Seinfeld, Impermanence, Death, Grief, and the Parable of the Mustard Seed

Jerry Seinfeld Found Acceptance in His Father’s Death

Jerry Seinfeld This February-2002 article from the newspaper-magazine Parade quotes comedian Jerry Seinfeld on coping with the death of his father. Instead of recalling emotions of sadness and loss, Seinfeld declares he found acceptance:

His dad’s death at age 66, when Jerry Seinfeld was 30, was the first great loss of Seinfeld’s life. Did it crush him? Surprisingly, after a brief pause, he says no. “I tend to accept life as it is,”he says. “I’m not one of these ‘Life isn’t fair’ people. I tend to accept whatever the limits are, whatever the rules are.” He sits back. His love for his father is evident, but no more evident than his acceptance of the basic facts that the man is no longer around … “It’s okay,” Seinfeld says. And you get the feeling that it is.

Acknowledging Impermanence Can Foster Happiness

The above anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld invokes the Buddhist concept that everything—including life—is impermanent. The Buddha taught, “Decay is inherent in all component things.”

Life, Death and Rebirth in Hinduism Nothing in the world is fixed and permanent. Everything is subject to change and alteration. Life offers no control or consistency but rather impermanence and successive changes—youth changes into old age; the past changes to the present and then into the future.

Suffering, Buddhism teaches, is caused by unrealistic expectations of permanence—especially in relationships. Accepting impermanence can therefore lead to an existence with less suffering. Appreciating that everything in life is fragile and impermanent can foster an appreciation of the present.

Buddhist Parable of the Mustard Seed

Kisagotami and Parable of the Mustard Seed in Buddhism When faced with adversities you must feel and experience—not deny—your emotions, and then embark on a healing process by looking at the situation in a more realistic light.

The Buddha used a well-known parable to help a woman prevail over the death of her son. Here is the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” from British Pali scholar T W Rhys Davids‘s Buddhism: A Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha (1894:)

Kisagotami is the name of a young girl, whose marriage with the only son of a wealthy man was brought about in true fairy-tale fashion. She had one child, but when the beautiful boy could run alone, it died.

The young girl in her love for it carried the dead child clasped to her bosom, and went from house to house of her pitying friends asking them to give her medicine for it. But a Buddhist mendicant, thinking “She does not understand,” said to her, “My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has.” “O tell me who that is,” said Kisagotami. “The Buddha can give you medicine; go to him,” was the answer.

She went to Gautama, and doing homage to him, said, “Lord and master, do you know any medicine that will be good for my child?” “Yes, I know of some,” said the Teacher. Now it was the custom for patients or their friends to provide the herbs which the doctors required, so she asked what herbs he would want. “I want some mustard-seed,” he said; and when the poor girl eagerly promised to bring some of so common a drug, he added, “You must get it from some house where no son, or husband, or parent, or slave has died.” “Very good,” she said, and went to ask for it, still carrying her dead child with her.

The people said, “Here is mustard seed, take it”; but when she asked, “In my friend’s house has any son died, or a husband, or a parent or slave?” they answered, “Lady, what is this that you say; the living are few, but the dead are many.” Then she went to other houses, but one said, “I have lost a son “; another, “We have lost our parents”; another, “I have lost my slave.”

At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear, and summoning up resolution, she left the dead body of her child in a forest, and returning to the Buddha paid him homage. He said to her, “Have you the mustard seed?” “My Lord,” she replied, “I have not; the people tell me that the living are few, but the dead are many.” Then he talked to her on that essential part of his system the impermanency of all things, till her doubts were cleared away, and, accepting her lot, she became a disciple and entered the first Path.

Buddhism: Acknowledging Impermanence Can Foster Happiness

Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse wrote in Siddhartha, “I learned… to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it… Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.”

Idea for Impact: The key to finding equanimity and contentment in life is to develop a heightened acceptance of reality.

Postscript: The Buddhist parable of the mustard seed is not to be confused with the identically-titled Christian parables in Matthew 13:31–32 of the New Testament: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” This parable also appears in Mark 4:30–32 and Luke 13:18–19.

