Sunday, May 31, 2009

Confucius said: Twice is Enough

Today's life lesson comes to us from Confucius, via Shaun Rein at Link here.

Here is the relevant text from the Analects: "Chi Wan thought three times before taking action. When the Master was informed of it, he said: 'Twice will do.'"

As Rein interprets it, Confucius was saying that we should think before we act but that we should not overthink. In Rein's words: "Think hard before doing something, but then take decisive steps. Wait too long and your advantage in the market disappears."

Once you've decided, be decisive. Act as though your decision means something. Act as though you are willing to allow your word to dictate action.

Another implication of Confucius's statement is: you cannot cure impulsive behavior by thinking too much.

And just because Hamlet thought too much, that does not mean you should not think too little. You cannot cure excessive rumination by not thinking at all.

An executive needs to think through a problem to measure the potential risks and rewards of different actions.

If he does not think enough he will be reckless. If he fails to think through the consequences of his actions he will surely be caught off guard.

But, if he thinks too much he will miss his opportunity. The market waits for no one.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Case of the Abandoned Husband

In mid-Victorian England when people who could not cope with the demands of urban life suffered nervous exhaustion they were labeled neurasthenic. They tried to deal with the problem by taking to their beds. They thought that extended rest would replenish their energy reserves.

Times have changed. Take the case of the modern woman who takes to her bed after a hard day at graduate school. She is not trying to restore her energy; she is medicating herself with repeated episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker, Top Chef, and the Real Housewives of Wherever. I would even say that she is getting in touch with old and faithful friends.

This is the case of a woman whose distraught and emotionally abandoned husband recently wrote to Emily Yoffe,'s "Dear Prudence" columnist. What could this man do about a wife who spent all of her evenings engrossed in the Bravo network? Link here.

He had tried everything he knew to awaken her from her Bravo-induced trance. He had begged, pleaded, and cajoled. He gotten angry and sulked off. To no avail.

Aside from that problem, the couple was happily married.

It may not serve as an explanation, but the only thing we know about this couple is that they had recently moved to a new town so that the wife could pursue a graduate degree.

The woman appears to be troubled. The husband seems to be overwhelmed by a situation he does not know how to manage.

But Yoffe does not label her an addict and does not suggest that she or he or both of them dash off to the nearest therapist. She does not assume that something is wrong with the marriage and does not assume that the woman has undergone a crippling trauma.

Her approach is radically different from the one prescribed by the therapy culture. Which is all to the better.

For all we know the wife may simply feel socially and geographically dislocated. She may be suffering from anomie. Or, she may have discovered that the graduate program is too demanding, that she made a mistake.

Of course, given the fact that she has so much time free to watch television, the chances are better that she finds that the program is not demanding enough.

Yoffe begins by saying that this woman is rude. Not sick, not addicted, but downright impolite.

Rather than affixing guilt on either wife or husband Yoffe offers some better ways for the husband to deal with his wife's rudeness.

She suggests that the husband reach out to his wife, that he try to connect with her, that he not make an issue of Bravo, but that he try to negotiate a compromise. This is easier said than done.

This means that if you are feeling emotionally abandoned, you should not complain or attack, but should reach out to offer an emotional connection to the person who has abandoned you.

Where the therapy culture would propose dramatic confrontation or intervention and would tell the husband to find out what severe mental disturbance is causing his wife's Bravo addiction, Yoffe recommends that he invite her out to dinner.

There the husband can negotiate a compromise over the wife's bad habit.

Note well how Yoffe articulates her proposed compromise. She does not tell the husband to make his wife watch less Bravo. For all we know that would be like depriving her of a major part of her social world. Instead Yoffe tells the man to recommend that the wife record her favorite shows and then watch them all in something like a Bravo marathon a couple of evenings, or even a weekend.

Then she would be able to watch all her shows while also carving out some time for her husband.

It will be far more difficult for her to reject advice that will not cause her any Bravo deprivation.

Next, Yoffe suggests that on the evenings that will have been freed up, the husband should invite his wife out on date nights-- to a movie, a concert, or to dance.

As a negotiation tactic this is brilliant. It tries to help this man to be a better husband and to help him to reconnect with his wife... not in front of a glowing television screen, but in a milieu that facilitates adult conversation-- a restaurant. And it tells him not to get into a fight about how much Bravo she watches, but to engage her in a negotiation.

Yoffe is offering a lesson in managing a marriage. Isn't this a better idea than farming out the problem to a professional who will decide that the woman's bad habit is really a sign that her marriage is troubled?

Clearly, Yoffe's approach has everything to recommend it. It is low cost, and has very little downside. This man will be hard put to come up with reasons not to follow it.

Dare I say that it nicely parallels the approach to managing a marriage that I took in an interview I did with Meridith Levinson at Link here.

For some further remarks of mine, see also my follow-up post. Link here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Truth or Dare

If I had to find a one sentence explanation of why I stopped doing therapy and started coaching I could not do better than this: "Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games."

It's author was University of Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt.

Of course, some therapists are adept at coaching their clients in the finer points of social gamesmanship.

Others, however, believe that therapy is a journey of discovery that will reveal the truth of your emotions, the truth of your desires, the truth of your past history, and the truth of human motivation.

They seek an epiphany, an aha moment where everything is illuminated so we can all bask in the truth.

Unfortunately, people who have seen the truth cannot keep it to themselves. They advertise it; they broadcast it; they even try to impose it on you and me. It gets lonely if you are the only one who knows the truth.

That is why people who get too involved in therapy feel compelled to express their emotions, regardless of the consequences. Truth is a transcendent value; if someone is offended or hurt by the truth, then that is just too bad.

To take yesterday's post as an example, when an IT professional complains that his wife does not understand him or his job, he is expressing his true feelings.

If his wife feels differently, he will want to impose his truth on her.

As I said, it is a better idea to step away from the psychodrama and get back into the social game that is called marriage.

Now take two people who both know the truth. Not their personal truth but the truth of human existence. Unfortunately, they do not agree on what the truth is. They believe in two different, and conflicting, truths.

As Nicholas Kristof puts it, one is a liberal and the other is a conservative. Link here.

Since each one is convinced that he has the one truth, they do not get along. They do not communicate. They do not respect each other. Each resents the other's efforts to impose his truth.

To bridge this divide Kristof recommends a shared meal. He begins with a question: "How do we discipline our brains to be more open-minded, more honest, more empirical?" He answers that we should reach out to people on the other side by sharing a meal with them.

Meals are social rituals. They involve complex social games. They bring people together in ways that dramatic confrontations never will.

And note well that sharing a meal is not the same thing as sharing your feelings or confessing your traumas.

If Kristof is right, as I think he is, then dinner is a better cure for what divides us than open discussion and debate.

Perhaps because a meal does not require that anyone change his opinion; it merely enacts a ritual show of respect. After all, that is where we all should want to go.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Managing a Marriage

No one likes to be the bearer of bad tidings. Apparently I recently conveyed the bad news that some IT professionals are somewhat lacking in social and communications skills.

I draw this conclusion from the comments written on the CIO website in response to Meridith Levinson's article "IT Professionals Are From Mars...." Link here.

I could draw a similar conclusion from the debate on these issues that is appended to a post by Dr. Helen Smith on her website. Link here.

The reaction was only partly dismissive. Lauren, the wife of an IT executive, a woman who has a career of her own and who manages her home and children, wrote the following: "Having my husband communicate throughout the day-- a brief voice mail or email of love or encouragement will do-- makes a huge difference in how I feel about him."

Lauren said it better than I did.

At the least, people should recognize that her statement reflects conjugal harmony. Hopefully that is everyone's goal. Lauren and her husband are not bickering over who returns phone calls, whether or not he has any time for her, or why she seems so needy?

The men who wrote in to say that they were feeling misunderstood seemed to be saying that they wanted someone to explain to their wives why they cannot communicate more effectively.

Were I to accept the charge I would be taking sides in a marital dispute, and I would also be absolving the husband of all responsibility to improve communication with his wife. Beyond that I would be telling him that he is right and that she is a harridan and a nag. Who knows how that opinion would play out within the marriage.

