Henry Miller on the Art of Living

The art of living is based on rhythm — on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life,’ metamorphosis. One can dance to sorrow or to joy; one can even dance abstractly. … But the point is that, by the mere act of dancing, the elements which compose it are transformed; the dance is an end in itself, just like life. The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn. It is also the first thing a patient has to learn when he confronts the analyst. It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.


Life, as we all know, is conflict, and man, being part of life, is himself an expression of conflict. If he recognizes the fact and accepts it, he is apt, despite the conflict, to know peace and to enjoy it. But to arrive at this end, which is only a beginning (for we haven’t begun to live yet!), a man has got to learn the doctrine of acceptance, that is, of unconditional surrender, which is love.

Later, Miller turns to the illusory nature of what stands between us and this complete surrender:

‘Normality,’ says Howe, ‘is the paradise of escapologists, for it is a fixation concept, pure and simple.’ ‘It is better, if we can,’ he asserts, ‘to stand alone and to feel quite normal about our abnormality, doing nothing whatever about it, except what needs to be done in order to be oneself.’

It is just this ability to stand alone, and not feel guilty or harassed about it, of which the average person is incapable. The desire for a lasting external security is uppermost, revealing itself in the endless pursuit of health, happiness, possessions an so on, defense of what has been acquired being the obsessive idea, and yet no real defense being possible, because one cannot defend what is undefendable. All that can be defended are imaginary, illusory, protective devices.

Miller zooms in on the “key words in howe’s doctrine of wholeness” — balance, discipline, illumination:

For the awakened individual, however, life begins now, at any and every moment; it begins at the moment when he realizes that he is part of a great whole, and in the realization becomes himself whole. In the knowledge of limits and relationships he discovers the eternal self, thenceforth to move with obedience and discipline in full freedom.

Writing at the time surround WWII, Miller reflects on a cultural era not at all dissimilar to our own today, a transitional period he calls “an equinoctial solstice of the soul”:

There is an illusion of ‘end,’ a stasis seemingly like death. But it is only an illusion. Everything, at this crucial point, lies in the attitude which we assume towards the moment.

Brain Pickings.

The Psychology of Self-Control

People naturally vary in the amount of self-control they have, so some will find it more difficult than others to break a habit. But everyone’s self-control is a limited resource; it’s like muscle strength: the more we use it, the less remains in the tank, until we replenish it with rest. In one study of self-control, participants first had to resist the temptation to eat chocolate (they had a radish instead); then they were given a frustrating task to do. The test was to see how long they would persist. Radish-eaters only persisted on the task for about 8 minutes, while those who had gorged on chocolate kept going for 19 minutes. The mere act of exerting willpower saps the strength for future attempts. These sorts of findings have been repeated again and again using different circumstances.

We face these sorts of willpower-depleting events all day long. When someone jostles you in the street and you resist the urge to shout at them, or when you feel exhausted at work but push on with your email: these all take their toll. The worse the day, the more the willpower muscle is exerted, the more we rely on autopilot, which means increased performance of habits. It’s crucial to respect the fact that self-control is a limited resource and you are likely to overestimate its strength. Recognizing when your levels of self-control are low means you can make specific plans for those times.


A Letter to Best Buy

A letter to Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly:

The distance from the vision of the board room and the store floor is often great.

On November 27, 2013, I picked out a new computer I wanted to buy. Normally I buy items from Amazon, but for major electronics I like to talk to someone with expertise. I had seen you on TV and read about your transformation at Best Buy in the newspaper. I decided to go to Best Buy.

