 'scandal' are invariably bad laws. They punish ninety-nine innocents to foil one miscreant. They penalize good practice, yet rarely prevent malpractice. They express emotion rather than reason."

    We're seeing that phenomenon in action every day. The tragic Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island fostered legislation for improved fire protection in small businesses that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and drove some small businesses out of business. Yet the fire was caused by inept inspection by the city, two predatory owners who circumvented the laws, and use of pyrotechnics that violated the existing codes already in force.

    We push for more stringent blood alcohol levels to prevent drunk driving accidents, yet most of those accidents are caused by chronic offenders who have already lost their licenses, insurance, and even their own cars. (See this month's video on my site for more on the topic.)

    We've never been able to legislate complete safety, or comfort, or health. Often, these issues come down to a matter of personal accountability and the acceptance of the fact that life possesses a modicum of risk whenever you walk out the door.
    (Or even before that, since most accidents occur in the home.)

    Planes are going to be late. Electronic gizmos are going to stop working or develop insidious little bugs and glitches. There will be inopportune traffic jams. Someone will take the last cheese Danish during the meeting break before you can get there. You will catch a cold despite all our healthy eating, exercise, and refusals to shake hands. Your payment will be lost by the post office and your credit card company will charge you a late fee. Your luggage will be lost and the airline will offer you $50 if you take an additional hour of your time to wait in line and complete forms.

    There is no legislation that will prevent fires, make the planes fly on time, eliminate computer crashes, maintain your health, guarantee your mail delivery, detour you around traffic problems, reserve the pastry, or guard your luggage. We can do the best we can with back-up routes, luggage insurance, and learning to love croissants, but sometimes life is simply not what we'd like.

    I didn't say "unfair," since I don't think there's a guy with a green eyeshade and a pocket protector toting up all of our balance sheets so that we have a "fair" bottom line.

    We have to rejoice in the good times (No traffic today!) and cope with the bad times (Well, it's an opportunity to buy some new resort clothes!). But we ought to stop whining and stop demanding that "someone do something about it." If the government can protect the coasts and deliver the mail, it's not doing too badly. But trying to protect us every day from every risk, every unpleasantness, and every discomfort, is beyond the power of anyone but ourselves.

    Don't look for protection. Establish your own direction.

  3. Musings

    I was taking the dogs home from our coffee and biscuit run, after they had caused a ruckus with a poodle walking with its owner down the street. (I've found that dogs have territorial claims akin to government fishing rights. The Chinese, for example, claim a 300-mile limit off their shores, and the dogs seem to believe that any sidewalk adjacent to our truck is theirs alone for as long as we are parked there.)

    As we drove up to our gate, a huge wild turkey emerged and walked next to us for about 30 yards, before veering off into the woods again. The dogs were too f labbergasted to bark. Buddy was intimidated by a bird four times his size, and Koufax was probably wondering what it would take to fire up the grill quickly.

    As we hear more and more about civilization encroaching on the wild, I've noted a remarkable ability of wildlife to adjust and acclimate. We have deer visit our property, wild turkeys travel through, and two eagles (I'm assuming a mating pair) live just over the tree line and often sit or hover over the pond searching for fish and rodents. One of them has grown enormously in the past year.

    There are coyotes regularly spotted in Rhode Island, and two years ago, a moose. (There was a coyote in New York's Central Park, and no one could figure out how on earth he reached there unseen. Unfortunately and ironically, he died while the authorities were transporting him upstate back into "safer" territory.) The peregrine hawks living in Manhattan are legendary.

    I'm not claiming that we don't, at times, eliminate habitats or make the environment tougher for the flora and fauna. But animals have a remarkable capacity to adapt. I think they just might adapt better than we do. We're not adapting well to the traffic jams we're creating, nor to the crowded stores and recreation events, nor to everyday civilities required of people who are living in close quarters.

    It's terrible when a coyote hunts down a family pet, and I still regret it when Koufax captures yet another squirrel (which he did again this week). But that's what non-sentient creatures do: They hunt, eat, sleep, reproduce, relieve themselves, and get on with their next day. The coyotes are hunting rabbits, the eagles rodents, and the deer raspberries. They're simply adjusting to the environment in which they find themselves.

