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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: November 2001

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Freedom from Failure
  3. Musings
  4. The readers write

  1. Techniques for balance

    How to avoid procrastination. Most people spend more time fretting about things they ought to be doing rather than simply doing them. This is for those of you who can "never quite get around to..."

    • Make a list of the most unpleasant tasks you feel you have to do, and choose those that are musts (e.g., repairing the collapsed front steps) while setting a priority on those that are merely "wants" (e.g., rearranging all the old photos sitting in a drawer). Now you know what must be done.

    • Set up a gradual goal, for example, one a day or one a week. Cross things off your list as completed, but don't add anything to the list until it's finished.

    • Those things outside of your comfort zone, e.g., arguing with the bank or dealing with an unpleasant client, schedule for early in the morning. Otherwise, you'll lose energy thinking about it all day and probably will wind up finding an excuse not to do it.

    • If something is too hard (repairing the steps) or too uncomfortable (repairing a relationship) get help (a carpenter or a counselor).

    • Reward yourself when you complete something. That could be a Jacuzzi, a shopping trip, a movie, or a drink with your feet up.

    • If the issue is complex, separate it into component parts and schedule those each day or week. If you're leading a fund raising initiative which is terribly uncomfortable for you, separate it into: finding volunteers, finding prospective donors, organizing the phone work, follow up, publicity, etc.

    • When "musts" are under control, work on the "wants" according to your priorities. If the photos in the draw simply represent an abstract need to create order, that's low priority. But if you want to show them to relatives at the Holidays, then you have some deadlines to create.

    • Never delay anything having to do with partner or family. Those go right to the top of the priority list. (Some issues may not require much time, such as a homework problem, but they require immediate time, nonetheless, and the work you brought home from the office really can wait until tomorrow.)

    • Learn to say "no" if the items on your procrastination list are externally imposed. Stop volunteering (there's nothing wrong with healthy selfishness if it reduces your stress levels). Don't be a patsy. Refuse others' work.

    • Use a trusted other. There's nothing like someone else you trust saying, "Throw most of the stuff on that list out, none of them really matter," to get you back to reality.

  2. The Human Condition: Freedom from Failure

    Driving across country in the aftermath of September 11, the client with whom I was sharing the driving told me that he had lost a good friend in the World Trade Center. He told me that his friend, a financial executive, was utterly self- assured, instilled confidence in those around him, and generally provided a sense of direction, calm, and trust in all those with whom he came into contact.

    "I can cite only a few people like that," he reflected, "and you're probably one of them, as well. What's responsible for that degree of confidence and self-worth?"

    Although I had another 1,500 miles or so during which to expound, the response only required a few seconds: "Being unafraid of failure," I said. Truly confident people, from business leaders to politicians, from teachers to lawyers, simply aren't intimidated by the possibility of failure. They do fail, as all bold and innovative people will, but the don't allow their actions to be altered by that possibility.

    I met my client again the other day, and he mentioned to me that he had repeated my definition to a multitude of people, and all of them thought that it was a valuable observation, one that they probably hadn't fully considered. I'll let you be the judge of that, but I do want to expand on that premise a bit here.

    Outstanding public speakers get "butterflies" before they mount the stage, which is actually a feeling of great anticipation and an eagerness to begin what, for them, is a thrilling and energizing experience. Poor speakers get stage fright, not to be confused with those premonitory butterflies. Stage fright is a near-paralyzing sensation generated by the fear of failure, of being seen as foolish, of not fulfilling expectations. This difference is more than a nuance. It's the difference between greatness and mediocrity.

    Many people I've met are not trying to win, they're trying not to lose; they aren't trying to succeed, they're desperately trying not to fail. That is a sure route to nowhere. I'd rather be going somewhere, even if I fail to get there, than assuredly going nowhere.

    Once we remove the fear of failure from our behaviors, our lexicon, and our frame of reference, we free ourselves to innovate, to explore, to experiment, and to fail in a good cause. There is nothing humiliating about failure, since it's seldom fatal. If you don't believe that, I suggest you read the biographies of Lincoln, Edison, Gandhi, Jackie Robinson, and Golda Meir, to name a few.

    How do we remove that fear of failure? My recipe is simple. Ask yourself these two questions: 1) What is the worst that can happen? 2) Can I live with that outcome? If you're honest and tuck your ego away, in almost every case you can tolerate the setback. And failure in a good cause, of course, is always superior to success in an ignoble one.

    How do some of us manage to stand out in a crowd every time? We don't care what the crowd is thinking....

  3. Musings

    I had to tell the general manager of a $300 million division last week that he was a good man, and a nice man, and that he should continue to be a good man but a little less of a nice man. He had to make some tough calls, the buck stopped on his desk, and there is simply no way to make everyone happy. (When you attempt to make everyone happy the usual outcome is that you make yourself miserable.)

    Every week I counsel people who have simply been too nice, but not too smart. I know I'm about to get into trouble with my next remark, just as sure as I know that dining at a place with "Eats" in a neon sign out front is a bad idea, but this problem is far more common among women than it is among men, although, as with my client, men are far from immune.