I entered the Minnetonka store at about 10:15 AM. The story was near empty. I went to the computer section and walked directly to the computer I wanted. I stood in front of it and waited. And waited. And waited some more. I waved at clerks, paced the floor, complained to other customers, and looked irritated, because I was irritated. Two clerks walked by and told me they would send someone to help me. No one came. I did not see a clerk in the entire section the entire time I was there. Finally I pulled a box out from under the counter, carried it to the front of the store, and the man at the door said, “Sir, can I see your receipt?” I replied, “Hell, I can’t find a clerk to talk to me and tell me about the computer I want to buy.” He said, “Do you want to see the manager?” I said I did. The manager came, and I told him my story. He apologized. I paid for the computer and left. I never did speak to a clerk about the computer. No one ever talked to me about an extended warranty, or the Geek Squad. I could have purchased the computer at Amazon for less cost, less time, and much less irritation. I posted my story at the Best Buy Face Book page. A customer service person wrote me with great scripted empathy. When I posted my story on my Face Book page, I immediately received horror stories from nine friends.

I worked in management and executive positions in the Circulation division of the Minneapolis Star Tribune for many years and led a transformation there in the early 1990’s. I then completed my Ph.D. in Leadership and Organizational Change and consulted with leaders on transformation for 13 years before I retired from consulting. I recently published an e-book: “Value Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal and Organizational Transformation” on Amazon.

A couple of observations:

1.      Your message is undercut drastically by such poor service, recovery from that service, and scripted empathy. I walked into Best Buy expecting your enthusiasm and promise of a great customer experience. I wanted that expertise. I got none of it.

2.      The manager looked stricken. He apologized. But if he really understood customer service, he would have known the importance of a strong recovery when the store falls short. He might have said, “I will get my most knowledgeable clerk to go over this computer with you until you are totally satisfied.” He didn’t. The person who wrote the Face Book response was being empathetic from a script. That’s not empathetic; that’s being a trained reader.

3.      The behavior of the clerks showed they had not internalized customer service: had they, one of them would have taken responsibility for me until my needs were met. None did.

4.      Maybe many clerks were in training, in a meeting or doing something else. Then the manager should have interrupted them and said, “Customer service is our top priority. Our customers are not being served. Everyone get out on the floor and take care of the customers.”

5.      The last data I read long ago said that every unhappy customer tells 14 other people. I told hundreds via social media, and I’ll probably blog about it too.

6.      You might consider a “secret shopper” program to use as a positive method to recognize, reward, and coach employees.

Best wishes,

Eleanor Roosevelt on Happiness, Conformity, and Integrity

Thoughts from Eleanor Roosevelt:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life. From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself. That is the beginning of death.

I have always liked Don Quixote’s comment, ‘Until death it is all life.’

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’

But there is another basic requirement, and I can’t understand now how I forgot it at the time: that is the feeling that you are, in some way, useful. Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive. And it is its own reward, as well, for it is the beginning of happiness, just as self-pity and withdrawal from the battle are the beginning of misery.

It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

via Eleanor Roosevelt on Happiness, Conformity, and Integrity | Brain Pickings.

For Want of Imagination

In early 1992, I  recommended that the Star Tribune newspaper (Minneapolis, MN)  investigate using our distribution system (warehouses, computer system, trucks, knowledge, and experience) to deliver items that would be purchased on the Internet and delivered to purchaser’s doors. I imagined that we could become a regional distribution company. I was told that what I proposed was not “our business.”

In 1995, Jeff Bezos began Amazon.com. He delivered the first packages to the post office himself and had trouble raising $1 million. Since then, Amazon.com has reinvented itself over and over again and today has 225 million customers worldwide. Their mission is: “To sell everything to everyone.”

Since 1995, the newspaper industry failed to renew itself and crashed and burned because of the Internet.

In 2009, the Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy.

Within five years, Amazon plans to deliver products to customer’s doors within 30 minutes via drones.  Drones may or may not materialize. What is important is that Amazon continues to imagine, experiment, and get new ideas from new things.

The newspaper industry doesn’t have a vision for a sustainable future.

Amazon had what the newspaper industry lacked: imagination.

Jeff Bezos recently purchased the Washington Post.

For more about my career at the Star Tribune and the newspaper industry see my book: “Value Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal and Organizational Transformation.”

Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

via Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning | Brain Pickings.