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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: October 2000

You're receiving Balancing Act a tad early because we're off to Spain through October 1.

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Cheating
  3. Musings
  4. The reading list

  1. Techniques for balance: Staying Calm
    • Never act on the basis of your immediate emotions. Remember, all emotions are legitimate, but all behaviors which follow may not be. Acknowledge your immediate emotions, but then decide what your behaviors should be.

    • Use a piece of music, a favorite memory, a poem, or fish tank to provide some solace as a constant device to place you in a state of calm. I'm told that some aromas can do this, and it seems probable that any of the sensory mechanisms can serve this purpose.

    • Ask yourself if your future is actually in jeopardy, or only your ego. No one can tell what your ego is feeling or what state it's in, so the only "embarrassment" may be completely internal. The worst decisions are invariably those based solely on ego need.

    • Have a buddy. When I worked on a suicide hot line we had a system where we could turn to other volunteers to vent, particularly when we found we'd been "had" by someone playing a practical joke, which is emotionally crushing (only about 10% of callers were really at risk, but the point is to find out which ones). Use a trusted other who serves the purpose of allowing you to blow off steam and talk through your issues.

    • Walk away from the stressor. Physically remove yourself from the phone, the letter, the meeting, the event. Proximity, or lack of it, is everything. If there is a constant irritant at work, explore changing your work space or location. If the train whistle ignores you, stop cursing the train and move away from the tracks.

    • Find a hobby. A passion is always comforting. I always feel better after doing something I like. Don't deny yourself your pleasures because you're anxious, because you'll only be delaying the calm.

    • Get a pet. Animals produce great calm if you allow yourself to enjoy them and don't see them as another chore or challenge. I'm especially partial to dogs, since they seem to have a sense of our moods and a great gift for play. Most "dog psychologists" are convinced that dogs have reached the apotheosis of happiness when they're sitting around doing precisely nothing. If that's not calm, I don't know what is.

    • Get some sleep. When we're tired, ragged around the edges, and cranky it's tough to stay calm. A broken potato chip, in those circumstances, can be a traumatic event.

    • Get in the water. Water is quite soothing. Take a swim, go out in the boat, sit by the pond, take a bath. I've got a friend who can sit on a sailboat for hours. He's one of the calmest people I know. (Which is quite important, since I insist on steering and I refuse to take lessons.)

    • Learn from your mistakes. If you "blew the calm" yesterday, reflect on what that was and what you can do to prevent it in the future. The only thing worse, perhaps, than losing our calm is not learning anything from it.

    Still another new book: "Getting Started in Consulting" just released by John Wiley & Sons, available on, on my web site, or in books stores. The price is $20, 272 pages, soft cover. Everything you ever wanted to know about starting a successful consulting practice, because I have a long history of mistakes!

  2. The Human Condition: Cheating

    The Wall Street Journal ran a feature recently on Americans' propensity to cheat. I think it's a part of the entitlement mentality run amok.

    There are actually people on airplanes who move up to empty seats in first class, unconcerned and unembarrassed if they're flushed out and send packing. I've seen people-adults, not teenagers-coyly insinuate themselves into the front of lines at theaters and museums, so as not to have to wait with the hoi polloi. Restaurant owners tell me that people walk in brazenly claiming reservations that were never actually made.

    In many instances, the actual cheating and working around the system require more energy and work than simply conforming to the rules to begin with. Why do people try to take things, claim things, and participate in things which aren't properly theirs?

    Many of the actual cheaters will tell you, in an absolute gavotte of rationalization, that they are, indeed, entitled. For example, the airlines are crowded and the food is poor, so there's nothing wrong with moving up to the front if you can get away with it. Cheating on taxes makes eminent sense, because the government is so wasteful and the roads are in poor repair. Even stealing something that belongs to the neighbor is okay because the neighbors play their music so loud at all hours and their dog looks at you funny.

    We can rationalize anything, and therefore claim legitimacy for any act, no matter how selfish or peculiar. I think cheating is really about a lack of self-esteem.

    I believe that cheaters, ultimately, deeply believe that they can't compete at the level of those who seem to have more than they do (even if that "more" is simply membership in an elite airline club or material goods resulting from a stronger work ethic). Once upon a time, airlines ran private clubs for their best customers. Thanks to several law suits, the airlines must now open the clubs to anyone who can pay the dues. And thanks to that forced egalitarianism, the air clubs are usually noisier and more stressful than a seat out on the concourse.

