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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 111: November 2008)

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Techniques for balance amidst "calamity"

We're experiencing unprecedented (at least in our lifetimes) economic turmoil, but this, too, shall pass. Here is some advice for overcoming the slings and arrows of the catastrophists:

  • Never act precipitously. "Knee jerk" reactions are worse in crises. Be patient. Retain your common sense. Panic always deteriorates decision quality.

  • Ignore the "pundits." There is a pundit for every occasion, every season. In highly complex environments, no one really knows what's going to happen. Some of the media people have a certain duende. It's superficial.

  • Seek and restore personal relationships. It's far tougher to gather strength in tough times when you're suffering interpersonal conflict, whether with family or friends. Make it right, or make it go away. Establish meaningful new relationships whenever possible.

  • Find the positives. There is seldom total gloom. There are personal, business, community, and collaborative opportunities.

  • Help others. There are few activities as therapeutically cleansing and invigorating as helping others to overcome problems and see opportunity. (Studies have shown that people donate money not merely to help others, but because it makes the donor feel better.)

  • Stay healthy. Emotional stress can be, literally, a killer. Engage in a fitness routine, which will provide surprising emotional reward as well as physical improvement..

  • Treat yourself, no matter how minor the treat. George Ade, the humorist, once wrote, "Don't pity the martyrs, they love the work."

  • Learn for the future. Whatever is causing you the most grief often has remedial potential. Create a larger cash reserve. Provide for more discretionary time for yourself. Proactively reach out to others. You get the idea.

  • Laugh. Use the media to help you laugh. In the Great Depression, people spent a nickel that they couldn't afford to go to the movies. Laughter improves your well being and ability to cope.

  • Be careful to whom you listen. Make sure they are doing, at the moment, what you seek to do, or have accomplished, in this climate, what you seek to accomplish. If self-help books were really effective, we wouldn't need them any more. Think about it.

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I was sitting in the Grand Havana Room in New York with someone who had flown in for some coaching over lunch and cigars. (Well, "cigar," since he didn't smoke, but that's where we had agreed to meet.) We were having a great discussion, overlooking Fifth Avenue, with Central Park in the distance between the buildings. (The cigar club is in the former "Top of the Sixes," once a premier restaurant in the penthouse of the office building.)

He was asking me how to stand out in a crowd as a consultant in a field with kijillions of consultants.

"Look up the avenue," I said, "and point out the most interesting thing you see from here."

Without hesitating he replied, "That building over there on the right, with the huge spire on top, and the terraced floors every ten or so stories."

"Why that one?"

"Even though it's not the newest, it's the only one with any originality. All the other ones are steel and glass boxes of one kind or another."

What we all need are spires, and cupolas, and flying buttresses, and gables, and transoms, and pilasters. I'm omitting the gargoyles for now, but you get my drift. We stand out in a crowd by becoming an item of interest to others. And that best occurs when we decide not to take a comfortable place in the mainstream, not to join the school of fish, not to be safely in the middle of the herd.

One of my problems with linkedin, for example, is that it is so depersonalizing, so safely anonymous, so homogenizing. If you want to network, gain connections, learn from others, find opportunity in a very tough economy, you have to stand apart from everyone else, not join everyone else.

The risks of standing apart from the crowd include becoming the object of scorn; causing resentment; being accused of (shudder, drum roll) "arrogance"; and perhaps sacrificing some affiliation warmth. But the benefits are that you're readily recognizable, able to independently turn and shift agilely and quickly, and your defeats and victories are clearly your own.

New York is a busy, vibrant, frenetic place. Of course, when you simply mention "New York," the adjectives become a pleonasm. Yet even there, people, places, and events can stand out in a crowd.

So can you, no matter where you are.

In fact, sometimes it takes nothing more than standing your ground while the rest of the crowd recedes in fear, uncertainty, and conservatism.

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Victor or victim?

There was a poll taken recently by the Pew Research Center which found that Republicans are happier than Democrats! That is, more Republicans pronounced themselves happy than did Democrats, and they did so more frequently, as well.

DISCLAIMER: I am in Independent myself, this is not a political treatise. This is stochastic, not diagnostic.

Pew researchers claimed the cause of the difference was people citing themselves as Republican feeling that they had the power to control their destiny, and people citing themselves as Democratic as feeling that other forces controlled their destiny.

I am not endorsing this poll or even claiming it's valid between parties. But I do want to comment on the underlying attitudes, which I see in people, regardless (I believe) of political persuasion.

If you believe that external forces control your success and failure, then you have adapted a victimization psychology. And your response will always be that of a self-appointed victim: "What can I do, I'm helpless," "The world is against me," "It's futile to fight this."

But if you believe that you control most of your successes and failures, then your reaction is that of someone in control: "I'm going to have to improve my approach to this," "This worked well, so I'll use it again next time," "What have I learned today that will help me tomorrow?"

People who ascribe their ability to continue to learn as the causes of their success are resilient, and react to failure and defeat by going out to learn more so as to be more successful the next time. People who feel they already know all that they need to know and who experience defeat tend to become depressed and ill. Their reaction is, "I gave it my best shot and it didn't work, so this is a disaster."

We have a choice to be a victor (of our own fate) or a victim (presumably of "them" out there). It is our choice. I don't believe it has anything to do with political persuasion, the Pew people notwithstanding. I think it has everything to do with personal confidence, skills, and philosophy.

What and whom do you choose to be? Is it up to "them," or is it up to you?

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I'm sometimes asked to address a mass at church on the subject of Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) since I converted late in life and am now a Eucharistic Minister. As a professional speaker, these opportunities are very special, since I have about four minutes to make my points and it's pretty intimidating, even for me, to speak from the altar.

On one such occasion, I had included one of my trademarked metaphors, TIAABB (there is always a bigger boat), commenting on the fact that a mindless pursuit of more, and incessant competition with others, is futile and depressing. I knew it went over well, because receiving an ovation in a Catholic Church is not all that common, and the priest said he was going to make sure never to follow me.

As we left after the service, I was waiting for my wife to tell me how good I was, as we strolled toward my Bentley in its usual parking spot. Finally, as the crowd thinned, she spoke.

"I suppose your point is well taken," she muttered, "but you certainly have the biggest boat in this lot!"

NOTE: For those of you not following my blog, our daughter gave birth to twin girls three months prematurely, and Maria and I rushed home from Europe. Everyone is doing well, though each day is a new victory for the girls. They will be 7 weeks old as you read this. All prayers are welcome and appreciated. Please don't call or write, it will complicate our lives. But we'll know you're helping.

You may leave a comment at the twins' blog:
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If you don't believe you can control your own fate, why bother getting up in the morning? - AW