So I proposed, in an article that was posted on a website whose readers are primarily IT professionals, to try to solve the problem without going to war or turning it all into a psychodrama.

I was offering IT professionals-- who are mostly men, as it happens-- a constructive way to manage their marriages.

Many of them seem to have a bunker mentality: they are hunkered down in the righteousness of their inviolate workspace and feel that any alien message or demand on their time is an unnecessary distraction and intrusion.

I was telling them that there are other ways to deal with conflict. I suggested that they become proactive. Instead of sitting back dreading the calls from home they could try to take an initiative and pick up the phone.

I was also trying to show a way that a man can affect a change in his situation by changing his own behavior. Most of the respondents to the Linked-in questionnaire seemed to want their wives to change their attitudes.

There is a basic principle at work here: If you cannot change your own conduct you are not very well placed to demand that someone else change his or hers.

The basic principle behind my remarks is central to all of the world's ethical thinking. In the Bible, it is expressed: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Expressed that way, it surely applies to more situations than the ones I was addressing.

But to stick to the questionnaire, my response was: if a man wants his wife to show more respect for his concerns, then he needs to show more respect for her concerns.

The best chance for creating conjugal harmony is to offer an open hand of friendship, consideration, and respect.

To help people to exit their bunker mentality I suggested that IT professionals become proactive. To better manage expectations I suggested that they begin their phone calls by saying that they have only a few minutes to talk.

For those who declared that in the course of their long work days they do not have any time whatsoever to pick up a phone or send an email, I would say that they need to learn how to manage their time better. And I would add that if you are going to make an excuse, then it has to be vaguely plausible.

The most powerful and important people in the world always find the time to make small gestures of courtesy and respect. If they did not they would not attain to their positions.

IT professionals hate to be interrupted. Granted. But the best way to avoid being interrupted is to find a time that is convenient to you and send a message to the home front.

One commenter asked about those rare occasions when the person on the other end of then line is unwilling to end the conversation within the allotted time frame.

If you have said at the outset that you have only a few minutes, then you need merely excuse yourself and hang up, even if that requires an abrupt exit.

If your interlocutor finds that inadequate, then, the fault has shifted to her. If you make a gesture of friendship and receive contempt or neediness in return, you have gained the moral high ground. Step back from the situation and allow your spouse to come to his or her senses.

Several commenters noted that scientific research has shown that interruptions are not cost-effective. They ruin concentration and focus, causing the IT professional to waste time getting back into the job at hand. In the end a 5 minute phone call would cause him to get home 30 minutes later.

Again, if you act preemptively you will be able to control your own time and minimize interruptions.

Moreover, ask yourself this. How stressful is it to be constantly bickering with your wife? How much of your focus is compromised by conjugal stress? Contentiousness does not foster harmony. And disharmony distracts the best of us.

A more interesting set of remarks was offered by commenters who suggested that I did not understand the way women's lives had changed in the recent past.

Actually it is not that painful being accused of being an anachronism, but, let us look at this complaint more closely.

1. I am recommending that IT professionals be more involved in family life, something that is far more necessary in a modern, two-career marriage. This is not a retrograde thought. To believe that when a man goes to work he should not be disturbed except in the most extreme emergency feels more retrograde to me.

2. Modern women have many more options than did women in days of yore. This means that they are less patient with disrespectful spouses. And that requires their husbands to make a special effort to respect their concerns. Even when he does not quite understand them. Again, showing respect does not feel very retrograde to me.

I was trying to tell IT professionals the same thing I have often told their comrades in my office. Modern women have careers, they take care of children, they do the lion's share of the housework. In return they require some communication, of the sort that Lauren's husband offers her. That does not sound very retrograde to me.

If a man wants more appreciation for the work that he does, he should not insist that his wife bow down to his demands. He should begin by showing more appreciation for the jobs that she does.

As for the larger issue, one which was discussed in several comments on Dr. Helen's site: Do IT professionals have especially defective social skills?

Most of what I know suggests that they do. IT professionals owe their careers to technical wizardry, not schmoozing.

People who are in sales or PR, or who negotiate for a living, will understand perfectly what I am saying and will not need very much guidance from me. An IT professional lives in a world that is short on people and long on hardware and software, programs and code, bits and bytes.

The skills that have brought him career success cannot as easily be applied to his marriage.

This means that he has probably not given much thought to the little things that help produce domestic harmony and conjugal tranquility... and that ultimately will liberate him to focus fully on his work when he is at work.

Happily, some of those who commented on Meridith Levinson's article on the CIO site, took that lesson from her piece.

Dare I say that I am gratified and wish them the best.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Only Thing We Have to Fear...

Harvard psychologist and happiness guru Daniel Gilbert wrote an important column in the New York times last week. Link here.

Therein he pointed out that anxiety is caused by uncertainty more than by pain. If you know for certain that you are going to receive a shock you will be less anxious than you would be if you were not certain whether or not you would receive a shock.

This implies that consistent routines are therapeutic. It also implies that some experiences can traumatize us because they disrupt our routines.

If you want to have more and better friends, do not regale them with tales of your tormented psyche. Establish consistent rituals involving them. Handshakes, formal greetings, a warm smile... these are the stuff of positive human connection.

Following Gilbert, if someone scowls all the time you will be able to adjust your expectations and create a new rituals. But if you do not know whether you will be greeted by a handshake or a scowl you will not be able to establish a routine and will avoid contact.

People are more likely to seek your company if they do not feel that they are dealing with a different person every time they see you.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"IT People Are From Mars..."

An article by this title was just posted by Meridith Levinson on the CIO magazine blog. Link here.

But that is only the beginning of the title. The rest, addressed to IT professionals, reads: "Why your marriage is from Hell or is headed there."

The article originated when Levinson decided to ask some IT professionals, mostly men, what they would want their wives to understand about their jobs.

Levinson then interviewed me to get my reaction and my advice. I offered it and Levinson graciously quoted a great deal of it.


The We Decade

In 1976 Tom Wolfe coined the phrase "The Me Decade" in an article in New York Magazine. It was an extraordinary piece, a brilliant take-down of the burgeoning therapy culture. Fortunately it is available online. I recommend it highly. Link here.

Of course, it takes more than a piece of writing to change a culture. In fact, the Me Decade lasted for two more decades. With apologies to Tom Wolfe the Me Decades lasted from the mid 1970s to late 2008.

Surely, the Me Decade was alive and well in 1999. Then the executive coaching form WJM Associates did a survey of executive coaches and discovered that most executives wanted coaches to help them address Me issues: self-awareness, personal goal-setting, stress management, and improved quality. Link to story here.

You would think that coaches in 1999 were acting like therapists, or were being called on to inculcate the values of the therapy culture.

No one should estimate the challenge they faced. Managing people who thought that their jobs were supposed to help them to actualize their human potential was no small task. One executive described it to me with an old metaphor: providing leadership to autonomous, independent, creative free spirits was like herding cats.

As you know if you have been following this blog, I have been hypothesizing that the Me Decades crashed last fall. Apparently, the orgy of self-indulgence had been underwritten by a seemingly limitless supply of cheap credit. When the credit froze, many people were forced to take a long hard look at their values. Thoughts about personal self-actualization suddenly felt empty. Many shifted focus from Me to We.

WJM Associates reached the same conclusion when they analyzed the results of a recent survey. They found a shift in focus and emphasis. No one was talking about self-actualization. Business leaders were calling on coaches to help them deal with We rather than Me issues.

Some of them were: How do you motivate a team? How do you allocate tasks and exercise leadership? How should a manager set policy and strategy? What does it take to ensure that a policy is executed effectively? What constitutes good communication with people who are more interested in the good on the group than in their personal self-fulfillment.

All of this is good news. Yet, old habits die hard. One of the central challenges of managing in the We Decade is helping people to overcome the bad habits that the culture had been fomenting over the Me Decades, and to lead them to develop good work habits.

For many companies success in meeting these challenges will spell the difference between survival and oblivion.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Don't Be Happy! Worry!

Lately, Americans seem to have breathed a collective sigh of relief. With the stock market rising like the mythical phoenix people are beginning to feel that the storm has passed and that the future is again full of promise.

