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Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 135: November 2010)

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Techniques for balance

  • Get where you’re going a full day before you had planned. For work, this eases the stress. For pleasure, it extends the reward.

  • If you are scheduling an airline connection in less than an hour in any major airport, you’re inviting trouble. Take an extra hour, spend it in an air club or shopping. Gate delays, weather, air traffic holds, and a thousand other variables will otherwise elevate your stress levels considerably.

  • Never argue with low level people. They can’t help you (with the exception of a few very high-end hotels and stores). Politely ask to speak to the senior manager on duty. You need someone who can actually rectify your situation.

  • Keep context in mind. It’s one thing to ask for a special preparation or to change the accompaniment in a four-star restaurant, it’s another to hold up a line of 20 people because you want McDonald’s to make a special burger.

  • All employees tend to be more responsive to a request when you begin by smiling and using peer-level language instead of issuing commands.

  • Visualize an important meeting or encounter in advance. There are usually only 3-4 probable outcomes or alternatives. Decide how you would act in each case, and you’ll be highly successful in the actual event.

  • If you absolutely, positively, assuredly know where the other person is going in the story or narrative—good for you, but remain quiet and allow the story to finish. It will please the other person and just might pleasantly surprise you.

  • In an age of uncertainty, create your own certainties: Institutionalize certain routines—family dinners, walking the dog, a night at the theater, morning workouts. This will create a sense of control of your life amidst turbulence.

  • Whenever anyone resolves an issue for you at any organization, capture their name and contact information, and ask for their direct extension and email address. The chances are strong that you’ll need them again.

  • If you’re prone to forget your great ideas, write them down immediately on whatever you can (that won’t be permanently marred!). The probability is pretty great that somewhere in the history of time, someone woke up with the secret of the universe, got distracted by something, and promptly forgot about it.

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I’m beginning to think that familiarity really does breed contempt (citing Aesop).

Everyone is an equal on the social media platforms. They talk to each other, cite random authorities, and give advice as if all of it is equal and accurate. They are immediately familiar, using first names, suggestive language, and even more suggestive photos. (“Sexting,” the texting of nude photos, has become a teenage phenomenon, landing some of them in jail as sex offenders.)

The flight attendants want to call me by my first name, as if we’re buddies and they are not employees paid to serve the customers. The people on the order lines at Ingram, or Griot’s Garage, or Hammacher Schlemmer all default to my first name.

Yet in the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, or at American Express Centurion, or at the best restaurants, they call me “Mr.” or “Dr.” If this a false sense of pride on my part (I can see the letters now….) so be it, or is it actually a general dumbing-down of etiquette?

We are creating a false egalitarianism with our insistence on instant familiarity and pseudo-friendliness. I don’t care what my restaurant server’s name is, I only care that my order is accurate and delivered on time and as it should be cooked. (And I'm not impressed that you try to remember the order. Write it down. Or can't you write without a keyboard?)

I was introduced to a new and very young fund raiser once for an arts group. It was obvious the introduction was because we contribute substantially to various groups and causes, and I could understand the intent. However, the other person immediately said, “Alan, nice to meet you, I just came in from Boston, and I’m looking forward to being here and settling my family. Let me show you some photos of my girls….”

I don’t consider this exuberance or socializing, I consider it dumb. I consider, “Mr. Weiss, I’ve heard a great deal about your support, and I’m very eager to hear your opinion of our new season” as a much more intelligent starting point. I call my doctors and dentist “Dr.” When I’m introduced at a business meeting to the CEO, I say, “Mr. Murphy, I’m pleased to meet you.” At which point the other person invariably says, “Please all me Mike.” I’ve had to tell some of my clients six times to call me “Alan” because they insist on the honorific. I appreciate their intent.

Aesop claims that the fox ultimately got bored when the lion agreed to chat in a peer manner. Maybe there would have been a different outcome if the lion had roared a bit and tried to take a bite.

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The human condition: Leaning

Buddy Beagle heads for the dog treat drawer in the master bathroom whenever I head in that general direction. Occasionally, I don’t close it all the way, and he used to stand up on his hind legs, lean against the front of the drawer trying to snatch more treats, and promptly close it for me.

I congratulated myself on my superior intelligence, actually using Buddy’s aggressiveness as a “fail safe” to ensure the drawer would always be closed.

Until the day I had retreated to the bedroom to watch a football game and I heard an eating noise that could only be associated with a Triceratops from the early Pleistocene Epoch. I found Buddy with his head deep in the drawer, scarfing down as much Pupperoni as he could before my inevitable return.

He was leaning against the side of the drawer. That’s right, he learned that if he stood up and leaned against the side, the drawer would not close, and he could use that to leverage his snout deep into the treats.

What are you leaning on these days? Are you forcing people—friends, colleagues, clients, prospects, acquaintances—to go the wrong way, choose the wrong option, deal with you in the wrong manner? Or are you leaning on them to create positive outcomes?

If your reaction to your kid’s great scholastic or musical or athletic success is that they could have done even better, that’s a bad lean. But if you reward their fifth place finish as wonderful because they gave it all they had and never let up, that’s a pretty good lean. If you don’t keep commitments to your colleagues, or engage them in (you) win, (they) lose relationships, then you’re not creating the right direction. But if you help them unilaterally when needed, they’re going to lean for you in the future.

You don’t escape a rip tide by swimming against it or with it, but by swimming perpendicular to it, parallel with the beach. It’s counterintuitive, but it works. You don’t create momentum or escape velocity by simply leaning into the opposition. You have to find the right angles and influence.

If you merely push blindly back, you’ll close the drawer against your best interests every time. But if you’re as smart as a Beagle, you’ll explore other ways to lean, and unimaginable riches will await you.



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I have become very adept at using my iPad for reading books on airplanes. I’ll buy a hard copy of the work for my library, and sometimes alternative reading it “conventionally” at home and on the iPad during flights.

I use bookmarks to coordinate between the two modes, since the pages don’t align, given the differences in formatting and type size. I was reading a James Patterson book, and could not pick up the correct reference on the iPad. I paged back and forth, and couldn’t even get back into the story line, some of which was familiar, but some of which made no sense. Frustrated, I grabbed the original, and looked at the chapter headings. Incredibly, Chapter 34 in the book and in the iPad started with different sentences!

Then I happened to glance at the cover art and realized I was trying to sync The Post Card Killers with Private. (He’s writing them faster than I can read them.)

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