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The Balancing Act® E-Newsletter: September 2002

Balancing Act® is in four sections this month:

  1. Techniques for balance
  2. The Human Condition: Obsessive Compulsion
  3. Musings
  4. The readers write

  1. Techniques for balance

    • Break a routine for a week or a month. If there are no adverse consequences, you don't need it.
    • Don't send "thank you" notes or "best wishes" or "congratulations" by email. Use a personal card and take the three minutes to reach out more personally.
    • When two people are both wrong, the one who reaches out first with an apology or conciliatory gesture is less wrong.
    • Counting to ten doesn't do it these days. Take 24 hours. Most transgressions will fade into mere annoyance and most serpents lose their fangs.
    • Specify what you need and don't assume the other party shares your needs. When the power went out I said courteously, "I need a repair truck within an hour and on my property where the transformer is, not down the block at the junction. Can you accommodate me?" Otherwise, you may go to the bottom of the list.
    • If the restaurant isn't absolutely full, simply asking for a better table than you're offered if you're unhappy will get you a better one most of the time.
    • It's not superficial to pay a sincerely-felt compliment before you request something. After all, if you don't think much of the other party, why ask a favor? Some people ask me for things for free but preface it with, "I loved your last book." Some people say, "I know it's an added burden, but could you provide�?" And then there are those who demand: "Send me the sample!" as if a royal command.
    • It's bad enough to be disingenuous, but it's even worse to admit to it. Someone told me during a business conversation that he had deliberately mislead a former colleague in order to gain an advantage. From that point on I was completely confident that he was probably misleading me.
    • There are no secrets. Don't reveal anything that you sincerely don't want bandied about. People pass on secrets not to aid your understanding, but rather to feed their own ego (I know more than you, and I'm condescending to tell you some of it, even if it means betraying someone else.)
    • If you're not making at least one person laugh at least once a day, the odds are that you're pretty unhappy yourself.

  2. The Human Condition: Obsessive Compulsion

    In my coaching and counseling work with all sorts of people, I've found that many are flummoxed when confronted with their behaviors. "I don't know why I keep doing this," is a common response, as is, "I knew what to do, but I did the wrong thing anyway!"

    An obsession is generally something you can't stop thinking about, and a compulsion is the need to act on it. Hence, the term "obsessive compulsive behavior" (and often, "disorder"). We're all accustomed to this in some form and to some degree. We allow an objectionable personality to bring us down to his or her level, or we start venting and cursing over a purely expectable occurrence. (For me, it's ALWAYS choosing the slowest moving line, whether at a highway toll or a theater box office. I believe I have a more successful history at roulette.)

    I'm going to eschew the psychological underpinnings and focus on the evident and the manageable: We act in compulsive ways because we make decisions emotionally (based on our obsessions) and not intellectually (or, therefore, rationally). We tend to deal with effect and symptom rather than cause. Imagine if the medical community treated chronic pain with palliatives instead of finding out what was causing it? Or if the car mechanics simply replaced the lost oil instead of finding the cause of the leak?

    We act and react based on our emotions because it's otherwise usually tough to deal with them. Taking the time to understand what's causing so much inner turmoil requires great discipline, and the capacity to come to grips with our own demons. Venting is easier, but far more destructive to the environment and relationships. While it's fairly harmless to rant and rave over the sloth of the ticket taker whose clearly malicious intent is to make you late for the show, it's significantly more devastating to scream at a child that she'll never amount to anything or tell your partner that he's a lousy dancer, provider, or lover. The very worst bosses in the workplace are those who scream at subordinates for imagined incompetence rather than calmly understanding the nature of the setback and its origins. In fact, calmly firing an incompetent employee, with all due dignity, is a far better morale builder for the rest of the staff than public humiliation will ever be.

    It seems to me that we're often obsessed with preserving our egos and protecting our self-esteem, and are thereby compulsive about blaming others and generally taking the offensive. Of course, I do believe that there are times for healthy outrage, when our belief systems and values are threatened or offended by inappropriate language and acts. But how often does that really occur? I would viscerally react to a racist remark, but not to a critique of my writing, for example. The former is offensive and can't be tolerated in civilized society, but the latter is an opinion about my competence, not my identity, and writers had better have tough skins or get out of the game.

    We need to think more before we act. Our feelings are our feelings, and are therefore valid, per se. But how we act based on those feelings is something else, entirely. There is no such thing as perfection here, and I'll probably still get upset at the next snail-like toll-collector. But we can all get a lot better at it, and life is about success, not perfection.

