Saturday, October 16, 2010

Whirlpools and Wolfsburgs

(Photo courtesy of Volkswagen)
In my generation, we were brought up to be Calvinistic. Work now, play later. Save for the future. Delay short-term gratification for the greater good. Yada yada yada.

I would like to suggest that you re-think that ethic. And I feel I have a bunch of psychologists lined up behind me on this one. Allow me to explain.

According to cognitive psychology, we are what we think about ourselves. Nothing more, nothing less. The only real difference between you and the next guy or gal are your thoughts – not your job, your education, or your case of lumbago. So when you treat yourself really well, the message it sends often carries over to the rest of your life.

I was thinking about this point earlier this month as I was soaking in a whirlpool tub in Albany, NY. It was the end of a long week on the road, the night before my umpteenth speaking engagement this year. I had covered 5000 miles and spoken to 500 people that week. But in this moment, I was so relaxed that I could practically float away. And it struck me that the extra $90 I paid out of my own pocket for a Jacuzzi suite was probably the best investment I had made all week.

But here is what is much more important, in my view. As I sat there being pleasantly pounded by warm jets of water, I was also rewarding myself for a lot of hard work, and sending a signal that I believed in myself. And when I strode on stage the next morning with a jaunty, FDR-like sense of confidence and got rave reviews for my talk, I probably more than earned my 90 bucks back in good publicity.

This reminded me of 1996, a year into my fledgling self-employment, when my consulting work all dried up and my old 100K-mile car started acting up at the same time. I stopped by a dealer in hopes of trading for a modest old car, but what caught my eye instead was a drop-dead gorgeous, loaded new Honda Accord with a special two-year lease. Looking in the mirror that night, I realized this was a test of faith – and I will never forget the feeling of having had no work in three months, having no idea when I would ever work again, driving off the lot in the nicest car I had ever owned.

I eventually kept that car for more than seven years. But just like the whirlpool, it wasn't just a matter of having a nice car. It was a signal to myself about flourishing and not just surviving. It was built-in behavioral modification: every time I slipped behind the wheel, I was an important person who was going to be successful. And you know something, it worked.

Of course, you don't have to buy a car to have the same kind of impact. Back in the 1980s, as a software engineer living in Los Angeles, I put aside ten or twenty bucks every week to have a real blowout lunch somewhere. There was something about sitting under the fountains of the Hotel Meridian or the Newport Hilton every week, patting myself on the back, that made it easier to go back and write code - and if you ask me, probably had more than a little to do with the management career that blossomed soon thereafter.

This week I had another one of those moments. Two and a half years ago, when my previous car's lease was up, I sprung for a nice VW Jetta, but always lusted after the turbocharged, 200 HP Wolfsburg Edition (which back then, only came in dull colors that needed more Prozac – my blog about that debate is here). I heard that VW wasn't making the Wolf in 2011, and decided it was now or never. I found a beauty among the handful remaining, silver with white leather seats, and after a small check and a painless trade-in I am now happily zooming around upstate New York going "who-hoo!"

Of course, we all need to do the right things in our lives. Work hard. Live within our means. Give to charity. Don't be a wastrel and neglect the future. I try to do all of these things. But looking back on what has most affected my mental health – and my success – over the years, I'd like to add one more thing to the list: whether it is a rich chocolate dessert or a new sports car, go treat yourself to something really nice once in a while.

No comments: