One of the beneficial things about writing a blog each week is that it helps me prepare for presentations that I have to do periodically. Last week we had our national meeting in Austin for many of our CWS employees, and this week we have our annual investor meeting. Since I am writing this prior to giving last week’s presentation, this will hopefully help me better organize my thoughts so that what I present will be more informative, interesting, and compelling.
The theme of the meeting was resilience which is obviously an appropriate one given all of the trials and tribulations that have occurred since COVID. The apartment industry has become even more challenging in the face of working remotely, using new technologies, employee turnover, more government regulation, higher expectations from residents, a much more difficult insurance market, and higher interest rates. Throw in supply chain issues, construction delays, and cost overruns, and one can see that there’s a reason why we chose resilience as our theme. Of course, we’re not alone, as most of these issues have affected most companies and employees, but I always like to think CWS is special.
Abraham Maslow – Mental Health Challenges
The purpose of the presentation was to articulate some of my thoughts and observations from my personal experiences, insights from psychologist Abraham Maslow, and my love of music and tennis to help share ways in which people can visualize a path to getting on the road to resilience and staying on it.
The first line in the famous book The Road Less Traveled is “Life is difficult.” This is very much evident by many of the mental health challenges our society is facing in terms of suicide rates, addiction, overdose deaths, and depression and anxiety. The data in these charts are quite sobering and show how widespread mental health challenges are, especially among young people.
With 600+ employees and over 60,000 residents, we are not immune to having to face these challenges among our associates and those living in our apartments. As a result, it’s a virtual certainty that we will be interacting with people contending with mental health issues, let alone if we have them ourselves.
The triggers for these pathologies are both external and internal. Externally, the pressures we’re facing with the 24/7 news feed have us feel like we’re constantly under assault, and when we throw social media into the mix, we have a very combustible combination. Social media can serve to exacerbate our fear of missing out and can trigger the spinning of our comparative minds, which can make us feel less than others because we can see what others have and are doing and judge ourselves accordingly.
The pressures also mount from constant flows of emails and texts and having a hard time shutting ourselves off from the digital world and work responsibilities. In many ways, it feels like we’re playing in a Pac-Man game in which we’re trying just to keep moving forward by eating those little dots, and yet those Pacmen are always at our tail, and at any moment, we could be consumed by them.
It reminds me of the lines in the Jerry Garcia song The Wheel:
The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.
Won’t you try just a little bit harder,
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
Won’t you try just a little bit harder,
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
We feel like we’re always in motion and barely making any progress, and yet, we’re expected to do more, while in the back of our minds, we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
So what do we do about it? I think awareness is important. If you think about how we are wired, we are programmed to seek the approval and the attention of others, oftentimes at the expense of our own personal delights, desires, and needs. This goes back to when we were babies because we were completely dependent upon our parents and caregivers to nurture and feed us while also providing us with shelter and safety. As a result, we learn ways to seek their love and attention in order to get what we need to survive and grow, and we also come to learn at a subconscious level that suppressing our delights is probably the safer strategy. Our independence can be a threat to their control and order, so we toe the line to keep winning their approval.
The byproduct of this subservience is that it makes it very difficult to find our sense of self since we may not have built up firm ground to stand upon. Abraham Maslow in Toward A Psychology of Being, wrote the following, which I think summarizes the situation quite well.
The needs for safety, belongingness, love relations and for respect can be satisfied only by other people, i.e., only from outside the person. This means considerable dependence on the environment. A person in this dependent position cannot really be said to be governing himself, or in control of his own fate. He must be beholden to the sources of supply of needed gratifications. Their wishes, their whims, their rules and laws govern him and must be appeased lest he jeopardize his sources of supply. He must be, to an extent, “other-directed,”and must be sensitive to other people’s approval, affection and good will. This is the same as saying that he must adapt and adjust by being flexible and responsive and by changing himself to fit the external situation. He is the dependent variable; the environment is the fixed, independent variable. Because of this, the deficiency-motivated man must be more afraid of the environment, since there is always the possibility that it may fail or disappoint him. We now know that this kind of anxious dependence breeds hostility as well. All of which adds up to a lack of freedom, more or less, depending on the good fortune or bad fortune of the individual.
The goal of the human maturation process is to shed what no longer serves us, our dependencies, and form a strong sense of self and inner core to direct our lives commensurate with our gifts and talents. This will help enable us to find and tap into the courage to take on challenges that result in us growing and expanding our capabilities. We are in a constant civil war between fear (security) and courage (growth). Hopefully, our upbringing shifts from one of control to allowing us to take risks and new challenges, knowing we have a safety net if we fall and we are fully supported in doing so. This allows us to have a better job of hitting the ground running as we reach our teens so that we can find our wings and soar, and these experiences and skills can serve us throughout our entire lives.
Unfortunately, not everyone finds themselves in these circumstances, and we can get stuck and stagnate. To get unstuck generally requires either some kind of wake-up call or traumatic event to completely reorient ourselves and change the outlook in everything we do, or we hit some sort of bottom. The traumatic event results in spontaneous action that is not copied or pre-programmed. It’s just being and doing in a way that is unique to us and wouldn’t have happened without such a trigger.
This was something that I experienced when I suddenly lost my wife of nearly 30 years. And while I was overcome by incredible grief, pain, sadness, and sorrow, whatever barriers I had that may have blocked me from being fully self-expressed were immediately unleashed or removed. I felt raw and compelled to take action however I best saw fit as I really wanted to honor and cherish her memory. I needed to be intimately involved with the arrangements for the funeral because how she would be honored and acknowledged was very important to me. In addition, because I had a number of people relying on me, I couldn’t just slip into complete darkness and oblivion as I had to get into action and make sure that the right decisions were going to be taken in terms of being there for my kids as well as ensuring that well-considered financial decisions were put into place.