    It's a pity we can't be so flexible. When you know you have to stand in lines, trying to break into the line doesn't seem really bright. When you realize you're in a theater with 500 other people, talking on your phone is the height of self-absorption. When you're on the road with ten thousand other commuters, cutting in and out of traffic is excessively dangerous.

    The reality is that we live, work, and play in close proximity to each other. We need to accommodate that, for our own mental health, as well as that of others.

    We don't have a 300-mile limit, or even a sidewalk limit. Our territoriality stops well before it reaches the other person's nose.

  4. Snippets

    Brief commentaries on behaviors that endanger balance....

    • The premature finisher. The person who is constantly breaking in and finishing sentences for you. The implication is that they are either that brilliant or I am that predictable. Even if both cases are true, they are tactless.

    • The eternal narcissist: "Enough about me. What do YOU think about me?"

      I was at a dinner once where every single issue all around the table was answered by the opinion of the chapter president, as though the supreme court had just issued a verdict.

    • The insecure attacker. One of these guys asked me while standing in line for coffee, "Did you leave your Ferrari running out there because you're afraid it won't start again?" (The car wasn't running, he apparently was hearing a truck down the street.) I told him, "When you own a Ferrari, you can discuss Ferraris with me."

    • The content drowner. When I ask my tree guy to cut back some branches, he insists on telling the history of cretaceous era ferns. Many technology people talk to you in tongues, assuming everyone in the world knows about prams, pixels, and search spiders (or whatever). (I love the "barrista" in Starbucks who claimed he didn't know what was meant by "iced tea." I wonder if he knew what was meant by dipping his head into the espresso machine, vente gran vente.)

    • The oblivious latecomer. These are the people who arrive at the workshop or teleconference 15 minutes (or more) late, and raise a question like this:

      "I know I may have missed this because I'm late, but could you quickly review (in effect) the stuff I missed?" Yes, certainly, can we do it in the alley?

    • The slimer. This person hands you papers or money one-by-one, licking his or her fingers to separate the papers and handing you their slime on every page and every bill. "Antiseptic, stat!!"

    • The star-stupid student. If you know every answer, I'm proud of you, but trying to be teacher's pet went out in the fourth grade (well, for me, the tenth).

      Give others a shot, which shows you have the maturity to engage in true group learning not active group competition.

    • The lazy questioner. I will not answer the question, "What else should I have asked you?" because it is so fundamentally and incipiently lazy. Similarly:

      "What should I know as a consultant?" and "What are the best ways to be a professional speaker?" I don't know, what are the best ways to answer your question?

    • The nitpickers who pick a seat. I love people who are sitting in a workshop and give me nine reasons why it wasn't marketed well or explained adequately.

      My response is always the same: "Yet, here you sit."

    • The isolated ideologue. I get a few letters every month from people who tell me there is a punctuation error in a 2,500-word article, or a word is misspelled in a 250-page book. I ask them what they thought about the OTHER 79,657 words in the book. Honest-to-goodness, THAT'S what drives you to contact me after reading the entire book? Would you like to attend my poorly-promoted and inadequately-described workshop on priority setting?

    • The exception ruler. These are the folks who seek to prove a universal truth wrong by citing one, single, isolated exception. "Well, a commercially published book is overrated, because I know of an Iowa farmer who sold 350,000 copies of his self-published book on reaper repair to the Grange." Well, then let's all abandon McGraw-Hill, that's clearly the way to go. These are the attorneys seeking reasonable doubt, playing the law and not the merits, except we're talking about life, not law, and probability, not possibility.

    • The whine connoisseurs. Stop starting and ending every sentence with a sigh.

    Stop looking for excuses not be able to succeed. It's no longer your parents, the competition, the economy, the technology, Microsoft, your family, the stars, the gods, American Idol, or the fates. It's YOU. And once you can admit that, you can start to change whatever needs changing.