Not so fast, says Jason Zweig in his latest Wall Street Journal column. Link here.

Following in the footsteps of legendary value investor and Warren Buffett guru Benjamin Graham, Zweig offers some lessons in how not to get caught up in crowd enthusiasm.

As he puts it: " the market seems to be in just the kind of mood that would have worried Mr. Graham: a jittery optimism, an insecure and almost desperate need to believe that the worst is over."

If you want to be a better investor, Zweig advises you not to trust your emotions. Turn them inside/out. Be "inversely emotional."

Whenever you find yourself swept up in a wave of collective enthusiasm, don't enjoy it. Start worrying.

When everyone is thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same feelings, the odds are excellent that everyone is wrong.

The psychology is easy to understand. If you held on to your stocks through the dark days of fall and winter, the current rally feels like vindication. You are not as dumb as you thought; you are really smarter than all of those fools who sold at the bottom. You are a long term investor; you can tough it out through a few market gyrations.

It feels as though the market has come to the rescue of your battered self-esteem.

To repeat a point that I am still not tired of making, markets are not in the business of bucking up your self-esteem and redeeming your mistakes.

But what kind of person can turn his emotions inside/out. What kind of person can be detached from his feelings, especially at a time when major cultural institutions are telling him to get in touch with said feelings.

Turning your emotions inside/out requires what Graham called "firmness of character." To do this effectively you need to feel detached from your own feelings. You need to adopt a more philosophical attitude and a healthy skepticism toward emotional contagion. Above all you need to think of investing as a job.

At a time when the old investment strategy of buy-and-hold has fallen seriously out of favor, Graham would advise a strategy of dollar-cost-averaging.

This means investing the same dollar amount in, for example, a mutual fund, every month... no matter what. When the price is higher, you will be buying fewer shares. When the price is lower, you will be buying more shares.

Obviously, this is not as easy as it sounds. It requires severe discipline and strength of character. After all, when the market is zooming ahead we want to invest more; when it is falling apart we want to invest less.

One reason is that we like to feel like we belong to the crowd, and we imagine that feeling what everyone else is feeling makes us members in good standing of the group.

This is an illusion, but why quibble.

The other reason is that when our investments go up, we feel like mavens, as though we cannot go wrong. But a falling market makes us feel like fools, as though we cannot get anything right.

Going with your feelings, getting carried away on a wave of collective glee is like going to a party.

Investing, however, is not a party. Investing is work. If you act like it's a party, the joke will eventually be on you.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Our Having-It-All Culture, Part 2

Chalk it up to the great-minds-think-alike syndrome. At the moment I was writing a post on how much damage a having-it-all culture could have on our happiness (link here) Megan O'Rourke was writing on the DoubleX site about a recent study that showed that women today were less happy than they were 35 years ago. Link here.

Since O'Rourke's interpretation is the same as mine, I find it eminently quotable: "I've always hated the phrase 'having it all' for its tyrannical insistence on absolute perfection. Does this mean that it is finally time to put that phrase to rest in the cemetery of bad language."

Then Ann Althouse picked up the topic on her blog and drew a slightly different conclusion: "... why are women so sad? I think it's because we think about our feelings so much and care so much about being happy." Link here.

But who was telling women to become introspectively obsessed with their feelings? Dare I suggest that the therapy culture bears some responsibility for creating the conditions under which unhappiness could flourish.

The Culture Wars Come to American Idol

Too many people are spending too much time trying to read cultural significance into Kris Allen's upset win over Adam Lambert on American Idol.

Was it the revenge of the red states? Did it foreshadow the next elections? Did it show that America prefers down-home to down-low? Did it mean that America is not ready for a gay American idol?

Of course, the show is a cultural phenomenon. Yet, is it always necessary to show off how much critical theory one learned in college? Is it always necessary to find fault with America?

Ask yourself this: does it make sense that a nation that heaped fame and fortune on Michael Jackson always votes for the more manly performer.

Too many commentators were so blinded by Adam Lambert's guyliner, his stage presence, his preternatural ability to entertain, that they missed the most important cultural point.

That being... that Adam Lambert consistently showed himself to be of good character.

Some contestants talk back to the judges; some are divas-in-training. Adam Lambert was consistently courteous and humble while receiving extravagant praise. The judges were placing him in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. He came back with a polite and well-articulated response. And he was gracious and graceful in defeat. He seemed genuinely happy that his friend Kris had won.

In our celebrity-addled culture, where wanna-be stars will happily throw their mothers under the bus for a shot at the big time, Adam Lambert was a refreshing change of pace.

From the little that we know about how the contestants got along among themselves, it appears that Adam spend his time befriending the other contestants. He was like a big brother to Allison. As it became clearer and clearer that he was going to become a major star he seems to have become magnanimous toward his fellow contestants. He never tried to lord it over anyone; he always seemed to want to bond with the others.

So, Adam Lambert was not just exemplary for his singing and entertaining; he was exemplary for his good character.

But how did the best singer lose? How did someone that the Idol judges-- most of whom know popular music very, very well-- declared to be the best, come in second? How did someone who merited a standing ovation from Smokey Robinson-- for singing Tracks of My Tears-- not win it all?

Consider this: rumor has it that Kris Allen received a third of his votes-- that would be around 17,000,000 votes. I am not sure that we can chalk it all up to teenaged girls on a texting frenzy.

Perhaps the deeper meaning had to do with state pride. Perhaps the people of Arkansas had found someone who would reflect well on their state, who would raise their stature in the eyes of America.

Maybe it mattered to them that Kris Allen was clean cut. After all, this was the state that gave us Bill Clinton, a president who was not known for his wholesome personal habits.

Maybe the people of Arkansas saw Kris Allen as a way to overcome a stain on their reputations.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Perils of Meghan McCain

Someone had to say it. I'm glad I was not the first.

Judith Warner wrote in her New York Times blog yesterday that there is something terribly sad about watching Meghan McCain make such a complete fool of herself in the national media.
Link here.

Obviously, she has not earned her role as spokesperson for the Republican Party. She has not earned a political blog on The Daily Beast or a six-figure advance to opine on the future of the Republican Party.

Perhaps Meghan McCain will make a substantive contribution in the future, but right now, as Warner says, she just sounds stupid. And if you want people to respect you, you cannot go on television and sound stupid.

I only disagree with Warner on one point: she declares that the Republican Party has promoted Meghan McCain as a spokesperson.

I believe the truth is the contrary. Meghan McCain is being exploited by certain segments of the media because she degrades the Republican brand, and her family name, to boot.

Yet, Judith Warner is right to feel pity for Meghan McCain... to the point where you have to start thinking: where are her parents?

The story feels like The Emperor's New Clothes. I am not sure why it fell to Judith Warner to express what I am sure a lot of people are feeling about Meghan McCain, but it did.

Perhaps she was simply acting as a parent watching a promising and talented child get involved in something that is way beyond her understanding and damaging herself in the process. If so, more power to her.

Normally, you would expect parents to provide this kind of guidance for their children.

The story reminds me of The Emperor's New Clothes. It does not end well.

How to Avoid Dementia

Hopefully you are planning on living a long and healthy life.

To achieve that end you have surely adopted healthy habits. Living into your dotage loses its appeal if you are too sick to enjoy it.

And surely, if you become a centenarian you want your wits to accompany you on the voyage.

All of which to tout the virtues of my favorite game: bridge.

The evidence has been accumulating for some time now; playing bridge on a regular basis does wonders for your mind. It helps you to avoid dementia; it even keeps you in your cups, as the old saying had it.

I was reminded of this by a Benedict Carey article in today's New York Times today. Link here.

Carey asks: why does bridge, more than puzzles, keep your brain sharp? Why does it help people who show signs of Alzheimer's maintain some level of mental acuity?

He offers two answers: bridge involves working your memory; and bridge involves other people.

Bridge is also a competitive game; there are winners and losers. Those who want to wring competition out of schools should note that bridge players focus and concentrate because they do not want to lose, or because they do not want to embarrass themselves.

To play bridge well you have to count and calculate constantly; and you have to plan out tactics and stratagems for achieving goals.

As we approach the holiday weekend, we should all know that bridge works the mind in ways that sunbathing never will.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Our Having-It-All Culture

It started innocently enough: Can a woman have a career and a family? Would she have to sacrifice success at one in order to have both?

All in all, a reasonable question.

What happened next was not so good. Expert sloganeers got their hands on the issue and reformulated it as: can you have it all? Could a woman have it all? Or were men the only creatures who could have it all?

For now let's ignore the question of whether men have it all? A man who sacrifices family time to work in the office does not really feel that he has it all.

Anyway, once you offer a new banner, a new standard for the good life, the concept comes to have a life of its own. Provenance does not much matter. Once the term becomes a slogan to live by, its meaning infiltrates the psyche, sets up an absurd standard and unrealistic expectations, and ends up making a lot of people miserable.

What does it mean to have it all? Does it mean that we have reached a stage in human civilization where all of our needs can be satisfied. But if this is true, is it really desirable to get to the point where there is nothing left to be desired?

Or does it mean that we no longer have to make choices and endure the sacrifices that come with any choice? Ask any parent who is torn between a child's recital and a board meeting and he or she will tell you that having it all is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Does having it all mean going to the restaurant and having everything on the menu? That would be impractical and wasteful.

Does it mean engaging in multiple activities, like a professional dilettante? If so, how successful do you think you can be if you are doing everything at once?

Success involves focus and attention and concentration... qualities that are not involved in having it all.

We do not just want to involve ourselves in a multitude of different activities. Normally, we want to be good at what we are doing. At times, we even want to excel at the tasks we undertake?

Do you think that having it all is the friend or enemy of our desire to excel?

Surely, when they invented the concept of having it all they did not completely denude it of value. Would you be happy to be a mediocre parent and a so-so executive?

Of course, everyone wants to be a great parent, a great partner, and a great executive. And yet, most people suspect that if you have it all you are going to become overextended and someone or something will suffer.

Does that mean that you should not try? Not at all. It means that adult judgment involves choices and that choices involve sacrifice and loss.

Fortunately, we have more choices than our ancestors did. It is our ethical duty, however, to exercise them judiciously. In the end, the more freedom we have the more we are responsible for our choices.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Leadership in Everyday Life

If you ask therapists to identify the essence of good relationships, they will usually respond with a paean to love. They might even take it a step further and throw some empathy into the mix. In the therapy culture feelings rule.

As it happens, this is a gross oversimplification. You cannot have good relationships with family and friends, to say nothing of lovers and mates, without knowing how to negotiate, to lead, and to manage.

Today Peter Bregman offers some lessons in these skills on the Harvard Business Review website. Link here.

Bregman is a business consultant and coach. He works to help managers develop into effective leaders.

Specifically his article addresses resistance to change. And he suggests that most people are not resistant to change; they are resistant to being pushed around, bullied, and forced to do something against their will.

An interesting point, one that perhaps sheds some light on the great Freudian concept of resistance, concept that has now morphed into the notion of denial.

It would appear that psychoanalysts, who try to force their patients to accept their interpretations as the ultimate truth, are provoking resistance because of their offensive and disrespectful behavior.

How do you avoid resistance? First, Bregman asserts that a manager should not assume that the staff will resist change. Most people are more than willing to change; they are usually not willing to accept being disrespected. The former will provoke cooperation; the latter, resistance.

Second, Bregman says that leaders should involve staff actively in the deliberative process, should tell them clearly what the company goals are, and should show respect for their opinions.
At times that means allowing them to pursue an initiative that the manager has doubts about.

If you want to produce resistance, you need merely do the opposite. Try to impose your will on everyone; ignore their suggestions and recommendations; treat them like people who can either give in to you or walk out the door.

But Bregman takes his discussion a step beyond the usual discussion of corporate leadership. He applies the concept to childrearing, discussing how he persuaded his six-year-old daughter to eat fruit instead of ice cream for desert.

You may think that this does not fall within the category of negotiation and leadership skills, but if it is done well, it must.

Bregman begins with a child who wants ice cream. He wants her to eat fruit. How does he get from here to there?

He engages her in a negotiation that resembles a game. He offers his daughter a choice between an apple and some grapes. She declares that she wants ice cream. He responds that that is not one of the choices.

Thus, he does not confront her, or dramatize the situation. He invites her to play the game and he clarifies the rules. She responds that she still wants ice cream. So he repeats the rule.

She is not going to cave into pressure, but she wants to have something like a free choice in the matter. Finally, she says that she does not want an apple or some grapes. She wants a banana.

Of course, Bregman accedes to his daughter's wish. Psychologically speaking, both have won.

The father's goal was not to break his daughter's will or to show her who is the boss. He wanted to point her in the direction of healthy eating.

He did it by allowing her to feel that she was making a free choice. She was pleased with herself and was happy with the banana because she had mastered the game. She had negotiated a disagreement, developed a social skill, and had avoided a conflict. She might even have found that more satisfying than ice cream.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Health Care Reform

If the current health care debate were just a rhetorical miasma, as Peggy Noonan said, things would be bad enough. See my comments here.

But, as the anonymous psychoanalyst who blogs as Shrinkwrapped points out, the debate traffics in fantasy and wish fulfillment. It has little to do with reality or reason. Link here.

I am most impressed by Shrinkwrapped's high-concept take on the issues. The point should be obvious, and has occasionally been debated. It has never, to my knowledge, been stated as incisively.

If our goal is to make health care: universal, high quality, and affordable, we will ultimately fail.

In reality, Shrinkwrapped says, you can have two of the three, but not all three. Take your pick!

Universal high-quality health care will be unaffordable. Universal affordable health care will not be high quality. High quality affordable health care will not be universal.

He concludes that anyone who is telling you that you can have it all is a fool or is lying.

Shrinkwrapped makes another point, one that resonates with an idea I began to develop in a previous post. Link here.

How many of us complacently indulge bad habits that we know will make us sick because we believe that the world's greatest health care system has our backs?

Shrinkwrapped takes it a step further and says that if we really want to encourage people to adopt good habits, we need but return to a time when people took full responsibility for their health care.

If you knew you had to pay for the bypass surgery and the lung transplant would you be less likely to smoke?

Shrinkwrapped is correct to say that anyone who would dare suggest such a thing would have the armies of compassion beating down his door. Still, it is an intriguing thought.

As it happens, it is partially at work today. Many people today have health insurance that only covers major medical expenses. If you have this kind of policy, anything less than major you pay for yourself.

Do these policies encourage people to live healthier lives and to use the medical system more judiciously? Perhaps so. And if so, making them more universal would perhaps decrease the cost of health care, both because the services would be used less frequently and because they would encourage better personal habits.

Today the country does not seem inclined to adopt such an approach. The reason is the 50,000,000 uninsured.

I do not want to belabor the obvious, but everyone should know by now that this number is a fantasy. Of the 50,000,000 a third are illegal aliens and a third qualify for Medicaid, but have not signed up. Of the final tranche, many are young and healthy.

And, as we know, having health insurance does not guarantee access to health care.

Finally, the urge to reform the health care system is not about health or care or reform. If it works as advertised we will have less health and less care. The system will not be reformed, it will be deformed.

It all reminds me of Voltaire's famous remark about the Holy Roman Empire... to wit, that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Interviewing for an Executive Position

Some of the points in the KornFerry Institute report will be familiar to readers of this blog. Some will be new. The report offers a comprehensive approach to preparing for a job interview, so I am linking it, recommending it highly, and offering a few comments on it. Link here.

The report says that when you are interviewing for an executive position you are being judged for your soft skills, your social style and intelligence, your ability to work with and to lead others, and your ability to deal with adversity.

You will need to connect with your interviewer; you will need to show aplomb. You should not sound like someone who gets flustered because he is unprepared for a quiz. An interview is a conversation, not a quiz.

To maintain a good emotional connection, KornFerry recommends that you smile, listen carefully, not speak over your interviewer, not contradict him or criticize your previous employer, and not launch into long-winded prepackaged lectures.