The #1 Cost of Overwork is Personal Relationships

Is your career ruining your relationships?

There’s an old adage that no one ever said on his/her deathbed, “Gee, I wish I’d put more time in at the office.” Still, modern corporate life demands high-level performance for sustained periods.

Work has a tendency to capture people’s lives, leaving them out of focus and out of balance. Many people are working longer hours, often to the point of overlooking their individual needs: family, health, fitness, and home.

Is your career is ruining your relationships?

Personal relationships are often the first casualties of overwork. Hard workers are often in denial about the deterioration of their relationships. They unhesitatingly offer one of the many excuses that society seems to have sanctioned for overwork: “need to send the kids to private school,” “boss demands it,” “we’re experiencing quality problems and I’m making a good impression by firefighting”, “I’m keeping more patients alive,” and so forth. They are often the last to notice that their personal relationships are suffering.

As I mentioned in my article on willpower, many marriages go bad when stress at work is at its worst. This “muscle metaphor” for willpower, on a day-to-day basis, people use up all their willpower on the job; their home lives suffer because they give much to their work.

The time you do spend with your families can be more meaningful

'You Cant Predict a Hero' by Joseph Grano (ISBN 0470411678) Joe Grano, CEO of business consulting firm Centurion Holdings, used to work six days a week and almost every night. After years of slogging on Wall Street, his personal relationships worsened. Discussing how his ambition and long work hours led to his divorce (he had two daughters with his wife) in You Can’t Predict a Hero, Grano writes,

All successful, ambitious people are personally selfish to some degree. This goes beyond just the desire to pursue your self-interest in carving up the power and money in business. You can’t work the long hours that success requires and can’t set the individualistic priorities that ambition dictates without stealing somewhat from your loved ones. Some may think that a selfish perspective is rationalized with the rewards of money and prestige. Perhaps. But what if your loved ones don’t really care as much for those material rewards as you do? The truth is that successful people do what they do because they love doing it. The career is their passion, their mistress. It’s the adrenaline that drives their metabolism. The drive to spend those long hours working is as essential a part of their genetic makeup as is their DNA.

If you’re going to become a successful leader, you need to reconcile yourself to your own selfishness, not just the selfishness of others. Many of your peers will spend more time with their families than you do with yours. Finally, accept that the psychic rewards that come from your ambition and eventual success, while satisfying to you, may mean much less, if anything at all, to your loved ones. This is one of the prices of success. You’ll need to sacrifice on the amount of time you spend with your loved ones. Compensate by not sacrificing on the quality of that time.

Idea for Impact: Success doesn’t come without a price; neither does failure. With every choice comes consequences

What people really want and need is not work-life “balance,” but to live deeply satisfying lives both personally and professionally. The trick is a personal choice—to become more conscious of what and who matter most, and then to create the life you want.

Work-life balance isn’t so much about balance as it is about setting and living priorities. Remember, with every choice comes consequences.

If You Want to Be Loved, Love

Love is an Outpouring of Everything Good in You

Love is an “Outpouring of Everything Good in You”

In 1958, when American Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s son Thom was fourteen, he attended boarding school in Connecticut. There, “Thom” (the American novelist and screenwriter Thomas Myles Steinbeck (1944–2016)) met a young girl named Susan with whom he thought he might be in love. Soon after, Thom sent a note home and declared his love for his new school sweetheart. In response, John Steinbeck wrote the following stirring advice on how to navigate love.

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,
Fa

Love is Intended to be Realized in the Offering, Not in the Receiving

According to University of South Florida’s Seneca scholar Anna Lydia Motto, the great Stoic philosopher’s writings are chockfull of his profound understanding of the true significance of the many forms of love—i.e., love for one’s spouse, family, friends, fellow humans, and country.

'Moral letters to Lucilius' by Seneca (ISBN 1536965537) In Moral Letters to Lucilius (Latin orig. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium), Seneca quotes his friend and fellow Stoic philosopher Hecato (or Hecaton of Rhodes):

I shall show you a love
potion without a drug, without
a herb; without the incantation
of any sorceress: if you want
to be loved, love.

