The (sometimes) wisdom of reader boards


I’m not usually one who pays attention to reader boards and the sometimes successful (but not usually) attempts to be funny or clever in 20 words or less. But while visiting a local gas station this morning, I couldn’t help but notice a pithy one outside a Days Inn. “The years teach much which the days will never know,” it read. “Interesting,” I thought and turned away to find out how much gas would cost this time around.

Then, I turned back and re-read the board. What a commanding ten-word reminder that perspective, the ability to put events in context, is a powerfully freeing skill—though it often eludes us in the press of daily life.

Turns out that the words are Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, the mid 1800s author, poet and philosopher.

I think there’s a difference between gaining perspective and “rolling with the punches” or “letting water run off your back.” While there’s something to be said for lightening up and not taking things seriously all the time, there’s a certain beauty or wisdom in being able to rise above the moment to see how it fits with days and weeks and years. It promotes a kind of learning that helps us see how all the dots actually connect together.

Yet, that’s not easy to do sometimes, especially if something feels personal, emotional or if the skin that’s in the game happens to be yours.

Several years ago, I was faced with a difficult job and an equally testy boss. The whole situation became so complicated that I could see no way out. I temporarily lacked the insight to see what was really going on, my role in it, and any possible future that could be less miserable. Things were not only unhappy, I was beginning to lose energy and enthusiasm.

Then I recalled working for a boss who was in charge of testing some very complex, expensive equipment. On the late shift one night, technicians incorrectly programmed a computer. The result was that the equipment literally dropped several inches resulting in perhaps catastrophic and expensive damage.

I learned about the problem the next day. The office was buzzing with engineers forecasting dire consequences for the program and for some of the leadership, my boss included.

In one meeting, men were wondering how our boss could remain so centered and focused. In his characteristically thoughtful and unflappable way, he reached into a drawer and pulled out what looked like a very large aspirin pill about three inches across. It was made of Styrofoam and covered with paper on each side. On the paper were written these words, “Anti-glum pill. Take with a large dose of perspective.”

We all laughed, in part to break the tenseness of the situation, but more because it was funny. He went on to say, “All we need do is our best. That’s why we’ve been successful in the past and what will make this project work. Let’s focus on the future because it’s darned sure to be better than the past couple of days!”

Applying that to my own situation, I asked myself what was the worst possible outcome, the most awful thing that could happen. That was an easy answer: I could lose my job. And, if that happened, what would I do? I’d sell the house, pack things up and go back to school. I could support myself playing the piano in clubs. Life would be okay.

That dose of perspective was what I needed to make a decision. I left that job within 30 days on a Friday. On Monday, I was doing consulting work for a large company.

Perspective is a great tool.

UPDATE: November 15, 2008. Today, the sign reads “Sofa for Sale.” Hmmm.

How do you maintain your perspective when things get tense? Add your comments!

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