If your answer goes over three minutes you are droning and disconnecting.

The report also makes a point I have discussed often: "Stay focused to show a genuine interest in the organization and opportunity...."

If your eyes are darting around the room, if you look distracted, that means that you are more concerned with yourself than with the job opportunity.

It matters that the report uses the word "opportunity." A job is an opportunity to be grasped, not a reward for someone who is superior or a favor for someone who is needy. I prefer "opportunity" to challenge, because a challenge suggests that you are being called in to solve someone else's problems.

KornFerry offers examples of difficult questions that might come up in an interview. They are designed to put you on the spot and to allow you to show your ability to think on your feet. You should prepare in advance for such questions, to the point that you can fold them into a conversation, not deliver them as a lecture.

Here are some of the questions that KornFerry would want you to prepare for:

1. What constructive criticism has surprised you the most?

2. How would you describe the cultures of your previous employers? How do they compare and where did you fit in best?

3. Tell me about a time when you had to get people with different viewpoints to the same level of understanding.

Knowing how to respond depends on how well you understand the point of the questions.

In the first question, the key word is: surprise. You need to recount an instance where someone-- like a mentor-- criticized you for a flaw you did not know you had. You need to show that you took the criticism in stride, were grateful for it, and undertook steps to correct it. Your story should end with you receiving a compliment for your enhanced skill.

The second question focuses on a point I have often emphasized: your ability to buy into a company's culture. This gets you away from making yourself the center of your narrative. It is formulated to see whether you have done more than a quick Google search about the company.

You should be able to offer a one-sentence description of the cultures of the companies you have worked for and to explain how well you fit into each.

You should not say that you fit into some and did not fit into others.

It is better to say that you were more comfortable in one and less comfortable in another. Hopefully, the one where you worked best corresponds closely to the one you are interviewing.

The third question targets negotiation skills. If yours are deficient, if you have not put in the time and effort to develop them, you are going to have a difficult time landing a high level executive job.

You need to have a deep understanding of the fact that executive leaderships involves negotiation, not giving orders. It involves bringing people together to implement a policy that some of them did not agree with.

Here a mentor or a coach can be helpful. If you are unsure of what is involved, a good adviser should help you to discover situations where you smoothed over differences of opinion, softened personality clashes, and led a group to implement a policy effectively and successfully.

We all negotiate all the time. Too often we are not aware of what counts as a good negotiation tactic and what does not. It may require outside help for you to learn how good a job you did and how you did it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Are We a Nation of Sybarites?

Before the new era of civic virtue can dawn we are going to have to pay for our past sins.

Intemperate self-indulgence has been doing us in. It has also imposed excessive burdens on our medical system. Now the system is awaiting its medicine in the form of universal health care.

We were not just living beyond our financial means. We were living beyond our physical means. We had become a nation of lotus-eating sybarites. Now we are going to have to pay the price for disrespecting our bodies.

All this to say that a considerable portion of the nation's gigantic health care bill goes to pay for illness that could have been prevented or attenuated by lifestyle choices.

The fault, as Daniel Akst wrote in the Wall Street Journal, lies in a failure of self-control. We have been seeking and finding a myriad of different pleasures and we do not care what effect this has on our health. An ethical failing has caused a health care crisis. Link here.

Here's a strange thought. What if we were enticed into bad behavior by the knowledge that the world's greatest medical system had our backs?

Television is overflowing with shows where physicians wage a heroic and mostly victorious struggle against the most awful illnesses. Have these shows, fictional and real, persuaded us that we can do as we please and not suffer the consequences?

When we no longer have to pay for health care directly, will that make us more or less likely to improve our lifestyles by practicing more self-control?

Truth be told, human longevity is not merely a function of great medical care. It is not just a story of doctors defeating diseases and saving lives.

Much of the credit for our healthier lives must go to sound policy, especially concerning good hygiene and better sanitation. Link here.

While we are waiting for the next generation of antibiotics to cure the worst infections, the best cure is not to get the disease. And the best way not to get the disease involves better hygiene. If doctors and nurses washed their hands more often there would be fewer transmissible infections.

But that involves self-control, too.

Everyone knows that we need healthier lifestyles. Some of it has taken hold. Witness the dramatic decrease in smoking over the past few decades.

And yet, we are still suffering inordinately and spending excessively to cure illnesses that could be prevented by good habits.

I would hypothesize that we do not adopt healthy habits because we do not believe in habits. We believe in spontaneity and enthusiasm. Many people think that running on a treadmill makes them feel like laboratory animals.

And I would also hypothesize that we do not value self-control because it requires work. A healthy lifestyle does not involve seeking the greatest amount of pleasure. It involves taking charge of your life; getting up, getting out, and getting moving.

Our culture values a healthy lifestyle; it looks askance at people who indulge bad habits in public. But it also is telling us that pleasure is the meaning of life, that we must go for the gusto, and that we have a human right to have fun.

And somehow the culture has taught us that healthy and pleasurable are at cross purposes. If you work out too much you will turn into a sexless automaton. And no one wants that.

Haven't we all learned that Puritans are killjoys and that sensual deprivation causes mental illness? And haven't we accepted that the Protestant work ethic is bad for our health?

While the culture is telling us to develop better habits, it is also telling us to shed that corporate uniform and to jump into a leisure suit. Isn't vacation where it's really at.

As it happens, this is a false dichotomy. Sybarites, voluptuaries and other practitioners of the hedonistic arts are not necessarily the happiest and best adjusted among us. Sometimes I think that they have become desensitized to the joys of life, and thus, have to work at experiencing pleasure.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Health-Care Debate

Peggy Noonan makes an excellent point in this morning's Wall Street Journal: "As the federal government claims ever greater powers, its language has become vague to the point of meaningless and meaningless to the point of menacing" Link here.

In particular Noonan calls out Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius for answering a question: "in that dead and deadening governmental language that does not reveal or clarify but instead wraps legitimate queries in clouds of words and sends them on their way."

An example: Sibelius was talking about: "single payer plan vis-a-vis private multiparty insurers."

Why do government officials talk this way? I think that it's a rhetorical ploy.

Noonan identified the first part of the ploy: the people who are talking this talk are "extremely bright and pleasant types with no particular and personal knowledge of business in America."

In other words, they traffic in academic jargon because they do not know what they are talking about.

The second point is that they are trying to persuade us that they know more than everyone else, especially those unfortunate souls who have actual experience.

The more we are persuaded of their superior intellect the more we will feel comfortable allowing them to reform the system.

Their reforms are not about making the system work better or providing more care for more people. Not at all. They want the system to conform to their vision of an ideal health care system.

If it is impracticable, if it forces the country to ration health care, if it is far too expensive to sustain... well then these same great thinkers will gin up their mental faculties to figure out who to blame. I can guarantee that they will not be on the list.

Clearly, Peggy Noonan is right that "the indecipherable language of government has actually become dangerous to the well-being of the nation."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Advanced Lessons in Seduction

It isn't every day that you get a chance to watch a master seducer at work.

Since seduction means different things to different people, here is how I am defining it.

A seducer is a man who uses a woman for his own pleasure while inducing her to think that this is what she really, really wants. He makes her feel weak and needy and then tricks her into thinking that her desperation is really her desire. And better, that she can overcome her despair by acting on her desire, which amounts to acceding to his wishes.

Absent the sexual content the same tactic can also be used in business and friendly relationships.

For now, examine the example offered by the excellent New York Times advice column, Social Q's, written by Philip Galanes. Link here.

A woman named D.T. wrote to Galanes to explain her situation. She had made a dinner date with a "nice guy" who seemed interested in her.

She went to the restaurant at the agreed-upon time. He did not. He never showed up and never called to explain himself. She sat alone in the restaurant feeling like a "sad loser."

The "nice guy" did not call later to apologize; he did not send flowers to compensate; he did not initiate any communication.

When D.T. happened to run into him on another occasion, he did apologize. Apparently without very much contrition or remorse.

He seemed to sense her vulnerability and sought to take advantage of the situation. He invited her to dinner again. As you might expect, she turned him down.