The Ability to Love is a Faculty to Develop and Practice

Love is an oft-misunderstood concept. The German Philosopher Erich Fromm (1900–1980) wrote in his brilliant The Art of Loving (1956) “Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.”

Love is not something to fall into after fortuitously discovering the person (or any desirable object). Love is something we learn to “do” from years of arduous toil.

Any loving relationship demands compromise, cooperation, acceptance, forgiveness, tolerance, stability, devotion, and commitment. Genuine love, therefore, involves cultivating, nurturing, and practicing the cognitive and emotional faculty of loving.

If You Want to Be Loved, Love

Idea for Impact: Love, and Be Deserving of Love

To relish this complex and richest of all experiences, focus on offering love rather than on being loved.

As the Indian philosopher Nolini Kanta Gupta (1889–1983) once said, “The secret of love is the joy of self-giving. The secret of joy is self-giving. If any part in you is without joy, it means that it has not given itself, it wants to keep itself for itself.”

If you want to be loved, love.

No one unqualified to bestow love upon others is himself/herself deserving of love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Competition Can Push You to Achieve Greater Results

“A Great Rival is Like a Mirror”

The competition between American tennis stars Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi became the dominant rivalry in tennis during the ’90s. With their remarkably different styles and temperaments, the two produced a great number of remarkable games. Between 1989 and 2002, Sampras won 20 of their 34 head-to-head matches, of which Sampras won four of the five Grand Slam finals they played. Sampras also held the world No. 1 spot for a record 286 weeks whereas Agassi held it for 101 weeks.

'Open: An Autobiography' by Andre Agassi (ISBN 0307388409) Asked how his rivalries helped and hurt him in the October 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, Agassi (who is married to tennis legend Steffi Graf) recollected:

A great rival is like a mirror. You have to look at yourself, acknowledge where you fall short, make adjustments, and nurture the areas where you overachieve. There were times my rivals brought out the best in me; there were times they brought out the worst. They probably helped me win things I never would have otherwise; they also cost me titles. I don’t know how you quantify what it would have been like without a rival like Pete Sampras. I would have won more. But I think I would have been worse without him.

Idea for Impact: The risk of being outdone by a closely matched rival can push you further

A certain amount of competition can be helpful when it motivates you and doesn’t result in stress or hurt your personal relationships.

Push yourself past the familiarity and safety of your comfort zone by pursuing some healthy competition. Leaving your comfort zone helps you grow, transform, and feel stronger from the experience.

How to Boost Your Willpower / Book Summary of “Willpower” by Baumeister & Tierney

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) In previous articles, I have discussed a key differentiating trait I’ve observed in successful people: they get things done not by pursuing motivation but through discipline, self-control, determination, and willpower. They actively seek a way to work at whatever must be done even when they do not really feel like doing it.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011,) New York Times science writer John Tierney and Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister discuss the virtues of self-control, and the concepts of ego depletion and decision fatigue. This informative tome is grounded in thirty years of academic research into willfulness and self-discipline.

Willpower starts with the assertion that intelligence and willpower are your two best predictors of achieving success in life. You may not be able to meaningfully increase your intelligence, but you can surely enhance your capacity for self-control. Parenthetically, when people were inquired about their failings in life, a lack of self-control was consistently at the top of the list.

The book’s central theorem is the much-debated “strength model of self-control.” This “muscle metaphor” states that willpower is like a muscle that tires out—or runs out of energy—as you use it, but can be fortified through practice.

How to Boost Your Willpower

Here are some prominent insights and tips from Willpower:

  • You have a limited amount of willpower, which, in the short term, depletes as you use it and must be replenished. Each instance of applying willpower (e.g. repressing your thoughts and actions, working intensely, stressing at work, making decisions, and dealing with difficult people) drains the same psychological reservoir of self-control. Expending willpower in one sphere of life leaves you less able to exercise self-control in another.
  • Just as muscles can get overworked and become tired and feeble until they can recuperate, the exercise of self-control causes fatigue.
  • Willpower is fuelled by blood glucose. Therefore, acts of self-control drain the glucose. When glucose is low, self-control failures are more likely. Restoring glucose to a sufficient level usually improves self-control. Willpower can be restored by boosting blood sugar. Foods like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and sugared snacks cause boom-and-bust cycles of willpower since these foods are quickly converted into glucose. Vegetables, nuts, raw fruits, and cheese are converted more slowly, and therefore provide ‘fuel’ more progressively.
  • Being in a tidy room seems to increase self-control and being in a messy room seems to curb self-control.
  • Your daily supply of willpower is limited. If you exhaust most of your willpower during the day at work, you will have less self-control, tolerance, and imperturbability when you come home to family. Many marriages go bad when stress at work is at its worst: people use up all their willpower on the job; their home lives suffer because they gave much to their work.
  • When your willpower is low, you’ll find it more arduous to make tougher decisions. Moreover, during decision-making, you’ll be more reluctant to eliminate some of the options you could choose from.
  • In the long term, practicing willpower strengthens it, just as a muscle develops stamina and power when consistently exercised. Even small, inconsequential acts of self-control—avoiding slouching, for example—can strengthen your capacity for self-discipline in the long term.
  • Ego Depletion and Decision Fatigue When you resist one temptation but cannot resist another, your egos have been fatigued by the exercise of willpower. Conversely, you can resist temptations across the board when your ego has been strengthened by exercise.
  • Stress instigates many negative emotions because stress depletes willpower, which consequently diminishes your ability to control and overcome those negative emotions.
  • The best use of willpower is in setting priorities and getting things done. Given you have a limited amount of willpower on a given day, you’re best served by budgeting your willpower and spending it where and when you need it the most.
  • Clear, attainable goals combined with rewards strengthen willpower. Monitoring goals and committing yourself publicly to your goals can help you counteract weakness of will.
  • Live as much of your life as possible on an autopilot. Eliminate distractions, temptations, and unnecessary choices. Simplify. Develop routines and cultivate habits that you can eventually do robotically.
  • Organize your life to decrease the need for willpower. Conserve willpower for demanding circumstances.

Recommendation: Read Willpower. This New York Times best seller is filled with guidance about how best to deploy willpower to overcome temptation and how to build up your willpower ‘strength’ with small—but regular and methodical—exercises. Even if somewhat academic for a self-help book, this worthwhile volume is filled with resourceful research, practical advice, and enthralling stories of people who’ve achieved personal transformation owing to the strength of their will.

How to Conquer Cynicism at Your Workplace

How to Conquer Cynicism at Your Workplace

Enthusiasm rubs off on others

A few weeks ago, I met a friend at Chick-fil-A. When it was my turn to order, I told the woman taking our orders that I am vegetarian and couldn’t eat much of the offerings on her menu. The woman asked me, “How about a milkshake? I make the best strawberry milkshake!” I could not misjudge her sincerity and pride. It’s not often that one is asked anything like that at any service-business, let alone at a fast food chain restaurant.

In a world of work that’s so rampant with cynicism, there’s nothing more refreshing than encountering employees who are engaged, cheerful, and take pride in what they do.

In the same vein, in The HP Way (see my summary & review), author David Packard and co-founder recalls an engaged worker at Hewlett-Packard:

I recall the time, many years ago, when I was walking around a machine shop, accompanied by the shop’s manager. We stopped briefly to watch a machinist making a polished plastic mold die. He had spent a long time polishing it and was taking a final cut at it. Without thinking, I reached down and wiped it with my finger. The machinist said, “Get your finger off my die!” The manager quickly asked him, “Do you know who this is?” To which the machinist replied, “I don’t care!” He was right and I told him so. He had an important job and was proud of his work.

Conquer Cynicism and Negativity in a Workplace

How to conquer cynicism and negativity in a workplace

Cynicism is an upshot of distrust in the workplace. Cynics have misgivings about their managers’ and leaders’ motives. Cynics are further aggravated by the comparatively lofty salaries commanded by corporate leaders. The once-presumed social contract between employers and employees has dissolved, and cynics believe that given the chance, their employers will exploit their contributions.