    "Nice" usually needs to be trumped by "honest," "supportive," "constructive," "effective," and a host of other adjectives that help people to move ahead and improve. It is not uncommon for me to encounter a woman who accepted an unfair divorce settlement ("I didn't want to make it too hard on him, it was painful enough") who also has accepted unfair working conditions ("I was uncomfortable making a demand for more money when my boss has his own problems right now"). We are all entrusted, at one time or another, with certain responsibilities, at work, at home, in the community, among friends, and with family. It's difficult and perhaps impossible to effectively help others�and to meet those responsibilities� if we don't help ourselves.

    Being nice is seldom helpful IF it means being dishonest, disingenuous, and/or disinclined to act.

    I'm not advocating a world full of selfish people going after each other, hammer and tongs, in the name of self-aggrandizement. But I am suggesting that "giving in" for the sake of being "nice" is often a disservice to both ourselves and the other party. We enable all kinds of dysfunctional behavior, from alcoholism to passive-aggression, by refusing to confront it and assuming that toleration is the better course of action. It never is. That's what results in ruptured relationships ("Why didn't you ever tell me before it got to this point?!"), spoiled children ("You never stopped me before!"), and ruined self-esteem ("It's all my fault, I should have acted sooner!").

    The good and the bad news is that we're our own worst enemies in terms of self-denial and useless sacrifice. We need to compromise to get through life, perhaps, but not at the cost of our dignity, respect, and ability to care for others. Usually, when we say that we wanted to take it easy on the other party, it really means that we feared the confrontation and preferred to hide under the covers.

    Well, as my son once fondly pointed out, he wasn't scared of the dark, but he was certainly scared of what might be hiding in the dark. Get out from under there, because you're trapped with the beasts who diminish your own self-worth. Don't worry about being nice. Worry about doing what's right.

    If you don't believe me, just ask Ayn Rand. "Atlas Shrugged" ought to be required reading.

  4. The readers (continue to) write

    - From Kathy Baker:
    Thanks for your mention of the new John Adams bio. I've been looking forward to reading it. I've always felt that Adams got a raw deal in how he was viewed by history--possibly because he wasn't the charismatic type (like Jefferson, for instance). Since you said you hadn't previously known much about Adams, you may be interested in a wonderful historical novel about John and Abigail, "Those Who Love," by Irving Stone. I read it many years ago and still learn from it. It was exhaustively researched (as Stone's books usually are) and is full of details about early American historical events (to say nothing of a great love story).

    -From Andy Klemm:
    While you might not find it quite comparable to Sammy Davis, may I recommend Diana Krall's rendition of Let's Face the Music and Dance on her CD entitled "When I Look in Your Eyes."

    -From Tanya Goodwin-Maslach:
    I just wanted to comment, briefly, on your "Musings" section. It was fantastic and I continue to appreciate your unabashed frankness. My mother, a full- blooded Italian and despite the lack of a formal college education, is smarter and wiser than most CEO's and Board members I've met, has practiced the principles you talk about in Musings. Fortunately, I was lucky to learn from her and incorporate some of that gentle tenacity, if you will, into my own repertoire of being. Your example of a reader's comments regarding your health scare [I pointed out that a reader thought I was a "whiner" for demanding a quick response�AW] did not surprise me. I have encountered such surprise at my own (and my mother's!) similar actions and requests. "Ye gads!" is a much better response than some that I have practiced.

    -From Elizabeth McGrath:
    " on the computer is not solitude. It's simply membership in an unseen but greatly felt wider community." I hadn't thought of it that way...once an extravert, always an extravert...I've just changed my venue and called it "solitary"....I enjoy the newsletter.

    -From Alan McVay:
    My friend Gloria Starr referred me to your newsletter and I have since had a chance to read one of your consulting books. Thanks for the good work! I have learned some lessons. You have a very personal style that I find engaging. Today I am on my way to investigate an embezzlement. Why is this consulting? My job is to define the problem, contain it, take action, and guide everyone through their emotional responses. Participants have to face hard facts. Although I am "inside" I still need repeat business. And, if it is usually hard to get people to be candid, imagine the lying and posturing here. Sex and power are usually pretty close to the surface. Notes on balance are relevant to the 50 percent traveler wearing an insulin pump and managing a family, girlfriend, and law school also.

    -From Madelon Miles:
    I loved your New York cab story. I've been collecting them for years and have even thought of publishing a booklet someday: New York Cabbies: Harbingers of Freedom. Every one I've met (almost) is one of the clearest patriots to America. They embody why people continue to find our borders magnetic. All the best and delighted you could be on Nantucket--since I couldn't!

    -From Janice Scanlan:
    Just discovered a new author--Sarah Byrd�"The Yokota Officer's Club" is really terrific. Many books can't put comedy and tragedy together. My book club read it; one of the member's family was stationed in Japan at the same time (early 60's)--we talked non-stop about the book without getting off on a tangent--an all time record--for 6 yakky women!

    -From Linda Zamora:
    I am a subscriber to your "Balancing Act" newsletter. I just read you commentary on David McCullough's John Adams and I want to thank you for helping me spread its fame. I have never regretted having to part company with the characters in a book as much as I did when I finished this one. I almost felt the death of John and Abigail as personally as if I had lived in their time--or they in mine. What rare people in a rare time, and what a privilege to be party to their thoughts and character so intimately! I am a mediator, arbitrator, and organizational conflict management consultant, but only after I am a mother of four sons; I am going to introduce those I influence to the "Adams Attitude Adjustment": Pay attention to your blessings, work for the greater good while you count the cost less, and seize the joy at hand. I guess I'll start with myself.........