He was undeterred. Unwilling to take No for an answer he devised an ingenious ploy: he announced that he was going to make a new reservation at the same restaurant. He added that he was going to be there at the appointed hour and would wait for her. Perhaps she would change her mind.

She is tempted to go and wrote to the Times to ask what she should do.

Galanes responds by observing that it is "taxing" to deal with someone who vacillates between extreme rudeness and extreme gallantry.

The man has already shown what he is about, and a life with him would be a constant drama of slights and roses. Or better, of abuse and apologies; of degradation and celebration.

Galanes adds that she should not expect the nice guy to change. Sometimes a first impression is all you need to know. She should feel that she has been warned.

Strangely, Galanes then suggests that if she wants to see him again, there is no real harm done. He recommends that she not meet him at the restaurant, but allow him to pick her up at her apartment.

This will diminish the chance for another bout of public humiliation.

Galanes always offers good advice, because he is always working to find a way to split the difference. He does not want her to go along; he does not want her to accede to his terms; but he is willing to let her make up her own mind.

(This assumes that her mind is still her own. The basis of seduction is making people think that their minds are not really theirs!)

And if he does not explicitly tell her not to go, he may well be thinking that if he does, she might react by going. Often young people reject advice because taking it seems to involve sacrificing independence and autonomy.

But note the seducer's ploy. He has succeeded in humiliating this woman, and now he seems to have her where he wants her-- vulnerable and diminished. And now he offers himself as someone who can heal the pain that he himself has caused.

I mean no irony when I say that I consider the man's move to be brilliant. I can almost guarantee that he has tried it before and has seen it work like a charm.

By pretending to make himself vulnerable he is also pretending to empower her. And he is doing it while appealing to her empathy. He is giving her the chance to do unto him what he did unto her.

If he had slapped her around and had offered, as a recompense, to allow her to slap him around, would she want to accept the challenge?

Of course, it will take great strength of character for her to become the direct cause of an excruciating pain she has experienced herself.

But how can you counter the effects of misplaced empathy? Perhaps by further analyzing the situation.

First, he is offering to take her to a restaurant where she previously suffered humiliation. This does not normally count as a romantic gesture.

Second, how does she know that he will show up the second time, or to pick her up at her apartment?

If he fails to pick her up, the humiliation will not be as public, but it will open an old wound. If she makes a date she will have to spend time and effort getting ready. If he does not show up, how will she feel?

Third, why should she feel responsible for not showing up to an appointment she did not consent to? Did we all notice that the seducer's ploy involves ignoring her wishes and her word?

Fourth, if he does go to the restaurant, he will probably protect himself by waiting at the bar to see if she shows up. If she does not, he will surely express his deepest hurt feelings to the cute blond sitting at the end of the bar. Then he will offer her the chance to salve his wounds by joining him for dinner. She would not want a good reservation to go to waste, would she?

If this nice guy is as good a seducer and manipulator as I think he is, he will see D.T.'s absence as an opportunity to be exploited.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Secret to the Good Life

What if happiness is more than a warm puppy or a warm gun?

For some happiness involves satisfying all their needs and desires. For others it involves fulfilling their potential and succeeding in the world. For still others it involves building character by doing the right thing.

Dare I say, these are not the same.

The only one that strikes me as truly dubious is the first. What does it really mean to satisfy all of your needs and desires. Taken too literally this would mean that you would end up not needing or desiring much of anything.

Would this make you serene and contented, or would it make you a slug? I fear the latter. How many happy slugs do you know?

To get closer to the point, a good meal might well make you happy, but there is usually more to it than satisfying hunger.

A meal is a social ritual. To participate you need to follow certain rules. If you do not obey them you will seriously compromise not only your pleasure but your digestion.

If meals satisfy you because they connect you to other people, and only incidentally because they satisfy an appetite, then perhaps the former, not the latter, is the basis for human happiness.

Of course, you can only participate in a dining ritual if you learn how to defer gratification. You cannot sit down to eat with other people if you have decided to eat whenever and wherever you please.

Dining requires the exercise of ethical virtues like discipline and self-control. As Jonah Lehrer explained in The New Yorker, deferred gratification is the basis for self-control. Link here.

Lehrer reports on an experiment where a four year old was offered a choice: eat one marshmallow now or wait for later and eat two marshmallows.

Some children were able to wait; others immediately scarfed down the available marshmallow.

Follow-up research showed that the children who could defer gratification were largely more successful in life than were those who could not.

Obviously, refraining from eating a marshmallow is a child's version of good character. Lehrer explains that over time it morphs into qualities that are essential for a successful life: more deliberation, more rational thought, and more sustained effort.

I think it is fair to say that children do not learn how to defer gratification in order to get more marshmallows, but to develop some strength of character.

The thrill of eating two marshmallows is one thing; the satisfaction of completing a task, of achieving a goal, is quite another.

A child's language will privilege the former; an adult's the latter.

This is consistent with the notion that happiness involves fulfilling your potential, getting better at what you are doing, and attaining excellence.

We may not compete for happiness, but we gain happiness by competing successfully.

For now let distinguish two kinds of human potential. You are born with talents and gifts, whether hand/eye coordination, card sense, a feel for numbers, or an ability to play music.

You hold these talents in trust and you have something of an obligation to develop and actualize them. If your talents point you toward golf or music you should follow them.

The second form of potential is more important than the first. If concerns you human ethical potential, your ability to become a better person.

As a member of a human community you have a duty to do the right thing, to do what is right by your community, to do what contributes to the well-being and happiness of others. You have a duty to set a good example so others can emulate your behavior.

And you should do it because doing the right thing connects you with other people, not because you are lusting after a double marshmallow treat.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is Venting Therapeutic?

Today they call it "critical incident stress debriefing." As therapy for trauma, debriefing instructs victims to recall the event, to recount it in detail, and to vent the proper emotions.

This technique echoes Freud's initial attempt to treat hysteria. With one difference. Where Freud's treatment involved remembering forgotten traumas, debriefing involves traumas that are fresh in memory.

Still, debriefing owes a debt to Freud. It follows his lead in suggesting that the effects of trauma can be mitigated once the event is narrated with sufficient anger and anguish.

By now this has become the commonly accepted approach to dealing with trauma.

Any time a trauma victim appears on a talk show or writes to an advice columnist or is depicted in a television drama, someone inevitably declares that the person must seek counseling to talk it over, to work it through, and to vent intense emotions about it.

All of which begs the question: Does it work?

A recent research project led by Dr. Mark Seery from the University of Buffalo suggests that it does not. An essay on this research is posted on Psyblog. Link here.

Studying the effectiveness of debriefing in cases of traumatic stress, Dr.Seery discovered that victims who kept silent were more likely to do better than those who had expressed their feelings and told their story. Venting was most often associated with a worse outcome.

Psyblog offers one correct explanation. Debriefing mistakes a metaphor for reality. Based on the assumption that negative emotions build up in the mind like compressed gas, debriefing suggests that if they do not find a release valve, they will eventually explode.

Other therapists have gotten beyond hydraulic metaphors, only to fall into a different mistake. They assume that trauma produces bad ideas, thus mental toxins. Then they propose removing those toxins by attaching them to a story and expelling the whole mess orally.

All in the interest of another metaphor: mental hygiene.

We can also consider that if trauma injures by demoralizing, thus stripping away human dignity, perhaps the correct response is to cover up, not to open up.

When a trauma victim tells his story and vents his emotion he is not asserting a better version of himself. He is using the trauma to behave in a way that he would normally consider beneath himself.

Psychologists have known for some time that venting anger is countertherapeutic. The immediate cathartic rush always yields to feelings of emptiness and foolishness.

These begin the minute the venting individual takes a step back and starts saying to himself: What was I thinking?

Exposing yourself as a trauma victim and making a display of your private emotions is indiscreet. It runs counter to the ethical principles that guide our lives.

I would explain Dr. Seery's results by saying that a person who acts ethically under the stress of trauma is on a better path to overcome its debilitating and demoralizing effects than is someone who uses the occasion to compromise his principles.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Pope Walks Out. Or Does He?