The damage of cynicism is evident in lower levels of commitment, distrust, blame, criticism, politicking, divisiveness, pessimism, negativity, and sarcasm. Moreover, cynicism worsens with employees’ age and tenure.

Here’s how to conquer cynicism:

  • Firstly, don’t be cynical yourself. If you display even a hint of pessimism, you’re likely to feed into your team’s cynicism, especially if you’re a manager.
  • Try to love—at least show some passion—what you do and whom you work with. Passion for your work brings a remarkable sense of meaning and attracts opportunities for growth.
  • Recognize that people bring their entire selves to their jobs; they don’t turn off their hearts and souls when they come to work. Today’s demanding and competitive workplace requires of employees not only stamina to work exceptionally hard but also their hearts-and-minds’ commitment to bring creativity and insight to their efforts.
  • Care for people and understand what drives them. Money is not as powerful a motivator for most people than when they truly don’t have enough of it. Beyond a threshold, people are more motivated at work by the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to a cause, and get recognition for their achievements.
  • Encourage two-way flow of information, identify and change stress-provoking work patterns, clarify their roles, convey clear and concise objectives, coach and give regular feedback.

Idea for Impact: Employees who are engaged are more productive. Determine what makes your employees most engaged in their work. Ask what parts of their jobs they like the best and what you could do to decrease their job pressures. Engage them by tapping into their natural talents and strengths.

Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing

This spring, I attended the 2016 annual meeting of shareholders of Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited in Toronto. Fairfax’s chief executive Prem Watsa opened his remarks with the following joke:

A young boy enters a barbershop.

The barber whispers to a customer, “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch while I prove it to you.”

The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other. He then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?”

The boy takes the quarters and leaves.

“What did I tell you?” says the barber to the customer. “That kid never learns!”

Later, when the customer leaves the barbershop, he sees the same young boy coming out of an ice cream store licking a wafer-style ice cream cone.

He summons the boy and asks, “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? … Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?”

The boy licks his cone and replies, “Sir, because the day I take the dollar, the game is over!”

Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing Although the barber sought to characterize the young boy foolish, the joke was really on the barber.

The barber never suspected the boy’s recurring motivation to seem stupid. Additionally, the barber never learned his lesson or questioned his own assumptions.

Idea for Impact: As the above joke attests, being underestimated, underrated, or misjudged can often have its benefits. Don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Don’t let them make you feel small. Embrace their misjudgments with equanimity. Believe in yourself with humble confidence. Then outthink, outsmart, and outperform. Surprise them.

Stop Trying to Change People Who Don’t Want to Change

Stop Trying to Change People

Change is seldom as easy as we think it will be

Consider how many people engage in smoking, obesity, problem drinking, procrastination, rage, and other self-defeating behavioral patterns. Despite being fully aware of the negative consequences of their behaviors, these people tend not to change.

Many people are unsuccessful when they try to change their own behavior. People are creatures of habit, and habits evolve over time. They become so deep-seated and instinctive that people are often oblivious to the behaviors and consequences that their habits drive.

It is therefore very hard to change old habits even when they’re bad. Consequently, people find themselves incapable or reluctant to make essential changes in their lives. They discover that habits are persistent and necessitate many consistent repetitions to change. Even when they are motivated enough to change, long-lasting change entails much commitment, consistency, and discipline.

When do people change?

The American self-help author Tony Robbins once wrote, “Most people are unhappy with some area of their life, but are not unhappy enough to actually do something about it. Unfortunately, 90% of people fall is this category.”

People typically don’t change because someone tells them that they need to. Many people change from their own accord as the result of physiological vicissitudes in their lives or from psychological impositions of external circumstances: transition to adolescence, retirement, becoming a parent, a job loss, or the death of a spouse, for example. Nevertheless, very few people change from within—deliberately, willingly, and on-purpose.

People don’t change until they think they need to

The Italian astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei once said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” Helping people change involves helping them want to change, instead of trying to persuade them through guidance, counsel, urging, social pressure, or other forms of inducement.