    The cheaters want it all, or at least whatever they see that someone else has, without the preliminaries or the preparation. It has gotten to the point that I won't even reveal some of my travel perquisites, out of fear that others will demand equal treatment from those companies, despite having done nothing to deserve it, and ruining my hard-won special status.

    Cheating is an option for those who deem that the conventional route of hard work and competition can't be negotiated by their poor talents. There are some fascinating studies of cheating in schools (the worst offenders: over 80% of business majors admitted to cheating on tests or plagiarizing) which suggest that even superior students engage in it. I think this is because they feel they've been lucky rather than good, and they fear their luck might run out.

    Maybe some people cheat through laziness, or sloth, or lack of time, or a sense of outrage. Perhaps. But I think that most cheaters simply don't like what they see in the mirror. So they wind up cheating themselves.

  3. Musings

    In 1963, as an exchange student destined for six weeks in Finland, I crossed the English channel en route from London to Paris on the boat train, which consisted of trains in England and France connected by a channel boat. There were four in the party-the returning Finish student, two of us from inner city high schools, and the reporter who arranged the exchange-and we had very little money, traveling on the proceeds of school fund raisers.

    The Finish student, Esko (who is now that country's ambassador to Australia) and I sought out some refuge on the boat during the several cold, dark hours of the passage. We were on deck, with all seats inside and outside taken by passengers with more expensive tickets or more developed survival instincts than our own. We tried passageways and stairwells, but were always rudely rousted by the boat's crew. It was one of the most miserable trips I can recall, followed by a standing-room-only train ride to Paris, where we arrived at 6 in the morning, starving, bedraggled, and confused. We wound up eating big sausages for breakfast in the train station while collapsed on some benches.

    Last month, my wife and I traveled from London to Paris on the Eurostar (the "chunnel" train) in premium first class. We were the only passengers in the car, so we had obtained a de facto private railroad car, complete with hostess, champagne, two wines, and a four-course meal, all while cranking through the countryside at 186 miles per hour. A Daimler Limousine met us at the station.

    That's a considerable distance traveled in 37 years, and I'm not talking about the train speed. I've come a long way. Yet, every experience enriches me.

    A boss of mine told me once, having learned that I would be going to San Francisco to lead the company's efforts on the West Coast, "I can't think of anyone better for this assignment than you and your wife, because I don't know of anyone who would be certain to gain so much from the experience."

    I appreciate every day. I relish in every advantage, and am acutely aware of just how many advantages I have. The travesty is not in obtaining wealth or material benefits, but rather in losing perspective on what you have and how it came to be. It's the passive and blind acceptance that you're "entitled" to your good fortune that is truly obscene.

    My kids know little of the travails that I once faced as everyday experiences, be they holes in my shoes, anti-Semitism in the school yard, or the need to work to afford college. Their idea of a hard time is when the limo we're in to go from dinner to a play is stuck in traffic. Once upon a time, I worried about their perspective.

    But someone told me once, "Alan, you can never make your kids poor. They'll never know what your experiences really were like. Don't even try to make that happen.

    And, of course, that's quite good advice. Long ago I stopped saying, "When I was young," and "You don't realize how easy you have it." What my wife and I did instead was to concentrate on providing them with the values that we held dear, values that would stand them in good stead in good times or bad.

    They're good kids and they have fine value systems. I'm immensely proud of both of them. There's no need to remind them of how tough I had it. And, then again, how many people would have given whatever it took for the privilege of being in any accommodations at all on the boat train in 1963? Did I really have it so bad?

    Mike Todd said once that he had been broke, but never poor. I've had it tough, but never bad.

  4. The reading list

    Four great detective series, written by pros, filled with correct police procedural, for those who like continuing characters (though you can start in any order):

    Harry Kemelman, The Rabbi Series (e.g., "Friday the Rabbi Slept Late"). Kemelman has passed away, but there are 11 wonderful books set in New England with this wise but continually beset upon Rabbi and scholar.

    Lawrence Sanders, The Deadly Sins and The Commandments books. Sanders, too, is gone, and also wrote the wonderful Archie McNally books ("McNally's Folly"), which are now continued by another fine writer. His books are perhaps the most macabre of the lot. "The First Deadly Sin" is a classic.

    Ed McBain. These might be the best police procedurals ever written, with earthy and very real characters in the 82nd precinct surrounding Detective Lou Carella. McBain has also written great books under his other nom de plume, Evan Hunter.

    Del Shannon. A series of fine works ("Murder With Love") involving detectives and suspects who are all too real.