Having been forced to listen to a Palestinian judge's anti-Israeli diatribe at an interfaith gathering to promote dialogue, Pope Benedict XVI walked out of the meeting.

The speech by the Chief Judge of the Palestinian Sharia Court, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, had not been planned.

After the Pope delivered his prepared remarks yesterday, Tamimi hijacked the microphone and launched a tirade against Israel. He accused Israel of war crimes against the Palestinian people and appealed for Christians and Muslims to join together to fight Israel.

You did not have to understand Arabic to know that he was talking jihad. And keep in mind that he was not just any old judge. He was an important jurist who represents moderate Palestinians.

The Pope responded by getting up, shaking Timimi's hand, and walking out of the meeting... thus cutting it short.

For those who had missed the point, the Vatican press office issued an explicit denunciation of Tamimi: "In a meeting dedicated to dialogue this speech was the negation of what dialogue should be."

At a time when Western diplomats of all political persuasions have invested their careers in the notion that they can negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and that said solution would immediately end international terrorism, the Pope was repudiating a cherished belief.

With a single gesture he was reminding them that there are times when dialogue is impossible and when negotiation is a fool's errand.

Yesterday, the Pope exercised moral leadership. We do not see it every day.

The gesture was reported as I have told it in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, the UPI, the London Daily Telegraph, the Irish Times, and the Times of London.

Press organs that are more invested in dialogue and negotiation at any price took a different approach. They changed the facts.

CNN reported that the Pope "did not react." The BBC declared that: "The Pope was not seen to react." In the Reuters version: "Tamimi shook the Pope's hand and the meeting broke up as scheduled immediately afterwards." And the New York Times put it this way: " soon as Tamimi was finished speaking, Bendict shook his hand and was ushered off the stage by the papal entourage."

Most of these news reports also include the Vatican press statement that flatly contradicts their interpretation.

But they may have another reason for denying reality.

Less than a month ago Barack Obama was roundly criticized for sitting through a 50 minute anti-American diatribe by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Obama did not walk out of that meeting. He responded by making it all into a joke and saying that an attack on America was not an attack on him. His reasoning: he had not been president when the referenced events had happened.

At the time, people who tried to defend Obama responded that it would have been undiplomatic to walk out.

Thus, to defend their beliefs and to defend Obama news reporters were happy to erase the Pope's gesture.

Monday, May 11, 2009

More Advice for Job Seekers

Communications coach Bill McGowan recently offered some excellent advice for handling job interviews. Some of it will be familiar; some will present a familiar idea from a different angle; some of it will be new. All of it is worth heeding. Link here.

1. Maintain eye contact; offer a firm handshake. When we are discussing an uncomfortable subject-- Why did you leave your last job?-- McGowan notes that we tend to fidget and to look away from the interviewer. We disengage and disconnect.

On the Today show he showed how a man who had had a career in the military was especially good at these skills. A positive attitude toward the military ethos will serve you well on a job interview.

To overcome tendencies to disconnect, you should train for the interview by rehearsing answers to difficult or painful questions with another person, to the point of going over it again and again until you can do it on auto-pilot.

2. As you begin an interview you are likely to feel anxious. You will speak more quickly, include more annoying conversational filler, and make more mistakes. So McGowan suggests that when you begin an interview you should consciously slow down the cadence of your speech.

He adds that you should not be afraid to pause and collect your thoughts. Allowing a few moments of silence is better than filling your conversation with: like, um, and you know.

3. Confidence sells. You show confidence by having facts and figures available that show how and what you have contributed in the past.

Importantly, McGowan adds: "You are not going in asking them to do you a favor by hiring you."

The opposite of confidence is neediness and desperation. If you sound like you are begging, the interviewer will think that no one wants you. If so, why should he?

4. Next, McGowan advises you to be specific. If you are asked to describe yourself, you should not offer a list of positive attributes, but should be able to tell stories that show you tackling specific problems successfully.

5. Be prepared to answer typical interview questions like: What is your biggest weakness? What was your biggest mistake.

Have a story ready that shows a real mistake or weakness and explain what you learned from it or how you corrected it in future projects.

Also, McGowan emphasizes that you should be well prepared to ask some questions about the company you are interviewing.

6. Finally, show them that you are confident and self-assured. Excessive modesty and humility have no place in a job interview.

You do not show confidence by bragging, talking only about yourself, or making it appear that you were the best thing that ever happened to the company you left.

Confidence is allowing your achievements to speak for themselves. It also lies in giving credit to your staff or team.

To say that you were honored to lead such an effective group is better than to assert how great a leader you are.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Overdieters Anonymous

I want to recommend that there be a recovery movement for people who compulsively overdiet.

Surely, you know more than a few people who are damaging their bodies by getting trapped in an endless cycle of weight swings. Take it off; put it back on; take it off again.... You would think that they had gotten trapped in the dressing room at Loehman's.

All in the name of svelte.

Compulsive overdieters follow all the diets, at times one after the other. They obsess about their weight; they count calories; they sacrifice their health to slim; they talk about their own and everyone else's body image all the time; they are constantly disparaging their own and everyone else's body.

Some even go to the absurd extreme of complimenting anorexics on how good they look. If you start thinking that anorexics have it right, or that you can never be too slim... they clearly you should head for the nearest Overdieters Anonymous meeting.

A few days ago I was blogging about Susan Roberts. Author of a new diet book Roberts was trying to stir up sales by saying something controversial and idiotic: If you want to lose weight jump off the treadmill and run out to buy her book. Link here.

Soon after posting the Roberts article Tina Brown redeemed herself on The Daily Beast by posting a sane and sensible article by Dara Chadwick. Link here.

Showing that it is possible to give good advice and sell books too, Chadwick wrote about how mothers can be a more positive influence on their daughters' body image.

In the process she offered the first steps toward what should eventually become a twelve step program for overdieters.

Chadwick's basic steps concern good health, good habits, and liking one's body no matter what.

The first two are obvious. Liking your body no matter what is more difficult. It does not involve a mental trick. It requires a woman to mine the resources offered by fashion and cosmetics.

Liking your body means looking your best. Television is full of makeover shows that assert the importance of looking your best.

And yet, Chadwick asserts, some women have not gotten the message. They have suffered the influence of certain feminists and have come to believe that Vogue and Marie Claire are part of a patriarchal conspiracy to enslave women by making them look good.

As you may know, this demented notion was propagated by one Naomi Wolf, a woman who looks like she has never walked away from the cosmetics counter empty handed.

Forget all of Wolf's pseudo-theoretical claptrap, when a woman who always tries to look her best advises other women that they can make a profound political statement by looking their worst, then clearly something strange is going on.

Hopefully, most women have moved beyond Wolf's bad advice. If they want good advice, they should turn to Chadwick.

Her book is addressed to mothers and daughters; a perfect gift for today.

What steps does she recommend. First, she advises women to stop criticizing themselves and other women.

As I have suggested, the problem is not what is going into the mouth but what is coming out of it. As Chadwick says: Watch your words.

In a culture that values free and open expression of doubts and vulnerabilities, Chadwick tells women simply to stop talking about their insecurities about weight and shape.

This also means that we should all repress our tendencies to make derogatory remarks about how a woman looks.

In some corners of the therapy culture this would be denounced as hypocrisy and dishonesty. In fact, it is basic good manners.

Constantly talking about weight issues, constantly promoting self-consciousness about weight should count as a form of self-abuse.

Chadwick advises mothers to make the following promise: "For Mother's Day promise yourself that you won't say another unkind thing about your body or make your shape a punchline in her presence this year. If you need to think it, then think it. But don't let her hear those words come out of your mouth. And while you're at it, let her hear you say something nice about your appearance."

She then adds some practical steps that ought could certainly organize more than a few Overdieters Anonymous meetings: "If you've been a lifelong dieter obsessed with calories, it's time to reframe that conversation, too. Ditch the calorie talk and let her see you make healthy food choices most of the time, without agonizing over your food. Hide the scale in the ahll closet, or throw it out with the trash. Invite her to take a walk with you after dinner. And if you choose to have desert? Have it without a single word about how you shouldn't?"