People don't change until they think they need to Therapists (and mentors, coaches, and managers) are most successful in bringing about long-lasting change only in people who are intrinsically motivated to make the change. Therapists have little success with people who have no interest in changing.

Effective therapists explore, understand, and tweak their clients’intrinsic motivations toward change. They understand their client’s motivations, listen to any reluctance about change, and sensitively try to fortify those elements of their clients’ intrinsic motivations that may favor and hence facilitate the intended change.

Idea for Impact: When people do not want to change, don’t try to change them

As children, spouses, parents, friends, managers, and colleagues we are continuously attempting to point out others’ errors and expecting them to change. Even when our concerns are genuine and our attempts to change others are sincere, we often fail to bring about real behavioral change because people don’t change until they think they need to. So, don’t try to change people when they do not want to change.

They may change in a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason or a significant emotional event that astonishes them to change, people go back to their natural state.

Harboring expectations of being able to change can only lead to frustration and futility. Therefore, as the Buddha taught, lower your expectations of people, appreciate people as they are, and thus raise your own joys. Alternatively, find the people who have the behaviors you want and teach them the skills they need to be productive.

People Cannot be Perfect

“Each person is an idiom… an apparent violation of the syntax of the species.”
Gordon Allport, American Psychologist, in Becoming

“People Are Like Apples”

People Are Like Apples - 'Root for their better angels' Some of the best advice I’ve ever received relates to managing people. Many years ago, as I was getting ready to hire my first employee, I prepared a long list of ideal competencies. My manager laughed at my list and remarked that I was looking for a perfect candidate, one that I wouldn’t be able to find. He told me a metaphor about how “people are like apples” and encouraged me to look for a good-enough employee instead.

When you buy apples in a market, don’t look for spotless apples, but rather for good-enough apples. Spotless “choice” apples are not only difficult to find, but may cost more. Instead, look for apples that are good enough and may have one or two bad spots. When you get an apple with a spot on it, you can either remove the spot with a knife (almost always, the spot is not very deep) or simply eat around the bad spot, thus enjoying the rest of the “near perfect” apple.

Employees, bosses, colleagues, friends, relatives, parents, kids, spouses, and all people are like apples. Use a metaphorical knife to work around their imperfections, flaws, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.

“Root for their better angels”

Last year, the ever-brilliant Ben Casnocha wrote a fascinating essay reflecting upon his “10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman,” the founder of LinkedIn and a Silicon Valley investor. As Hoffman’s chief of staff, Casnocha worked on various strategic aspects of Hoffman’s professional and personal initiatives. He also co-authored two books, Start-up of You (on career management) and The Alliance (on talent management).

Casnocha’s “What I Learned” essay is full of helpful management and leadership insights. Here’s one on people-skills:

One of Reid’s underrated gifts … is that he maintains very complicated portraits of the people he knows. He appreciates the full spectrum of strengths and weaknesses of a particular person. He’ll comment on a friend’s character flaw—say, self-centeredness—but in the next breath note one of their unique strengths. Flaws that cause others to completely disengage are, for Reid, “navigable” (to use a Reid-ism) en route to their better side. … If you make a mistake (or three) or if a weakness of yours gets exposed—you’re not dead to him. It’s just another data point in a rich tapestry in a long-term relationship.

Work around Others' Faults

Idea for Impact: Work around Others’ Faults

A Chinese Proverb reminds, “Gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect.” People differ greatly in their capacities: some are stronger than others, some are better looking, some are better at science, some draw and paint better, and some are better athletes. Some make decisions through logic; others rely on intuition. Intelligent people are sometimes not physically very agile and are frequently socially awkward. Great artists sometimes cannot do enough math even to balance their checkbooks. Most people are smart in their specific spheres of competence, but are clueless in many other areas of human endeavor.

When working with people, work around their idiosyncrasies. Overlook and compensate for their imperfections, or coach them and help them work on their weaknesses. Being skilled at working with people in all aspects of life involves being able to fortify their strengths and making their weaknesses irrelevant.

Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Don't Say 'Yes' When You Really Want to Say 'No'

Most People Never Learn to Say “No”

Consider the case of Anna, a manager in a large accounting firm. Anna is a great team player and readily pitches in when her team’s workload gets heavy, especially during the tax season. She covers for peers when they have other commitments—personal and professional—and often stays late. Anna is a people-pleaser. She’s also one of those people who can’t say “no”: she spends too much time and energy working on others’ priorities while setting aside her own personal and professional priorities.

Consider also the case of Chuck, a selfless project manager at an engineering business. He not only passively gives in to requests to train new engineers, but also accepts all of his peer-managers’ unwanted assignments. Chuck reluctantly accedes to whatever work his boss imposes even if the task has little relation to Chuck’s span of responsibilities.

The problem with Anna and Chuck is that they cave in easily. They cannot assert themselves, stick to their guns, and bring themselves to saying “no.” Their inability to utter the simple two-letter word when they must and can makes them feel like they have no control over their life. They feel burned out and are often on the fast track to an emotional meltdown.

Learning to Say “No” Can Get You Ahead

There are many reasons people struggle with saying “no.” Some feel bound by obligation or by fear of hurting others’ feelings. Some want to be liked or be seen as team players. Yet others believe they really can do it all. Whatever the reason, this inability to say “no” can have several personal consequences.

  • Not being able to say “no” leads people into doing things they don’t respect themselves for doing. Saying “yes” becomes wrong when they want to say “no” and it is in their best interest to say “no,” but instead they resign and say, “OK, I’ll do it.”
  • Not being able to say “no” distracts people from their priorities and tasks that they really want to get completed. They become so encumbered doing the things they don’t want to do that they have neither the time nor the energy for the things that are most important to them.
  • By feeling like an overcommitted, selfless martyr and allowing other people to exploit them continually, people who struggle to say “no” may build up resentment. Often, after a long stretch of saying “yes” and doing things they don’t want to do, they may end up losing their temper and bring about an inappropriate emotional outburst.

Nice Ways to Say 'No'

Nice Ways to Say “No”

The key to saying “no” is to say it firmly, succinctly, and without an overlong explanation. Here are two examples.

  • Imagine you’ve been working on the organizing committee for an employee recognition event. Even though you’ve put in more time than anyone else on the committee has, the committee’s chair comes to you with another request, “Mark, I’m really fortunate to have you on the organizing committee. Can I count on you to go collect the recognition plaques from the store?” You could say, “No, chief. I have already done more than my share. Perhaps you should give that job to someone who hasn’t done his/her share.”
  • Sometimes, you don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. Try to defer your answer when faced with a request that you cannot accept immediately by saying, “Give me some time to think about it” or “Let me get back to you in 15 minutes.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the requester doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he/she appreciates knowing you’ve seriously considered the request.

Easy and Effective Ways to Say “No”

Here are more simple and direct ways to say “no” for you to practice.

  • “No. Let’s find another way to get it done.”
  • “No, I can’t do it on such short notice. I have something else scheduled for that time.”
  • “No, not now. I don’t feel like doing that today. I’d rather do something else.”
  • “No, I don’t know this topic well enough to do a decent job.”
  • “No, I don’t want to take on anything that I can’t fully commit to doing well.”
  • “No, I’d be happy to help in some smaller capacity. Make me a member of the committee, not the chair.”
  • “No, I have a personal policy about not working on Saturdays or not missing my evening workout.”
  • “No, it’s impossible for me to do that. Please try someone else.”
  • “No.” Sometimes the best way to say “no” is to simply and directly say “no.” Per the old adage, “Never apologize. Never explain.”

Idea for Impact: Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Have no regrets about having to say 'no' Have no regrets about having to say “no.” Don’t allow pangs of guilt to dictate your personal or professional life.

By asserting yourself in a decisive, direct, polite, but firm way, you can be selective about saying “yes” to your own needs and priorities. Practice saying “no.”

In an NPR This I Believe essay, Jessica Paris reflected, “sometimes saying ‘no’ is easier than saying ‘yes’ … when I need it, my strength to say ‘no’ is bolstered by knowing that every ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something else.” In other words, almost every misplaced “yes” is really a “no” to yourself. So, don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no.”