  3. Musings

    It's seven in the morning, and I'm sitting on the terrace of our suite on Nantucket where we've come for one week every year for a decade. This is one of the last of the truly unspoiled natural places I know of. Across a brick walkway and two sets of hedges is an expanse of lawn with better aesthetics and feel than any carpeting I've ever owned. White, wicker lawn chairs and statuary populate the far end, overlooking dunes and bobbing, moored sailboats. The dock extends about 50 yards into the water, owned exclusively by gulls at this hour.

    To my left are massive bushes and trees shielding view from property down the beach, and to my right a distant view of the land curving out to a promontory dotted with a few houses deliberately built to look weatherworn at great expense within draconian zoning codes.

    There is the silence that one only encounters in far-flung outposts on islands, a sea breeze in my face, and I'm totally alone. It is a Fitzgerald novel come to life. It is Gatsby as rejoicer and not as rogue.

    But I'm here with my Mac lap top, both its bottom and mine insulated against the morning damp by some well-positioned towels. This isn't a column about another great escape (I always fear boring readers with travelogues). It is a column about technology, and how it is changing our lives without, perhaps, being truly understood in its social and economic sense.

    Yesterday, a boat deposited us on a deserted beach with chairs, lunch, and umbrella, where we swam with the fishes and lived to tell about it. Just my wife and I for several hours, totally alone with a bird sanctuary to our back, the Atlantic in front of us, and a mile of beach to call our own. Yet we talked to our kids, checked on our house, and made sure that no business emergencies escaped notice with our two cell phones. (With which, presumably, we would have summoned help, had I squashed my hand any more thoroughly trying to brace the umbrella, or had the tiny fish which nipped at our legs included a barracuda.) The calls took a total of six or seven minutes out of our four hours.

    For a total of about 40 minutes each day during my vacations I respond to emails and attend to the various details required to maintain a solo practice with no staff, which is how I've decided to live my life. That small investment with my lap top affords me the freedom to travel with my business, like a turtle with its shell, only much faster. I can sit here and write without using long hand, transcribing, or rewriting, and merge these documents into my monthly publishing with minimal effort. I've written nine columns and a small part of my novel here, usually before everyone's day has even begun.

    Guttenberg brought learning to the masses with the invention of movable type, and Luther used that breakthrough to change the course of religious history in Europe. (Interestingly, as far as I know, the first non-religious book to be published in this manner with widespread appeal was "The Prince" by Machiavelli, putting politics right behind religion.)

    Technology can destroy our lives by overwhelming us, demanding that we punch 17 buttons to program the VCR and creating endless interruptions via phones that are never shut off. Or it can add immeasurably to our enjoyment of life, by enabling us to keep in touch with distant loved ones, engage in our occupations and avocations flexibly, and compensate for our innate shortcomings. (I can't remember my own phone number, but I can remember to take my Palm Pilot with me.)

    It's not either/or. I'm sitting out here in God's country with humankind's technology. And, as in all of life, everything works until the batteries run low.

  4. The Readers Write Dear Alan,

    Thank you for writing the article in "Musings" about why people insist they're doing well when they're really not (I do, however, enjoy your entire newsletter). This article in particular hit home with me. I started my sales process consulting group in March 2002 after my wife and I moved to Las Vegas, from New Jersey, to get away from winters. I feel like I couldn't have picked a worse time to start my own consulting practice, given the economy and getting established in a new city. Even though I'll do work anywhere in the US, it is still extremely challenging right now.

    I enjoyed your article for two reasons. One, it made me feel a little better that it isn't just me having troubles. Your stats about other consultants facing challenges made me feel that I am part of an overall industry problem and not just something I am doing wrong. In a perverse sort of way, this is actually good news for me. Second, I totally agree with your point about why people have to lie about how they are doing. Personally, when people ask me, I simply say that it is still very challenging and that I'm working as hard as I can to get some contracts, but it is very difficult right now. Of course, when I do this, one of two things happen. Either they relate and understand, or they think I am all doom-and-gloom and my negativity is indicating that I regretting starting my own business (which is very far from the truth). But that's how some people are.

    One of my inspirations for going into consulting was your book, Million Dollar Consulting. I reflected on my past experiences and compared them to what I really wanted to do, and set out on my own. I know that this will work eventually, but it's good to know in the meantime that I am not alone in my struggles and that I'm not the only one who tells people exactly how I feel and how I'm doing. Thanks again for the inspiring words.

    --Russ Lombardo
    PEAK Sales Consulting
    [email protected]