To some people this will sound like repression. To me it sounds like good advice. The point is to make food consumption more of a social ritual and less of a losing struggle with one's appetite.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Will the Animal Spirits Eat the Green Shoots?

In today's Financial Times Christia Freeland declares that the government has revived the nation's animal spirits by successfully managing the public mood. Link here.

After reading her article I recommend a chaser: Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times. Krugman paints a rather more sober picture. Link here. (Also check out Doug Kass's analysis of financial stocks. Link here.)

Where Freeland sees the burgeoning green shoots as a harbinger of spring, Krugman tells us to be very, very afraid.

He fears that Wall Street is getting ready to go back to business as usual, as though nothing really happened. Our animal spirits have simply recovered too quickly... and that is not a good sign.

To mix two metaphors, Krugman is predicting that our hungry animal spirits are going to eat the economy's green shoots.

It makes good sense, from a contrarian point of view. If everyone is feeling as good as Freeland says they are, wouldn't a believer in contrary sentiment take that as an indicator that trouble lies ahead and that we should be very, very afraid?

The Secret to Being a Bad Wife

I have never been tempted to watch the television show called "Jon & Kate Plus Eight." If you are on the same wavelength I will mention that it offers up the daily travails of a couple with eight children, one set of twins plus one set of sextuplets.

As if that did not produce enough daily drama, it now appears that the Jon in the show's title has been cheating on wife Kate.

In itself, the fact is of subminimal interest.

More interesting is Susannah Breslin's commentary on the blog: "The XX Factor." Link here.

By definition, this blog tells us exactly what women really think.

So here is what Breslin thinks of the Jon and Kate marriage, the one that is now being threatened by Jon's adultery: "... the majority of the relationship seems to consist of Kate treating her husband like something that got stuck on the bottom of her shoe, the property of which she cannot quite identify, eliciting a non-stop look of thinly-veiled disgust and disappointment. In fact, it's hard to think of moments when the housewife is not humiliating, degrading, and emasculating her husband. On camera, no less."

Surely, the same would apply if the roles were reversed.

At the very least, Breslin has perfectly captured the secret to being a bad wife. Don't try this at home.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Diet and Exercise Wars

Dr. Susan Roberts is not totally opposed to exercise. She just doesn't believe that it is going to help you lose weight. Her advice for those who want to slim down: buy her book, "The Instinct Diet."

Roberts wrote a recent article called "The Exercise Myth" and states in its preamble: "when it comes to losing weight, the treadmill gets you nowhere fast." Link here.

She concludes by saying: "Exercise is great medicine for general health and a great add-on to dieting, so feel free to kill yourself in the gym if it makes you feel good. But it isn't essential; and by itself doesn't do much. All the research suggests that exercise is less important than what goes in your mouth, and when."

I am tempted to say that what comes out of your mouth-- or your pen-- is probably more important than the rest, but that would merely be a reaction to Roberts' condescending tone: "feel free to kill yourself in the gym if it makes you feel good."

I would hate to think that people are going to read her and cease exercising, because they think that exercise is only going to make them healthy.

What does Roberts have against exercise? Perhaps she dislikes it because it is work, and because work is for chumps. People who exercise, like people who work with their hands, have a lower status than those who lounge around drinking mango juice.

But why is weight-loss the only frame of reference that counts? What is wrong with healthy?

If mindset matters aren't we better off trying to achieve good health than to fit into a certain pair of jeans? And wouldn't good health make it more likely that we could fit into that pair of jeans anyway?

If exercise contributes to good health, why dismiss it contemptuously. And if it is difficult to maintain an exercise routine, who cares if you use appeals to vanity to keep yourself going?

There is nothing wrong with doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Or for the right reason.

It is better to think that you are nourishing a healthy body than to imagine that you are engaged in a losing struggle with your appetites.

I think Roberts understands this. She is promoting and marketing her diet book as a way to overcome the extremes of deprivation and gluttony that torment so many dieters.

Her instinct diet values balanced nutrition and correctly observes that we all eat better when food tastes good. By following her diet you can reprogram your brain so that you will love eating healthy food and feel something akin to disgust when faced with food that is bad for you.

Now all you have to do is learn to cook. If you know how to cook, healthy foods always taste good. After you have finished Roberts' book you need but enroll in cooking school. That will surely slim you down.

Or else, go out and buy a copy of Jessica Seinfeld's "Deceptively Delicious." Seinfeld's cook book shows how you can reprogram a child to like healthy food by mixing some broccoli puree with the cheese whiz.

The real problem is that diet books... as opposed to guides to good nutrition... imagine that human life is a struggle between a human being and his or her appetite. Strangely, they often assume, in a Freudian twist, that it is always a losing struggle.

To some extent Freud was right. If you define your existence as a struggle with your appetite, you are going to lose. Not for lack of willpower, but because by defining yourself as an autonomous human unit you are depriving yourself of the human fellowship and ritual that normally accompanies food consumption.

You cannot eat healthy by using food to medicate your despair at eating alone.

Dieting and nutrition, to say nothing of health and a good attitude, involves far more than your ability to control what enters your mouth, and when. It must balance exercise, nutrition, social activities, family functions, and work.

It is much easier to control your appetite and to eat well when you eat with others. Eating with others is not infallible, but it is surely a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the culture is not friending your good health. In some circles, it is a badge of honor to be on a diet. If you are not on one you will have nothing to talk about when your friends share their alimentary issues. If you are comfortable with your weight and like your body as it is, many people will find that you are abnormal.

Now, let's change the question a bit and ask: how many people would put their sexual appetites on a diet? How many would make sexual self-control and deprivation a point of pride? Haven't we been told that it is a moral imperative to satisfy sexual desires?

If there is no such thing as being too rich or too thin, there is also no such thing as having too much sex.

Someone will want to interject here that the difference is that sexual activity does not cause anyone to put on weight.

But if that is true, then perhaps it is because sex involves a certain amount of... exercise!

How can people have healthy lives and temperate appetites when they are being tossed between two contradictory cultural imperatives: one says that appetite must be rigorously controlled while the other says that it must be indulged.

Wouldn't it be better to say that neither appetite should suffer excessive deprivation or indulgence, and that they should both be exercised frequently and in moderation? Wouldn't that move us out of the realm of weight-loss and into the world of healthy.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Is It Really That Complicated?

Oprah wanted to know whether she still loved her husband. The question made for great television, but it was the kind of question that only a busybody could love.

Elizabeth Edwards answered politely that it was a complicated issue. A nice way to avoid answering the question without offending the questioner.

Now, Maureen Dowd has gone high concept and has gotten to the heart of the issue: "The really complicated question is what she hopes to gain from this book." Link here.

Dowd's answer is unassailable. She sees Mrs. Edwards, whom she dubs Saint Elizabeth, getting in a few last licks by publicly flogging her husband. She calls the book: "just a gratuitous peek into their lives, and one that exposes her kids, by peddling more dregs about their personal family life...."

Revenge is neither sweet nor cheap; it is often ugly and very expensive.

Many people, among them your intrepid blogger, have questioned the value of the sport of exhibitionism-via-memoir. (To say nothing of the new practice of exhibitionism-via-text message.)Dowd's voice adds seriousness to the charge.

Dowd is challenging us to stop making a virtue of indiscretion. Even when it is supposed to be open and honest and pretends to be helping others.

There is no virtue when a woman of dignity and decorum joins the chorus of dimwitted celebrities who gain fame and fortune by violating the boundaries of public decency.

Dowd suggests that when it comes to infidelity, indiscretion adds insult to injury. It matters that men like John Edwards and Bill Clinton choose paramours who are unlikely to be able to keep a secret: "Like Monica and Gennifer before her Rielle was not a discreet choice."

When it comes to marriage we live in an imperfect world. Perhaps we are too optimistic when we expect lifelong fidelity. But we must still expect our mates to show some respect.

If I had to guess, I would say that more marriages are doomed by indiscretion and public humiliation than by random infidelities.

Dowd's larger point deserves some emphasis. However vile John Edwards' behavior, payback does not heal the wounds. Especially when the enacted revenge makes Saint Elizabeth look bad and harms her family.