Audio Blog, 9:41
** UPDATE: Since the original post, I have joined the volunteer Board Of Directors of The Lunch Project.
This week I met a friend of mine, Natalie Jorge, at Starbucks to chat. Nat and I attended business school together 18 years ago (she finished #1 in our class!), and she is now on the board of The Lunch Project . The non-profit organization “empowers communities to change their world by supporting school lunch programs in Tanzania and inspiring service in all children”.
I sat down with Nat and began to enjoy my slice of warm banana bread and coffee, when she informed me that TLP provides meals to the children for 9 cents each.
9 cents…and I had just dropped close to $5 bucks on an afternoon snack that I probably didn’t need. That amount of money could have purchased 55 meals for needy students in Tanzania! Whoa. Perspective.
In that moment I thought about how fascinating human perspectives on life can be, both daily occurrences and life changing events. Moreover, I thought about how our perspectives can be altered, both for the positive and negative.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Epictetus
So, how can we develop the mental discipline to have a positive perspective on the obstacles that we face in life? I believe that a balanced and positive perspective can be learned based on the passing of time, exposure, life events, historical comparison, empathy and recognition.
The passing of time has an interesting way of revealing various perspectives on the same event. In other words, your initial reaction to something that has happened may prove to be an inaccurate reading, but it will not be learned until enough time has elapsed.
The fable told in the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” captures the reason why it is better to keep a balanced perspective on life’s events.
“…There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “how wonderful. The boy got a horse.”
And the Zen master says, “we’ll see.”
Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”
Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t because his legs are all messed up…and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.” Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”
When your perspective turns negative, take a moment to remember this simple fable and allow yourself the flexibility to have a more balanced perspective over time.
We can only develop a broad perspective on life after being exposed to various situations. This is often achieved by actually experiencing life, but it can be accelerated through the study of other lives (“Roundtable blog”) via conversation, reading or other forms of modern media.
When I was 32 years old, I moved to North Carolina and bought my first townhouse. It was literally the first house I ever lived in. I always lived in apartments up until this moment. Moving into the townhouse was quite an accomplishment, from my perspective.
Fast forward 15 years later, and my children who grew up in a larger brick home, have an entirely different perspective on a “normal” living arrangement. Their perspective is not wrong, but it is simply based on their limited life exposure. I often joke with them that I would be absolutely fine living in a small apartment, but I actually mean it. It is based on my perspective of what living conditions are necessary to have a good family life, and it allows me to shed the anxiety that may be associated with maintaining a larger home or an extravagant lifestyle.
If you feel that your exposure is limited and your perspectives are myopic, then I suggest getting outside of your normal work/social routine and engaging in charitable work with the less fortunate. Moreover, you could embark on a reading program that includes excellent books such as “Same Kind of Different As Me”, by Ron Hall.
Experiencing a Life Event is slightly different than exposure, as experiencing an event implies not a continued observation of a certain environment, but a discrete event that alters your perspective on a particular situation.
When my father was assigned to the Pentagon in 1979 and we returned from Germany, the family moved to an apartment complex in Maryland called Woodlake. On a clear summer day, my brother and I were playing in the neighborhood, and we heard fire engines racing into our development. We soon realized that they were moving in the direction of our building. As the group of kids chased the fire trucks to the destination, we saw my parents and sister standing outside watching our building go up in flames.
What do I remember the most? How my parents, who struggled during the depression, and participated in World War II as a soldier and “Rosie The Riveter”, were so unfazed by the whole situation. They quietly watched our possessions burn, and then they calmly told us that everything would work out just fine.
Even though they had no possessions and very little money saved away for this rainy day, my parents’ calm, positive perspective was correct. We were very fortunate that good family friends, the Mackels, took all five of us in for six weeks, until we could get back on our feet.
It was a great lesson on having a balanced and positive perspective, and I don’t think my parents were trying to teach us that lesson, at that moment. When life gets tough, just remember that so many others before you have faced more difficult circumstances, and have managed to overcome through a positive perspective and relationships with good people.
We are right in the middle of a hotly contested, mean-spirited presidential race between Hillary and Trump. Many people think the current political environment is as bad as it has ever been. But is it really?
What about the political environment that lead up to the civil war in the 1860s, or the 1960s political unrest associated with the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War? I could name many other moments of turmoil in US political history. What about the Aaron Burr– Alexander Hamilton duel that resulted in the mortal wounding of Hamilton?
If you feel overwhelmed every evening when you watch the news, it may be helpful to utilize this concept of historical comparisons, to gain a more balanced and positive perspective.
Empathy and Recognition
The ability to place ourselves in the shoes of other people that we recognize as less fortunate than us, is an effective method to improve your perspective.
It is not uncommon to hear a finance professional complaining about the “small size of his annual bonus”, within earshot of an administrative team member who may not qualify for bonus pay. This narrow, insensitive perspective does not take into account that his compensation, regardless of how well earned it is, represents a excessive amount of money to the average global citizen who may work in far more difficult and dangerous circumstances, for paltry wages.
The finance employee, although he may have a legitimate case for higher earnings, would be well served to place himself in the shoes of the global citizen and recognize his own good fortune. The resulting perspective would be more balanced, and his emotional state would be far more positive and less reliant on compensation for happiness.
Ultimately, your choice of perspectives will dictate whether you will achieve your objectives, and also they will determine if you reach a level of life satisfaction and happiness commensurate with your expectations.