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Monday, February 8, 2010

Sit in the Garbage and Sing

We conduct a lifelong duel with reality. We prefer living by illusion, but unadorned facts keep disrupting the serenity of our self-deception.

Psychologists long have reported the multiple "personas" of people. There's the person we think we are presenting to the world, an often-splendid creation whose construction and maintenance can occupy an inordinate amount of our time and attention.

Then there's the second person, the one people actually see. Not the same as the first, perhaps hugely not so. The third persona lives inside our lives with us, the one we think we are. Last is the person we really are, which we hide as much as we can, even -- especially? -- from ourselves. Some theories have a lot more personas, often more entertaining than this group, but four is enough for us for now.

If you are offended by this concept, run a check of your self-talk as you go through a few display cases of your life in the next day or two. Be honest. It doesn't make you a bad person, but it does say something about our choices in how we manage our thought patterns.

The "multiple personalities" issue pokes through the mists of time as I gather information and thoughts for a program called "Right On/Way Off: Good Decisions, Bad Decisions in Managing Projects" for the Feb. 18 program of Maine's Project Management Institute chapter (see pmimaine.com).

It would seem to be a good working philosophy that our lives will be better if we are able to base our everyday decisions on the true situation, not only about ourselves but about the people, events, problems and possibilities we meet along the way. In fact, engaging reality is the only real way to make progress.

Handled correctly, it is a powerful tool for healthy growth and leadership. At the very least, as Mark Twain said about something else, it will annoy your enemies and amaze everyone else.

A late great friend once told me a story from his hardscrabble youth that made this point about reality in very blunt fashion. The family had just moved to a new town, and my friend had an appointment for an interview for admission to the local high school. The only food in the house was a little dry cereal and a sliver of butter.

His older sister, caring for her siblings in the absence of both parents, told him he should be the one to eat the food, because he had to have something to sustain him for the long walk to the school and the pressure of the interview.

As he looked into the bowl, he recoiled with disgust. The cereal was infested with silverfish, an insect performing, in this case, the function of the cockroach. He knew he really had to have something in his stomach, so . . .

Many years later, now a successful executive, he looked at me with an intensity I'll never forget, and said, "You have to eat the silverfish." I'm convinced it was a life commandment he had repeated to himself countless times -- and followed in his behavior toward the uncomfortable realities he had faced.

My own example is not quite as graphic, but it's still repulsive enough for me; it has given me an attitude-control device that has had significant influence on my own efforts to remind myself to face the real.

I was a very reluctant recruit in the U.S. Army, at Fort Dix in the era of soldiers handling chores that may be outsourced today. I had KP duty one Saturday morning, and was assigned to ride in the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck to receive and empty garbage cans as we toured the barracks streets of the base.

I tried to keep my balance, standing amid the garbage as the truck lurched away from its first stop on what was going to be a long trip. I realized within the first 10 feet that I wasn't going to be able to stay vertical. So I looked at the garbage, briefly evaluated the issues, then plopped down and made myself comfortable. "You're a garbage man today," I told myself. "After a shower and a laundry run, you can be an unhappy rookie rifleman again."

And I cheerfully ran through my repertory of off-key pop songs while enjoying the sunshine and the occasional whiffs of fresh air.

That attitude-changer remains with me, and it still works. If it's garbage you must do, then sit in the garbage and sing.

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