In addition to a traumatic or life-changing type of event, a person can hit some sort of a bottom when he or she becomes sick and tired of being sick and tired and can no longer stay stuck and feel like they’re making no discernible progress in their lives.
As Maslow states,
“We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety.”
Now that I know the problem and how to fix it, which is to get on the path of growth, I now find myself coming up against another major obstacle: I’m scared of my own greatness. This is otherwise known as the Jonah Complex, as he rebelled against his fate and ended up inside the belly of the whale. We may feel that we don’t deserve success, we’re imposters, we don’t want to rise too far above our friends and family, we’re not really capable, it’s hubris to desire greatness, etc. We may also fear the work and responsibilities that greatness requires, back to Maslow.
“Thus, to discover in oneself a great talent can certainly bring exhilaration, but it also brings a fear of the dangers and responsibilities and duties of being a leader and of being all alone. Responsibility can be seen as a heavy burden and evaded as long as possible.”
I recently cited Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech about the man in the arena. I’ll use it again as I think this is critical to overcoming our fears of growth and success.
According to Maslow, we are able to enjoy peak experiences and be fully engaged in life, or being in the arena from my perspective, when we are taking actions that are not too easy, nor too advanced, but at a pace that is challenging. By doing this consistently, we can build up our capabilities to solve problems and use our creativity such that it can have spillover benefits to all areas of our lives.
“The results of active experiencing can be summarized approximately in the following way. There is physical, emotional, and intellectual self-involvement; there is a recognition and further exploration of one’s abilities; there is initiation of activity or creativeness; there is finding out one’s own pace and rhythm and the assumption of enough of a task for one’s abilities at that particular time, which would include the avoidance of taking on too much; there is gain in skill which one can apply to other enterprises, and there is an opportunity each time that one has an active part in something, no matter how small, to find out more and more what one is interested in.”
When we’re in this state, we can tap into a whole array of what Maslow labels as Being Values.
I don’t think anyone can argue that if we are feeling some or all of these, then we are in a very powerful state of flow and feeling so alive. It’s a remarkable feeling.
It’s important to not only just get in the arena but to do our best to stay in the arena and prosper while we’re there as well. To do this, we have to learn how to win the game and figure out the best strategies, training, preparation, and capabilities to put the odds in our favor. For this, I will turn to what I have learned from studying tennis statistics and applying them to life.
A good rule of thumb for success in tennis is the 70/20/10 rule, in which 70% of the time is focused on consistency, 20% hitting winners, and 10% playing defense. I think this applies to life as well as there is so much value in just showing up day in and day out, being reliable, having a steady emotional state, and building effective habits by applying a systematized approach to life. When applied effectively, this can result in the compounding of knowledge and capabilities, which creates more valuable skills and experiences and allows for the development of an intuition that can dramatically improve one’s decision-making process. Overall we become more knowledgeable, skillful, and valuable.
The 20% is also a good rule of thumb because we only need to make a few really good, important decisions to dramatically improve the quality of our life and the associated outcomes. For me, it was going to UCLA, which helped build self-sufficiency and independence and then meeting Roneet, who I would marry soon after graduating. I could never have accomplished what I have without her input, drive, support, and guidance. It was because of her that I ended up at CWS, where I still am today, 36 years later. She encouraged us to take a big step up financially to buy a larger home sooner than I thought we should or could afford, and that turned out to be very much the right decision. Also, not only have I learned so much from my partners at CWS and developed great relationships with my co-workers, but it also taught me how important it is to work in a very good industry that has great long-term fundamentals, as this can allow for career stability and compelling growth opportunities.
Picking up tennis again later in life is another great decision for me. It’s an avocation that has inspired me to work out regularly, eat well, study how to improve, train consistently so I can build up the courage and muscle memory to take more chances when playing and tap into my competitive fire by playing tournaments, and being extremely aggressive on the court when going after balls so that I can try to stay in most every point. I truly feel like I’m in the arena when I’m playing tennis. It’s a sport where there is always someone better that I can play and from which to continue to learn and grow.
To stay in the arena it goes without saying that you want to avoid any action that takes you out of it. This is the 10% related to playing defense. These could be acts that cost you your freedom, harm your health, sabotage your relationships, stunt your career, damage your reputation, and can cause irreparable financial damage.
Since I had one hour for my presentation, there was even more that was covered. This has already gone on longer than I was intending so the next part could be the subject of another post. Regardless, I’m really happy that I wrote this because it has been extremely valuable in helping me prepare for the presentation.
In summary, we are faced with immense challenges, especially in today’s digital age, to thrive and prosper. If we can get in the arena and stay in it by being consistent and reliable (70%), focus on making a few very big and important decisions successfully (20%), and avoid anything that takes us out of the game and arena (10%) we can set ourselves up for a very worthwhile and meaningful life.
I will leave you with this hopeful piece of information from this chart I showed earlier.
If you look at the data related to Age, one can see that as people get older, a much smaller percentage suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Of course, it would be better if the numbers were even smaller, but the point is that time does provide perspective and allows people to separate the signal from the noise and have a better sense of what is important. As time goes by, we tend to weed out those people and situations that do not add to our well-being and focus on those that do. If you’re young and contending with these challenges, please know that with the passage of time, especially if you can start working at it now, life will become more enjoyable and fulfilling.
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